Mandatory Aadhaar for welfare is fine but govt should address privacy, connectivity issues first

So Aadhaar is once again making news for the wrong reasons.

There’s now a uproar over Aadhaar being made mandatory for children to avail of mid-day meals in schools under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. According to this report in the Economic Times, Aadhaar has been made mandatory for 30 schemes under the government’s direct benefit transfer initiative and will be extended to 50 more.

Meanwhile, serious questions related to privacy have arisen with reports about the illegal storage of biometrics of individuals enrolled under Aadhaar. A private bank, a business correspondent firm and an e-sign provider were found to be attempting unauthorised authentication. The UIDAI has filed a police complaint regarding this. This has proved what privacy activists and other Aadhaar skeptics have been red-flagging for a long time, only to have their concerns dismissed by the Aadhaar defenders.

The outrage that the decision on mid-day meals has sparked off could well prompt a rollback, but that would be – dare I say it - a step in the wrong direction.

This writer has consistently argued that Aadhaar is, as of now, the best de-duplication tool to curb leakages in welfare delivery. This is the only way to ensure that a subsidy or welfare payout meant for A does not go to B and to eliminate ghost beneficiaries.

So it is perfectly alright for Aadhaar to be made mandatory for availing of government-provided welfare, whether it be scholarships, subsidised food or, yes, even mid-day meals.

Representational image. Reuters.

Representational image. Reuters.

Denying children perhaps the only nutritious food they get – and also the only reason they may be coming to school – does appear cruel and unfeeling. But, those suggesting that this be junked have to come up with a fairly fool-proof way to weed out ghost beneficiaries.

This is a real problem, even in the case of mid-day meals, as this 2011 article shows. In Odisha, an identification drive by the government saw student enrolment in primary and upper primary schools drop by 11,000. The government was spending Rs 78 lakh a year for mid-day meals for these non-existent students.

This problem is not confined to Odisha. The finance minister of a northern state recently told this author about similar findings in his state, apart from leakages and diversion from anganwadis set up under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).

This is happening across welfare schemes, as a result of which government money (which is really tax payers’ money) is being siphoned off even as the genuinely needy continue to suffer.
However this endorsement of Aadhaar comes with a huge rider.

If Aadhaar is to be made mandatory for availing of government benefits, it must also be mandatory for the government to put certain systems in place. These are completely non-negotiable systems and these need to be ensured before Aadhaar is made mandatory.

Privacy, needless to say, tops the priority list. The UIDAI has put out a strong defence of its privacy systems in the wake of the recent news reports. It has also filed a FIR against a Gurgaon-based think tank, Skoch Development Foundation, which had also pointed out security vulnerabilities in Aadhaar. Now, the UIDAI is perfectly within its rights to act against what it might feel are attempts to defame it, but it cannot brush away the privacy breach issue, as it has always done in the past.

Related to this is the creation of an eco-system that protects privacy. While this government has been quick to get the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 passed as a money bill, it has been dragging its feet on a privacy law. And let’s not forget what attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi said while arguing against a bunch of petitions in the Supreme Court challenging Aadhaar - that there was no fundamental right to privacy.

If the government wants to push ahead on Aadhaar, it has to start serious work on a privacy law without delay.

Priority number two has to be about ensuring connectivity in rural areas to allow biometric authentication. This article makes a telling point about the implementation problems of making Aadhaar mandatory.

The government is quick to boast about the financial savings it has achieved as a result of Aadhaar weeding out fake beneficiaries. UIDAI has claimed saving Rs 49,000 crore because of Aadhaar-based authentication. But has there be any counter-checking of whether this saving is coming purely from eliminating ghost beneficiaries or also from genuine beneficiaries being denied welfare because of implementation hurdles?

A related point: Activists have pointed out that fingerprint authentication and iris-based authentication are a problem in the case of those who do hard manual labourer as well as senior citizens who may have eye problems. These need to be verified and addressed, not dismissed as a problem affecting only a small percentage of transactions.

Let’s be clear: The narrative cannot be about saving costs to the government alone. The narrative has to be about financial savings to the government and the genuinely needy not being deprived of benefits due to them.

Priority number three has to be ensuring everyone does get Aadhaar. The government has to be pro-active in this. It can be argued that making Aadhaar mandatory is one way of ensuring that people get enrolled. But there has to be follow-up to ensure that this is happening and in a relatively pain-free manner. Having people go without Aadhaar and then claiming that those without it are all ghost beneficiaries is just not on.

What the government also needs to stop is the slow but steady creep of Aadhaar into areas where there is no government benefit being availed of. Aadhaar is to be quoted when buying railway tickets from April 1, while opening bank accounts, taking new mobile phone connections, filing FIRs, income tax returns or just signing as a witness for rent agreements. The government is also pushing for Aadhaar-based digital payments.

The Aadhaar law is about the targeted delivery of financial and other subsidies, benefits and services. It was also supposed to be about giving migrant population or those at the bottom of they pyramid an identity document to open bank accounts or avail government services. Why should it spread to other areas, including its use by the private sector, and well-off people who are not going to avail government benefits and have multiple ways of proving their identities?

The lack of movement on a privacy law becomes even more worrying in this context. With Aadhaar becoming the default identification document, it will become possible to map all of an individual’s transactions.

The Aadhaar project has its uses, certainly, but it is time for some stock-taking of its implementation, including concerns about its creep.

Updated Date: Mar 06, 2017 16:34 PM

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