The Union government hastily passed a bill to link voter ID cards to Aadhaar cards. Such arbitrary approaches without sufficient deliberation have become the norm, it seems. The government says the move will prevent fraud and remove duplicate identifiers. But as evidenced by a report by journalist Kumar Sambhav, such a move violates an individual’s right to privacy, allows voter profiling and excludes genuine voters – dangers that were also highlighted in a statement released by the Rethink Aadhaar campaign and endorsed by many organizations. Aadhaar was, among other things, supposed to improve the effectiveness of social assistance programs. However, there are important lessons to be learned from the questionable claims made by the Aadhaar government regarding the provision of social benefits which have a strong bearing on the new proposal.
Claims on unstable ground
Cash transfers in many social protection programs, such as MGNREGA salary payment, are made using the Aadhaar Payment Bridge System (APBS). For this to work, it is mandatory to link workers’ Aadhaar to their MGNREGA work cards and bank accounts where the worker’s Aadhaar number becomes their financial address. The Union government has repeatedly claimed savings in welfare programs thanks to Aadhaar. These have been methodically debunked by Jean DrÃ¨ze and Reetika Khera, among others. But the government continues to claim that “the estimated cumulative savings / benefits due to Aadhaar in MGNREGA through March 2021 are Rs 33,475 crore”. Two responses on the right to information investigating the methodology used to achieve such savings are relevant. In a recent response, the government said that “the ministry reported to the DBT mission on the estimated DBT savings under the program assuming that 10% of the year’s wages could be saved.” In a previous response, he said: âSavings are in increasing efficiency and reducing late payments, etc. The savings due to Aadhaar therefore appear to be a âguessâ, while the other claims also rest on fragile foundations.
The delays in the payment of salaries in MGNREGA have been persistent. An analysis of over 18 lakh of salary invoices for the first half of 2021-2022 by LibTech India showed that 71% of payments were delayed (referred to as stage 2 delays) beyond the period mandated by the government of l ‘Union. Almost 7 lakh invoices in our sample were made through APBS; 11.65 lakh were payments based on an account where the workers’ name, account number and their bank’s IFSC code were used to transfer money. Figure 1 compares the time taken by the Union government (step 2) to transfer wages for the two payment methods. The axes represent the number of days taken for two types of payments. The 45 degree line shows the step 2 percentiles for APBS and the dots represent the step 2 percentiles for account-based payments. When the points are below the line, account-based payments are faster. Except in a few cases, the points are practically on or below the line. This may be the first large sample of empirical evidence showing that the government’s claim that Aadhaar “reduced payment terms” is unfounded. Indeed, there is nothing inherent in APBS that makes transfers faster.
The government’s claims about “increasing efficiency” are also questionable. Effectiveness for whom and how is this effectiveness linked to accountability? Between 2015 and 2019, there was intense pressure on bureaucrats on the ground to increase ties with Aadhaar. A recently completed study of nearly 3,000 MGNREGA workers by Anjor Bhaskar and Preeti Singh shows that 57% of the job cards of real workers were deleted in a quest to show 100% connection between Aadhaar and the job cards. Doing such plastic surgery on numbers to show efficiency gains is unethical and sets a bad precedent.
Another major concern is the opacity surrounding APBS and the resulting dilution of liability. Cash transfers using both payment methods may fail. The most common reason for payment failures in account-based payments is when the worker’s account number in the system is incorrect. This can be rectified on the block. However, the most common reason for payment failures via APBS is cryptically referred to as âInactive Aadhaarâ. It has nothing to do with the inactivity of an individual’s Aadhaar, but it does happen when there is a software mapping failure with the centralized National Payments Corporation of India, the clearinghouse of APBS. . Workers and officials have no idea how to resolve these payment failures.
Additionally, there are several instances of misdirected payments in APBS when a person’s Aadhaar number is linked to someone else’s bank account so that their money is credited to someone else’s account. These are very difficult to detect because they will show up as successful trades on the dashboard. According to UIDAI, its functions include “the establishment of facilitation centers and a grievance mechanism for the resolution of individual grievances.” However, such mechanisms do not exist.
Beyond technological alibis
So on at least three points – timely payment of salaries, efficiency gains and grievance resolution – nothing seems to justify APBS in MGNREGA. These challenge us to go beyond technological alibis for good governance and underscore the need to push towards constitutional ownership and accountability for technologies. Mathematician Cathy O’Neil warns us about how certain algorithmic models and technologies for social policies can be at odds with fairness. She writes: âEquity is soft and difficult to quantify. It’s a concept. And computers, for all their linguistic and logical advancements, still struggle with conceptsâ¦ Programmers don’t know how to code for thatâ¦ âAnalysis. No feedback was collected on the user experience of recipients or bureaucrats in the field. In addition, it is time to review the nomenclature of beneficiaries of social measures. Calling them “beneficiaries” subtly transforms the state from an institution meant to defend constitutional rights to sound more like a charitable institution. Instead, people should be referred to as ârights holdersâ. This will probably help us to better determine whether technologies have imbued democratic principles of transparency, accountability and participation.
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When the use of Aadhaar in welfare – for which it was purportedly intended – is itself surrounded by opacity, unreliability, and exclusions, we must be very concerned if it relates to the identifiers of the voters because it will further oust government responsibility. It will fundamentally change the citizen-state relationship. This must concern everyone because thousands of crore of taxpayer money has been spent on it. The Minister of Law said that linking Aadhaar to voter identification was “voluntary”. But given Aadhaar’s previous experience in other spheres, this will be another example of what Cathy O’Neil calls “the authority of the impenetrable.”
Rajendran Narayanan teaches at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru and is affiliated with LibTech India