Corruption, costs and cut-offs: the human impact of Aadhaar implementation issues
A series of reports list the ongoing issues surrounding India’s national digital identity project, Aadhaar. Its integration with government welfare is allowing corruption in ration distribution leading to starvation and profiteering according to reports, and an upcoming cut-off date for biometric registration for pension entitlement shows half of pensioners could be struck off. Meanwhile, the costs for updating Aadhaar records continue to rise steeply.
India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) distributes foods and essentials via a network of ration shops known as fair price shops. Household are entitled to different quantities of foods either for free or at subsidized prices, depending on their income.
The 2018 Supreme Court Judgement found that Aadhaar can be used for subsidies and benefits as long as an alternative is available should authentication fail. Aadhaar must also be linked to PAN cards, used for financial transactions. Public service links to the Aadhaar system have been increasing.
Previous deadlines for linking Aadhaar to ration cards resulted in ration cards being deleted, something being investigated by the Supreme Court. There have been reports of people starving to death due to Aadhaar-related ration issues in multiple states.
A new report from an area in Jharkhand, a resource-rich state in eastern India with high levels of poverty, blames Aadhaar biometric authentication issues and ration dealers’ manipulation of the system for siphoning off more than half of ration cardholders’ entitlements.
Activist Siraj Dutta, writing for Scroll.in, describes what villagers declared in a public hearing organized by civil society network Khadya Suraksha Jan Adhikar Manch.
One common situation, called quantity fraud, is when a ration dealer authenticates a recipient via Aadhaar, tells the system they have been given the full ration, but only hands over a portion of it.
Khadya Suraksha Jan Adhikar Manch (Manch) studied 40 ration cards in one village and found that between February and April, cardholders received 57 percent of their grain entitlement while the dealer registered the full amount.
Alongside economists, Manch studied 100 ration cards in another village. In February the cardholders received on average 35 percent of their grain entitlement and 33 percent in March while again the dealer recorded the full amount.
A 2015 study found that around 40 percent of benefits in the Public Distribution System were lost to corruption. Since the linking of Aadhaar, situations such as that in Jharkhand have not been improving.
The links to Aadhaar began in 2016 in Jharkhand and hundreds of thousands of families were subsequently denied rations when their cards were cancelled for not being linked to Aadhaar accounts.
The author argues that the Aadhaar requirement is denying people their rations via cancelled ration cards, biometric authentication problems and dealer fraud.
Despite the issues, Jharkhand upped the requirements for biometric authentication to tackle quantity fraud, requiring it separately for each product dispensed: rice, wheat, salt etc.
Rising costs and cancellations, face biometrics added
UIDAI spending on Aadhaar enrolments and records updates has grown from Rs 1.42 billion in 2019-20 (US$17.75 million at current exchange), to Rs 3.2 billion ($40.1 million) in 2020-21 and Rs 5.19 billion ($65.16 million) in 2021-22, according to government data covered by CanIndia.
The agency also reported that 599,000 Aadhaar profiles have been cancelled after being found to be duplicates or for other reasons.
Deduplication is a headache for any identity enrolment and management system. Privacy International has questioned Aadhaar’s abilities to perform deduplication with the technology in use pitted against the population size. If it were to scale up its efforts to ensure uniqueness, then a check of the databases could take hundreds of years.
However, the UIDAI has added face biometrics as a new modality for de-duplication, in addition to fingerprints and irises.
The Minister of State for Electronics & Information Technology, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, told Parliament that the UIDAI has abided with the directions of the Supreme Court’s 2018 judgement on Aadhaar and amendments have been made to the 2016 Aadhaar Act.
In 2018, judges ruled that children cannot be excluded from welfare or school attendance for not having an Aadhaar.
Minister Chandrasekhar told the Lok Sabha, Parliament’s lower house, that children cannot legally be denied any subsidy or benefit on any identity-based grounds.
Half of pensioners facing cut-off
More than half of senior citizens in Gautam Budh Nagar, a district of Uttar Pradesh, bordering New Delhi, will lose their pensions for April to June if they fail to authenticate their biometrics registered on Aadhaar by 31 July, reports The Times of India.
The means-tested old age pensions are paid quarterly and require annual biometric authentication. Just under ten thousand of the 20,570 senior citizens currently eligible in the area have yet to do their authentication. Arrears will not be available.
Authorities have taken to the media and advertising in an attempt to increase authentication rates for the pensions worth $12.50 per month.
In the financial year 2021-22, Gautam Budh Nagar spent Rs 6,200,000 ($78,000) on pensions for 20,572 senior citizens.