Going by the submission made in the ongoing Supreme Court case on the UID, the interim order seemingly reflects a consensus. The petitioner was asking the court to pass orders to ensure that Aadhaar was not made mandatory to get social sector benefits. The Government’s assertion was that it was entirely voluntary, and therefore there was no need for any interim order. The Supreme Court felt the need to state the obvious, and make it abundantly clear that it could not be made mandatory to receive benefits under social sector programmes.
This order has thrown the Aadhaar establishment and its supporters into a state of panic. That is because they understand that the only way people can be “persuaded” to join the long lines for Aadhaar cards is to make it clear that Aadhaar is a prerequisite to be a beneficiary. The only “achievement” of this unofficial coercion is a high enrolment figure. Evidence from the field is unequivocal that Aadhaar has given no additional benefit to any social sector beneficiary. The “voluntary” nature of this enrolment has so far been mythical. Since the applicant is not being led by the rope to the enrolment centre, it is being termed voluntary; except that they cannot access entitlements like food, employment, cooking gas, or maternity benefits unless they are enrolled for the card. You have to be one of the beneficiaries of a scheme to really understand the mechanics of this technological tool.
Aadhaar is not really a card; it is a unique number that relates to biometric authentication. Therefore, its only unique value is when the biometric authentication works flawlessly, not only as a technology, but also as an administrative and vigilance mechanism.
Even in districts where direct benefit transfer rollouts are in place, for the tiny number of beneficiaries and schemes that have been taken up, Aadhaar is far from working. In most of the districts, many of the requisite milestones of financial inclusion are not in place. Pilot schemes in states where it is being tried show massive problems in efficacy, which is bound to result in either the exclusion of beneficiaries, or setting the system aside by using what is euphemistically called “manual override”. This in a centralised authentication system is a perfect prescription for leakage, and an acknowledgement of failure. There seem to be no answers to these failures except for the glib assertion that eventually all the glitches will go away.
The Supreme Court order and the rhetorical commitment to voluntariness must be strictly followed so that coercion and exclusion do not get set as state practice. If pilot projects, people’s experiences, and rigorous field-level evaluations indicate that the system will work, it can be adopted. If not, it should be allowed to sink before we waste more money and time on an impractical “magic bullet”.
(The author works with Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.)