By REETIKA KHERA, New York Times
NEW DELHI — Aadhaar, India’s grand program to provide a unique 12-digit
identification number to each of its 1.3 billion residents, appears to
be collapsing under its own ambitions.
When it was set up by the Congress Party-led government in 2009, it was
touted as a voluntary biometric ID system that would ensure the smooth
delivery of public services — notably welfare benefits and subsidized
food for the poor — while limiting the risk of fraud.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, then the main opposition party, was among
the project’s fiercest critics at first, calling it too costly and a
“political gimmick.” But after it came to power, in May 2014, the B.J.P.
went further than Congress had ever dreamed of: Since then, it has made
Aadhaar mandatory for accessing numerous public services, as well as for
some private transactions.
So far, Aadhaar — “the foundation” in Hindi — seems to have helped
neither with welfare nor against corruption, all the while creating new
problems, including by exposing people’s personal data to theft or
predation by the private sector.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court began hearings in a long-running
collective case challenging the program’s constitutionality. In their
opening statement, the petitioners argued that Aadhaar, if fully
implemented, would “reduce citizens to servitude,” since not having an
Aadhaar number — that “electronic leash” — in effect meant “civil death.”
On the one hand, having an Aadhaar number does not in itself guarantee
access to India’s welfare benefits — among the least generous in the
world. On the other, the need to have one and to link it to one’s
various accounts and benefits has prevented some Indians from obtaining
state assistance.
Several Indian states require people to enlist in Aadhaar before they
can claim rice or wheat at subsidized prices under the Public
Distribution System, an important source of food security in the
country’s poorer areas. Among them is the eastern state of Jharkhand,
where only about 7 percent of residents aged 6 to 23 get an adequate
diet. In September, an 11-year-old girl there died of hunger after her
family was struck off the beneficiaries registry because it had failed
to link its ration card to an Aadhaar number. (The government has
contested this account, claiming the girl died of malaria.) A half-dozen
other Indians are reported to have died because of similar reasons.
These deaths are the starkest and most tragic example of the system’s
shortcomings. But many, many thousands of Indians, perhaps even
millions, are at risk — if not of dying, at least of losing access to
food, pensions or other benefits they sorely need. And all of this,
precisely as a result of a system that was supposed to help them get
state help.
To buy subsidized grain in some states, for example, a beneficiary must
authenticate her identity by placing the tip of a finger on a hand-held
machine. Collecting a readable fingerprint this way requires functioning
electricity, an internet connection and operational servers. In large
swathes of rural India, such as in Rajasthan, all of this is a steep
ask. Yet if any one of these steps fail, applicants are denied food
assistance.
Previously, an infirm, older person could send a relative or neighbor
with the relevant paperwork as a proxy to collect monthly rations. Now,
the biometric identification system requires one’s physical presence.
In 2017, several economists and I conducted a survey of 900 households
in Jharkhand, comparing villages that did and did not implement the
Aadhaar system for buying grain. We discovered that the percentage of
households that failed to obtain any grain at all was five times higher
in the villages where Aadhaar authentication was compulsory (20 percent)
than in those where it was not (4 percent).
In theory, biometric identification could help reduce identity fraud,
but there has never been much evidence of large-scale identity fraud in
India’s welfare programs.
The main problem with, say, the main food aid program is that officials
and intermediaries appear to misreport official disbursements and skim
off some of the aid. In a survey of about 2,000 randomly selected
households in eight Indian states that the economist Jean Drèze and I
conducted in 2013, the households collected only 87 percent of their
entitlements; the rest of the resources were misdirected.
There is no evidence that Aadhaar has put a dent in corruption. In our
2017 survey, we found that among households that succeeded in buying
grain, skimming levels were the same — about 7 percent — in villages
with or without the Aadhaar system.
Despite these problems, the administration of Prime Minister Narendra
Modi has expanded the reach of Aadhaar over the past year, requiring it
for a host of public services beyond welfare benefits — such as to
register marriages or file income tax returns.
Worse, the government wants to make it compulsory to link bank accounts
and mobile phone numbers to Aadhaar numbers. Online shopping portals
have also started asking for the ID from Indians simply trying to buy a
book or a pair of shoes.
Some critics have warned that Aadhaar could turn into an instrument of
mass surveillance. At a minimum, it already raises grave concerns about
data security and privacy, neither of which is currently protected under
Indian law. (The Supreme Court affirmed, in a landmark judgment, that
privacy was a fundamental right under the Constitution last year.)
The government has admitted that last year millions of Aadhaar numbers
had been carelessly displayed on more than 200 government websites.
Earlier this month, an investigative reporter for The Tribune newspaper
claimed to have found a way to buy unrestricted access to the details of
any Aadhaar number for just 500 Indian rupees, about $8, from people
operating on the mobile app WhatsApp.
Given the many ways in which the Aadhaar system is broken, at the very
least it should be made voluntary again, and the data of anyone who opts
out should be destroyed.
Aadhaar was supposed to showcase the government’s forward thinking about
efficient administration; it has only exposed the state’s coerciveness.
It was supposed to ease the poor’s access to welfare; it has hurt the
neediest. It was supposed to harness technology in the service of
development; it has made people’s personal data vulnerable. One of the
Indian government’s biggest banner projects has become a glaring example
of all that can go wrong with policy making in this country.
Reetika Khera is a development economist based at the Indian Institute
of Technology, Delhi.

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