Leaving no one behind
In a show of unity, opposition parties led by the Trinamool Congress disrupted proceedings in the Rajya Sabha to protest against making the Aadhar card mandatory for availing government benefits like subsidised LPG, PDS supplies and pensions. Speaking on the issue, the leader of the TMC in Rajya Sabha, Derek O’Brien said: “This government talks of cooperative federalism but in action, it bypasses the opinion of States. Across the country, people are suffering. They cannot get various services and facilities like pension, LPG and kerosene.” This newspaper is of the opinion that the mandatory provision for Aadhaar card should be waived until there is 100 percent coverage of Aadhaar in the country. On March 29, President Pranab Mukherjee gave his assent to the Aadhaar law, which empowers the Centre to mandate that every Indian citizen procures the 12-digit unique identity number for accessing government services and benefits.
Money distributed through government subsidies and benefits will go into the bank or post-office accounts of beneficiaries linked to the 12-digit biometric identity number provided by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Even though this newspaper has been critical of the government’s Unique Identification System (UID), there is little doubt that if implemented with proper safeguards, the Aadhar Bill could become one of the most progressive pieces of socio-economic legislation in the country’s history. Votaries of the system often argue that the technology used could stem political and bureaucratic corruption in the delivery of social schemes through direct income transfers. Much of the excitement surrounding the Aadhar card has to do with these intended benefits.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley argued that it could save the government thousands of crores by plugging leakages and targeting those individuals most in need of benefits and services. However, these claims have been questioned by experts on the ground, who’ve extensively studied the dynamics of government benefits and subsidies. “Wild claims are being made about Aadhaar’s power to plug leakages. In reality, Aadhaar can only help to plug specific types of leakages, such as those related to duplication in beneficiary lists. It will be virtually useless to plug leakages in, say, the Public Distribution System (PDS), which have little to do with identity fraud. On the other hand, recent experience has shown that Aadhaar could easily play havoc with the PDS. Wherever Aadhaar authentication has been imposed on the PDS, there have been complaints of delays, authentication failures, connectivity problems, and more. The poorer States, where the PDS is most needed, are least prepared for this sort of technology,” argued Jean Dreze, a reputed academic who conceptualised and drafted the first version of the rural jobs programme under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). With such divergent views on the subject, many were disappointed with the government’s refusal to take on board important amendments suggested by the opposition. However, what has really irked opposition parties and experts alike is the government’s decision to make the possession of an Aadhar card mandatory to avail of key public services.
Section 7 of the Bill makes proof of Aadhar necessary for “receipt of certain subsidies, benefits and services”, even though the Supreme Court ruled that it cannot be made mandatory. The government must make it optional so that subsidies can be accessed even without the unique identity number. The apex court also said the same thing, when it passed a judgment against making Aadhar card mandatory. Such a recommendation does hold some water, according to experts. “For instance, MGNREGA functionaries have cancelled job cards on a large scale for the sake of achieving “100 percent Aadhaar seeding” of the job-card database,” argues Dreze. “MGNREGA workers have been offloaded by rural banks on Aadhaar-enabled ‘business correspondents’ who proved unable to pay them due to poor connectivity.” Imagine denying these workers access to subsidies and benefits for the want of an Aadhar card.
Moreover, the Unique Identification Authority of India’s own “Biometrics Standards Committee” has noted that retaining biometric efficiency for a database which will possibly run into millions “has not been adequately analysed”. And then there exists the practical reality of taking fingerprint scans from rural labourers, who have enrolled under MGNREGA. The fingers of rural workers who work with their hands are prone to cuts and scars while working. Such fingerprints might not match once the finger has healed. This is not to say that linking MGNREGA with the Aadhar card is a bad idea. The question is whether the government seeks to deprive its own citizens of a public benefit or service for the want of an Aadhar card. Critics have argued that Bill will do just that.