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Open letter to the designers and implementers of #UID. .. #Aadhaar

We write this letter to you as a question, a comment, a complaint, and finally an appeal. We do want to clarify at the outset that we have had many intellectual and theoretical problems with the UID (Unique Identification) related to surveillance, privacy and how it actually has the potential to turn the Right to Information (RTI) on its head. Nevertheless, we have since its inception carefully watched Aadhaar or the UID as per its primary stated objective (even in the legislation) to benefit the poor. You promised that there would be at least three big advantages that would accrue from the roll out of this “game-changing” platform.

First, we were told, that it would foster and ensure inclusion at all levels. It is now becoming clear, that Aadhaar is actually just an authentication mechanism using biometric technology threaded through a vast, centralised, data gathering platform. It has provided citizens with no unique benefit, except (potentially dangerously) being used as an ID/KYC card. Since Aadhaar has been made absolutely mandatory for drawing benefits under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in Rajasthan over the last year, we confine ourselves to use the detailed evidence that exists of the devastating consequences of its imposition in rations leading to mass anguish and distress. In a recent meeting with officials from the Department of Food and IT officials in Rajasthan, certain statistics from the Rajasthan Government website were discussed and confirmed- Out of approximately 1 crore NFSA beneficiary families, nearly 30 lakh families i.e. approximately 30% of intended beneficiaries, were not drawing their monthly rations over the last 10 months. These were families with Aadhaar numbers, so you will agree that they could not be “bogus”.

It also makes no sense for these families to willingly forego wheat at Rs 2 per kg when the market price is ten times that amount. The statistic of 30% masked the old and the physically challenged who could not reach the ration shop to place their fingerprints on the machine and those who migrated in search of work, for a season, or even a whole year. The most vulnerable, who should be our highest priority, are being excluded by design. Should the designers not have made sure this situation did not continue for the last 10 months and beyond? Other reasons offered to explain the exclusion are poor performance of the machine, the network, biometric mismatch and even the dealer’s poor performance.

The government has not invested any effort to match the breakdown of numbers with reasons. Instead, it made inflated claims on equating denial with savings and thereby ending corruption. Would you not agree that to classify exclusion as a saving is unethical and cruel? And this continues despite an unequivocal Rajasthan High Court order of May 30 that Aadhaar can’t be the basis for denial of rations. But ignoring Supreme Court and high court orders is a nurtured pattern in the UID paradigm.

Second, we were told that Aadhaar would be an almost foolproof method to de-duplicate and therefore eliminate corruption. Duplication is not the biggest source of corruption in welfare. There are other citizen-based methods to de-duplicate. But, you never had an answer to the many other forms of corruption it leaves untouched. And we now know that in fact, it fosters some new forms of corruption! Out of the 70% of rations the dealer is distributing, he is making his cut in numerous ways. He almost never provides a receipt. He authenticates for everything and gives only kerosene. He authenticates for several months and gives only for one month. He overcharges, overbooks, manipulates seeding and in the cruellest joke on your system, tells the beneficiary that her biometric has failed, even when he gets a positive authentication. The challenge for the anti-corruption RTI user is that the paper trail has been replaced by digital databases, sometimes secret, run by a system that does not have the inclination to act on complaints. The officials often say that biometric authentication means proof of no corruption!

Third, we were told that this delivery highway would greatly increase efficiency. It would allow administrators to see what was going on where and immediately respond at the minutest level. That leads us to ask why not one FIR has been registered for perpetuating the massive corruption that you apparently eliminated. All of you repeatedly assured us from the seniormost levels to those implementing that pilots would be watched very carefully to learn and correct, and you assured us that Aadhaar would become widely used, not from compulsion but from popular demand.

So we address this to all of you who have brought us till here – the celebrated architects, the political leadership pursuing this with an unprecedented zeal, our very competent technocratic friends, researchers who have been singing praises of Aadhaar and administrators at every level. We are baffled about how this can continue. The poor, the excluded, the anaemic and the hungry have questions that relate to their life, and death. So many of those who have passed away over these last 10 months and were not able to access their food grain or pension entitlement have pleas that went unanswered. Can you please answer these questions and tell us who will be held responsible? This calls for an “evidence-based” point by point public discussion. We hope that in the course of the debate if you accept that injustice has been done, you will help correct it. Before we proceed further, citizens across India deserve a chance to better understand what the implications of using Aadhaar could be.

In anticipation..

(The writers are social activists who live and work in rural Rajasthan)

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