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Aadhaar numbers: An equation that doesn't add up

Geetanjali Krishna/New Delhi 24 Aug 17 | 12:30 AM

In the first of a three-part series, Business Standard looks at the mismatches in Aadhaar numbers.

In October 2016, when Jharkhand made a bold move towards a “paperless" public distribution system (PDS), linking the disbursement of foodgrain to individual Aadhaar cards with biometric identification, many hailed the move as a step in the right direction. 

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Four months later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed in the Lok Sabha that by using Aadhaar and biometric technology, the government had unearthed 39.5 million “bogus" ration cards. However, a recent series of Right to Information (RTI) applications has revealed that some of the government’s claims — that its pet project has enabled an efficient disbursal of government social security schemes as well as plugged some leaks in the system — are not even supported by its own data.

The first RTI application in response to the PM’s statement was filed on March 7 by Delhi-based activist Anjali Bhardwaj of Satark Nagarik Sangathan. She sought a state-wise break-up of the 39.5 mn bogus rations cards and details of cancelled cardholders. In reply, the government directed her to a file on the website of the Department of Food and Public Distribution. “On accessing the data, we found it referred to all cancelled cards since 2006 — years before Aadhaar and biometric identification had even been implemented," says Bhardwaj. It also referred to cards that were cancelled because of death and change in address, and not just bogus cards.

The activist still hasn’t received the complete contact details of holders of cancelled ration cards that she had sought in her RTI application. “If the government hasn’t been able to completely furnish this data to us," she questions, “what was the basis of the PM’s statement in the Lok Sabha?" 

There is more. Early in 2017, the government-linked the entitlement of midday meals to Aadhaar, and the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) claimed later that this has enabled them to expose about 440,000 “ghost" students in Jharkhand, Manipur, and Andhra Pradesh. Monika Yadav of the University of Notre Dame tallied the number of children who reported being served a midday meal in school (data from the India Human Development Survey 2011-12) with the MHRD numbers. About 107 million children from Classes 1 to VIII reported getting midday meals in schools. The MHRD figure for midday meal recipients was 105 million for the same period. Her comparison of the two statistics has led her to conclude that in this case, the benefits of Aadhaar have been exaggerated. 

Two more examples go to show how the benefits of Aadhaar have been beefed up to fall in line with the trope that this technology can single-handedly weed out bogus beneficiaries of government schemes, thereby saving crores of public money. In April 2017, some sections of the media reported that the government had successfully weeded out nearly 10 mn fake job cards under a rural employment guarantee scheme (MNREGA) by linking (or seeding) with Aadhaar. A Right to Information query filed by economist Jean Drèze on April 2017 revealed that “fake" and “duplicate" job cards accounted for less than 13 per cent of all deletions in 2016-17. Other deletions were on account of changes in address, mistakes on job cards, people who wanted to surrender their job cards, etc. 

According to official data, there are more than 120 million job cards. Duplicate and fake job cards account for barely one per cent of all job cards, according to this tally. 

The linking of Aadhaar within the Direct Benefits Transfer of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) (called PAHAL scheme now) is even more telling. 

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) reckons that by using Aadhaar and sorting out duplicate subsidies, the government saved about Rs 120.90 crore in 2015-16. However, during a debate in the Lok Sabha, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley claimed that the usage of Aadhaar in the LPG distribution scheme saved Rs 15,000 crore. Nandan Nilekani added to the confusion by talking about Aadhaar resulting in Rs 10,000-crore-plus savings in LPG subsidy in one year alone.

Call these accounting errors, vagaries of statistics or, at worst, political propaganda, such discrepancies in the official discourse on Aadhaar are subverting the country’s move towards a more transparent, accountable and corruption-free system of governance. Meanwhile, as activists train their sights on each and every statistic the government quotes, and the government goes full steam ahead on seeding Aadhaar into all its social schemes, the nation’s poorest and weakest face the brunt of a system programmed to treat mechanical failures in biometric identification on a par with bogus beneficiaries.

Next: Refocus Aadhaar on people, not fingerprints 

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