In the hurry to meet targets, UIDAI is missing its goals

Lost Identity- Prabha Jagannathan

Feb1, 2012- The Week

The division among economists and social activists over whether the Unique Identity (UID) programme, or Aadhaar, will streamline the government’s social sector and welfare programme roadmap or disrupt it seems to be widening further. The high profile project, say critics, has become fixated on achieving targets, while losing its way on its goals.
In fact, a bitter row that broke out recently threatened Aadhaar’s very existence. The ministries of home and finance took on the UID Authority of India and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Planning Commission’s deputy chairman, echoing the long-simmering apprehensions within the government. The row, however, was papered over soon with Home Minister P. Chidambaram saying his ministry had “no rift” with UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani.
Also, the home ministry agreed to enable its own biometrics smart cards based on the National Population Register (NPR) with Aadhaar numbers, meekly toning down its concerns over the possibility of fraudulent UID numbers creeping into the system. The UIDAI has delegated hundreds of small companies and overnight outfits to collect fingerprint and iris data, leaving gaping authentication holes in the process.
Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, whose ministry is expected to be a key beneficiary of Aadhaar in large programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, preferred to keep his own counsel. Some officials at the ministry later suggested that the home ministry’s biometrics card and the Aadhaar number could coexist because they had “different objectives”.
MGNREGS and the National Old Age Pension Scheme entail cash delivery as a fundamental part of their functioning, and Aadhaar, say economists and social workers, can be used efficiently in them. However, Aadhaar’s unstated long-term goal of replacing welfare programmes, such as the public distribution system (PDS), with cash worries many. Once the Right to Food Act is implemented, cash disbursal will become an intrinsic option for the government. “Aadhaar functionaries on the ground are telling people that they will get easier access to social schemes if they get the number. They are not telling them that the services will be replaced by cash. The government should state this openly and transparently if it is moving to cash in welfare programmes,” says development economist Reetika Khera.
Apart from the policy issues, Aadhaar is facing many execution challenges as well. According to Nilekani, three per cent of the population has fingerprint problems, which make their registration difficult. Surveys, however, peg the figure at 5-15 per cent. Then another 20 million people have cataract, making iris scan a tough job. Solutions for these problems are yet be figured out. Also, thousands of hastily issued Aadhaar cards are lying unclaimed with post offices and at social work organisations.
The fresh row seems to have rekindled the concerns over the relevance of the UID exercise. Some critics even say it is creating a secondary ecosystem of ‘corruption, collusion and deception’, comprising lobbyists, hardware suppliers and those who benefit from fudging UID data.
Glitches detected by pilot schemes have been brushed under the carpet and no real cost-benefit analysis of the project has been done, thanks mainly to the Prime Minister’s keen interest in it. But what is worrying economists and social activists more are its tall claims of benefits and non-relevance on the ground. “I am fully convinced that those in charge of this exercise have no understanding of how these social sector programmes or even corruption actually work on the ground. The UIDAI claims that bank transfers will eliminate corruption, but welfare programme cash transfers have since 2008 been made through post offices and banks,” says Khera, who has worked with development economist Jean Dreze, the architect of NREGS.

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