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India – ‘We have become guinea pigs for biometrics’ #Aadhaar

Nikhil Dey: ‘We have registered 10,000 grievances from 33 districts across Rajasthan’

Civil Society News, New Delhi

For the past decade state governments have launched a series of Internet-based initiatives to deliver services more efficiently. Technology has been seen as the best way of bypassing red tape and corruption in the system to reach the poor directly with benefits. Beneficiaries are identified through biometrics and a series of tech solutions like smart cards, micro ATMs and so on. The result of these efforts is that India is the only country in the world using biometrics on such a large scale.

But is this new architecture working as well as it is cracked up to be? What do the poor say in rural and small town India? To find out, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) undertook a 100-day Accountability Yatra from December to March across Rajasthan.

The yatra went to all 33 districts of the state and held nearly 400 meetings. A large number of complaints were recorded. Internet-based solutions weren’t always working. The complaints ranged from delays and harassment to exclusion to fudging of transactions. It appears that the biometric system of identification doesn’t perform to satisfaction.

To understand the findings of the Accountability Yatra, Civil Society spoke to Nikhil Dey of the MKSS.

Q. What was the learning from the 100-day Accountability Yatra?

The objective of the Accountability Yatra was to raise people’s awareness on issues of transparency and accountability. We found that people understood two issues — transparency and the right to information.

It was day-to-day issues of not being able to get your road built or your ration card made on time or get your pension that obsessed people. We registered 10,000 grievances and linked them with the broader idea of an accountability framework.

We laid down two or three things:

First, that any person who works in government or is elected has a responsibility to the people. They should have a job chart just like a National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) worker. Second, if they don’t complete their work their wages should be cut like an NREGA worker. They too should be penalised just like NREGA workers. Third, if people’s work isn’t done on time, they should be compensated. These three ideas really connected with people in their day-to-day issues.

We have a sample size of 10,000 grievances from 33 districts across the state. We recorded them on the government’s own webpage. We got 30 per cent complaints about the actions the government took, so we know their actions are in a mess.

When we talk to the administration we know exactly what issues are causing them the biggest problems. Ten per cent of complaints are about pensions. We know the reason for the problem, patterns across districts and what is peculiar to a particular area. We were able to give feedback to administrators and people at the grassroots on what they should do.

We were in a district for three days. We would make contact with all the local civil society organisations, people’s groups, trade unions, women’s organisations. We have built a rainbow coalition across the state. What has struck us is what is currently happening on the development side.

Q. What is happening on the development side? 

Mining is creating havoc. We didn’t know till we saw it. People have cut hills, dug deep into the ground and higher than the hill was. There are gorges all over, the water table is in a mess, plants and vegetation are caked with dust and silicosis is becoming rampant.

It wasn’t as if mining and quarrying did not take place before. But now people are looking hungrily for something they can exploit quickly with no concern for the environment or people.

Q. Are there specific areas you are talking of?

About 13 districts are affected by silicosis. They give Rs 1 lakh to people who are alive with silicosis and Rs 3 lakh to their families when they die. The entire obsession of people with silicosis is to just get that money somehow before they die. There is no cure for silicosis so this is literally blood money.

Q. What has been the government’s response?

The administration has started taking note. They have identified 20,000 people with silicosis so far. They say it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In Karoli district, the administration estimates that about 100,000 people need to be tested for silicosis. There is a medical board that examines eight patients a week. But they don’t know if the affected people have TB or silicosis. The entire testing mechanism is all new ground.

Then the food security situation is a complete mess. It’s an indication of how shallow the understanding of political parties is. Given the anger and distress over the lack of implementation of the Food Security Act, all the opposition parties should have been on the street and the ruling party on the back foot. But food is just not on their radar.

Q. You have taken up the issue of pensions. Tell us about your understanding of the problem. 

Pensions made a big breakthrough when Ashok Gehlot (former chief minister of Rajasthan) universalised it.  He said anyone in a rural area with an income of less than Rs 50,000 a year was entitled to pension. That means 80 per cent of the population.

A large number of people actually got access to pension. Delivery was always poor. This government shifted from post offices to banks as part of the Jan Dhan Yojana system of delivery. Pension was originally a cash transfer and was always a direct benefit transfer.

It’s true the post office wasn’t delivering. But the banks don’t want to service these people either. They are too overloaded. The rural banks even put up a signboard saying those who have zero balance accounts please go to the business correspondents (BCs).

When pensions were not being lifted it became clear to the government. The district collectors would tell us during meetings that pensions were doing great since they had transferred it to bank accounts. We asked: how much is being picked up from those bank accounts? Those people aren’t going to leave it in their account. They admitted that only 10 to 15 per cent of people had picked up their money.

Clearly, there was a bottleneck. The BC is a fellow with a micro ATM. Actually, that is a misnomer. These are just guys with a machine in hand and cash in the pocket. Like the post office guy, the BC makes it clear that he will take his commission of Rs 20 or Rs 40 for handing over the pension money. Aged people are authenticated by placing their thumb impression on his machine, but it does not work for the elderly.

Q. Why doesn’t it work?  

It doesn’t work for hundreds and thousands. In a crowd of elderly people 60 to 70 per cent will tell you that it’s almost impossible for them to get their pension. The machine rejects you if you get a scratch on your thumb, or your hand gets calloused.

