International

Aadhaar No Panacea For India’s Ills, Says Economist

Is India’s push for biometric IDs a bust?

According to an article in The New York Times on Sunday (Jan. 21), one economist, Reetika Khera of the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, noted that the sweeping program to issue 12-digit ID numbers to the country’s 1.3 billion residents is possibly becoming a casualty of “its own ambitions.”

In an opinion piece for the publication, the economist posited that so far, [the program] 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.” Aadhaar has become mandatory for public services and some individual private transactions, spanning welfare and food benefits.

Across several Indian states, Khera said, the number must be assigned and in place for the individual before they can claim some food staples through the Public Distribution System. But then again, the number does not guarantee access to the benefits, and people need to link the number to their accounts or a ration card — a hurdle that has barred some recipients from getting what they need.

Biometrics remains a system dependent on physical presence, she wrote — and fingerprint authentication requires concurrent mechanisms working in harmony, from functioning electricity to internet connections, which may be less than dependable in rural areas. Yet the government continues to expand use cases for the Aadhaar, such as in filing tax returns; and oftentimes online merchants have demanded the ID be in place, Khera said. Security has been lax, as ID numbers tallying in the millions have been, in her words, “carelessly displayed” on websites.

In several cases cited by the economist, some people who needed rations the most did not get them and died as a result. Against this backdrop, wrote Khera, “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.” In fact, surveys cited by Khera showed that the percentage of households that did not get grain at all was five times higher in areas where Aadhaar has been mandatory.

The program’s aim, in part, was and has been to reduce fraud — and yet, contended the economist, there has been no widespread evidence of identity fraud across the nation’s welfare programs.

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