It is widely believed that Aadhaar-Based Biometric Authentication (ABBA) is necessary to improve the delivery of welfare programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), Public Distribution System (PDS), social security pensions, and so on. This is a misconception.
We have been studying these programmes for a decade, focusing mainly on the source of leakages and how the states are trying to plug them. The findings suggest that the UPA-2 government oversold Aadhaar because of a poor understanding of the leakage mechanisms in MNREGA and PDS.
Even in principle, ABBA can bring limited improvements in welfare schemes. For instance, the main source of leakage in PDS is ‘quantity fraud’ — that is, the beneficiary signs for the full monthly entitlement (say, 25 kg), but the dealer gives them less.
Replacing signatures with ABBA will do nothing to fix this problem.
Secondly, where it has been applied, ABBA has proved vulnerable to failures: incorrectly seeded Aadhaar numbers often force people to travel to the Block headquarters for a correction, followed by weeks of waiting for the records to be updated. Or, fingerprints may change or become unrecognisable by the Point of Sale (POS) machine, or the servers may be down, or the phone network or internet may not work.
You cannot make entitlements (rations, pensions, scholarship, among others) contingent on such weak systems.
Thirdly, States are creatively using other technology to curb corruption.
Computerisation, SMS alerts, online availability of official records, toll-free helplines and so on have helped Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Odisha bring down PDS leakage rates from 90 per cent, 75 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively, to around 10-20 per cent. These improvements were recorded between 2004 and 2012, before ABBA was introduced. Sadly, these alternative technologies do not have a brand ambassador (the way Aadhaar does), so they tend to be ignored.
No saving grace
There is a popular perception that Aadhaar has saved thousands of crores of rupees, but there is little evidence of this. The most widely publicised is the LPG subsidy saving.
After chief economic advisor (CEA) Arvind Subramanian wrote in The New York Times that direct benefit transfers had saved $2 billion in LPG subsidy, the minutes of a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office clarified that only a saving of ₹91 crore is attributable to Aadhaar. After questions were raised, the CEA backtracked that they meant ‘potential’, not ‘actual’, savings. Finally, the comptroller and auditor general (CAG) of India found that the bulk of the LPG subsidy savings (92 per cent) resulted from falling international prices, not Aadhaar. The government continues to churn out unsubstantiated savings figures.
When government expenditure falls, they call it a “saving”. The reduction can be on two counts — removal of ghosts and duplicates (‘efficiency’); and a fall in the number of genuine beneficiaries (‘shrinkage’). The government treats both as savings. For instance, in Rajasthan, when pensioners were ‘mistakenly’ recorded as dead, expenditure fell and this was cited as Aadhaar-enabled savings. Similar shrinkage in PDS and MNREGA is likely being passed off as saving.
Again, such claims are likely with the proposed linking of Aadhaar to the midday meal scheme in government schools — one of India’s most successful social policies, with far-reaching benefits in terms of school attendance, child nutrition, and learning achievements, among others. The most pressing problems in the implementation — improving menus, providing safe storage and cooking spaces, timely release of funds — cannot be resolved by Aadhaar linkage.
Currently, the government only wants to ensure that children enrol for Aadhaar by making it compulsory for midday meals. If daily authentication is mandatory before a child is allowed to eat, the technology failures discussed earlier can arise here too.
The only possible justification for using ABBA in the midday meal scheme is to check inflated attendance. Does this happen? The answer is: we don’t know. However, apart from anecdotal evidence (including newspaper reports and tweets), there is no concrete evidence that the problem exists in the first place.
If attendance inflation exists, it could be for two reasons: to make up the shortfall in allocations to be able to provide food according to the menu; or to siphon off funds. In such cases, administrators who fudge records should be punished, not children. Moreover, there are better ways to pre-empt attendance inflation — for instance, teachers can SMS the number of children each day, and the Block office can make surprise checks to verify this.
In its October 2015 order, the Supreme Court listed six schemes for voluntary use of Aadhaar. The midday meal scheme was not among them. The recent government notification making Aadhaar compulsory for midday meals is blatantly illegal.
Reetika Khera is an associate professor at IIT Delhi