It’s a myth the way biometrics has been sold in this country. Nowhere in the world has it been used on this scale. So we are guinea pigs and now they all realise it. When we talk to top people in the administration they say we understand and recognise that biometrics change. No part of our body remains the same and neither do our fingerprints. If you make that machine more sensitive it will just recognise more changes.

Q. Have you spoken to Nandan Nilekani? 

I have spoken to him personally. Like all technocrats he keeps saying, ‘Oh, these are teething problems, give it time’. A reporter came with us and saw what was happening. She contacted Nilekani’s main man. He wrote back and said don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. We will remove these machines and bring in iris scan machines. They bring in one machine after the other.

Q. But this is real experience at ground level. Doesn’t Nilekani want to see why biometrics don’t work?

No, he doesn’t. He says we are getting reports. We are handling it. People are talking with their feet because they are registering such large numbers. You see his interviews. The claims he makes are abominable and unjustified. He talks of saving billions of dollars.

Let me give you an example. There were around six million beneficiaries after pensions were expanded. They cut 500,000 out by saying they were not deserving. We were down to 5.5 million. Then they shifted 420,000 out of 5.5 million pensioners into banks from post offices. Now 600,000 are left in the post office. That makes 4.2 million. It leaves out 700,000 people. They say that is their saving, the corrupt people that they claim to have weeded out. The category they have put them in is: not coming to claim pensions.

I spoke to their IT man in charge. I asked who are these people. First, eight signatures are needed to authorise a pension. So about 10 people should be in jail for sanctioning a false claim. These can’t be false claims. He agreed. I asked do you feel these people are dead because that can happen. So he said yes. I asked how many. He couldn’t answer.

Thousands of people have approached us saying their pension has been stopped, what should they do. Are these not your 700,000 people? I want to ask Nilekani: is there a single case of de-duplication you have prosecuted for taking the state for a ride and stealing money from the poor?

They make three claims. One, of inclusion. In reality they have excluded vast numbers of people. Two, they claim efficiency. In reality, people are making eight trips to ration shops to try and get those damn thumb impressions on those machines. Each transaction takes eight to 10 minutes extra. Three, they are supposed to reduce corruption. In reality, if you are doing manual override for 50 per cent of cases you have actually opened the door for corruption.

We run a ration shop in Devdungri. The machine has been out of order for 10 days. It takes time to repair a computer in the heart of Delhi. So can you imagine getting these machines repaired in some village in a little ration shop?

Q. What can be done?

Okay, you say biometrics is this great thing. What is wrong, then, in doing a localised biometric? You can feed the biometrics of all the people in that area into the machine. So, as soon as you put your thumb impression it doesn’t have to go via the Internet anywhere. The machine itself has its database and it immediately checks against it and says yes.

Under the present system every time a person puts his thumb impression on the machine, it goes to a central server, which checks against duplication and de-duplication against everyone in that database. It then gets matched and comes back each time I take my rations. I mean, can you imagine the inefficiency and cost of that? It’s an SMS going and coming, conveying a fingerprint-matching message to a central server and for what reason?

There is this dictatorial attitude to this technology. Maybe somewhere smart cards are better, or maybe biometrics work elsewhere. Maybe you don’t need technology in some places.

Q. How can government speed up delivery?

The idea that all problems will be solved through technology should be dropped. It is hard work to deliver government entitlements and stuff in a country like India. You need systems.

My thumb impression is akin to a signature on a cheque. As an elderly person I place my thumb impression on the BC’s machine. He says it doesn’t work, wash your hands and come back. I place my impression a second, maybe a third time.  He gives me my pension of Rs 500. Let’s say I have Rs 20,000 in my account. He now has two blank cheques.

Supposing I have a smart card. I give my RuPay card to the BC. He asks me my ATM number. I pull out a piece of paper and give it to him. Would you give your ATM number to someone on the street? Here, take my card and pin and bring me money?

So we are opening up an institution like banking to massive fraud, except that we will be taking away a poor person’s money. Maybe it will happen only in five or 10 per cent of cases. That’s a huge number and damages the whole credibility of this system.

Q. What should the government be doing?

Giving cash through banks and post office accounts was a step forward. This was done years ago. NREGA itself opened 100 million accounts in which cash was being credited. People went through a whole lot of torture because institutions weren’t able to cope but they made them start to cope. They didn’t get defrauded in the process. The problem here is that it’s just been thrust down everyone’s throat. No attempt was made to work it out as you go along. This should have been piloted, tested. You can’t distribute machines to 90,000 shops across the state and then say, ‘Oh, now we realise there is a problem’.

Q. Maybe it would have been better to just strengthen the old institutions that were not working?

Absolutely. There are tried and tested systems. In Chhattisgarh – and I am no fan of that government – I acknowledge that they gave rice and made the PDS work. What did they do? They stopped private shops. They took responsibility. They used technology. They tracked every damn truck that went. They had chips on trucks. They had SMS going. They made sure there were melas for food distribution. There is no better way of distribution than by doing it in public.

Q. So you are saying that the government has to do this work itself on the ground?

Yes, and the current government and dispensation combined with technocrats does not really care about people’s pain. If you have some sensitivity to pain you immediately correct yourself. They are concerned with achieving targets. They aren’t concerned with the reality of what is happening on the ground.

Q. The Niti Aayog must have approached you to share your findings?

Not at all. For all the faults of the former Planning Commission it still was a public consultation body. The Niti Aayog talks to a very small set of people.

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