By Prashansa Srivastava
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) embarked on the unique identification project in 2010. Since then approximately 1.12 billion Indians (88.2 percent of the population) have voluntarily enrolled in the scheme. The 12-digit online number, referred to as Aadhaar is issued to enrollees upon the provision of demographic and biometric information.
The number gives Indian residents, particularly those previously excluded from the formal economy, the opportunity to access a range of benefits and services. It also makes the deliverance of subsidies and benefits more efficient. The UIDAI specifically aims to expand social and financial services to the poor, remove corrupt practices plaguing existing welfare databases, eliminate duplicate and fake identities, and hold government officials accountable.
The usefulness of Aadhaar
Due to the usefulness of Aadhaar in curbing leakages and improving transparency in the delivery system, the government has issued multiple orders to use Aadhaar in a number of welfare schemes. The schemes include providing subsidies for food grain and horticultural, crop insurance schemes and benefits offered under federal government programs such as the National Rural Livelihood Mission and National Career Services. Aadhaar is also essential for availing benefits through the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) in schemes such as cooking gas subsidy (PAHAL), scholarships, Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) and pensions.
While these schemes require beneficiaries to provide their Aadhaar number, it has also been ensured that no one is denied benefits due to lack of Aadhaar. For example, under the Integrated Child Development Scheme, schools and anganwadis (welfare centres) have been asked to collect the Aadhaar number of beneficiaries. However, if a child does not have Aadhaar, the school or ICDS functionary will be required to provide enrollment facilities and the benefits will continue.
Welfare schemes tend to fail in reaching target beneficiaries. Aadhaar, when linked to welfare schemes, can ensure transparency and reduce the notorious problem of corruption by intermediaries. For instance, in the Public Distribution System (PDS), mandatory Aadhaar can ensure that the subsidised food grains are received only by the genuine beneficiaries and not syphoned off by middle men. When executed appropriately, it can tackle India’s persistent socioeconomic inequalities and bring the country’s recent progress to the masses. In fact, given the size of India’s population, Aadhaar comes across as an effective and economical way to deliver payments of subsidies and benefits.
Creating a dependency and other impediments
Aadhaar’s sheer size is proving to be both its marvel and downfall as well. A survey commissioned by the Andhra Pradesh government averred that 48% of the respondents pointed to Aadhaar-related failures behind their inability to claim ration. The rhetoric has always been that Aadhaar cards are supposed to enable welfare schemes. However, the present reality seems to be the opposite, wherein welfare schemes are being used to create a dependency on Aadhaar.
With problems of inadequate digital infrastructure and a shortage of funds, the linkage of welfare schemes with Aadhaar is not all that easy. The imposition of biometric authentication, which is by nature internet based, requires a working internet connection, adequate servers, and a complete database set of enrollees. However, in their absence, people are unable to pass the authentication and even those who do face a lot of hassle. This kind of exclusion is unacceptable when it comes to a rights based programme.
Thus, the Center needs to evolve certain protocols on how to deal with the situation of technological failure. Problems of delays, authentication failures, connectivity issues, among others should not be allowed to impede welfare schemes. Aadhaar is a grand policy experiment and can be used to make a billion people’s lives simpler. However, the government must keep the aggressive expansion of Aadhaar in check. Given the drawbacks, it is essential that there is more discussion on the scope, cost and importance of accommodating Aadhaar in welfare schemes.
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