A new survey report should give pause to Aadhaar critics
Aadhaar-critics usually question it on two fronts—on privacy, and over authentication/verification failures resulting in the most vulnerable not being able to access government benefits. However, the missing ground-up assessment of Aadhaar makes any such debate largely cosmetic. To this end, the State of Aadhaar 2017-18 report, generated by IDinsight and commissioned by the Omidyar Network, should lend some perspective.
As per the survey of 2,947 rural households in 21 districts of Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal, 87% approve of mandatory linking of Aadhaar to government services. This was against 0.8%, 2.2%, and 0.8% of PDS beneficiaries in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, and West Bengal, respectively, being unable to receive their entitlements solely because of Aadhaar-related reasons, such as authentication failure, poor connectivity/power supply, etc.
Although, in Andhra Pradesh, those excluded due to Aadhaar outnumbered those excluded because of non-Aadhaar reasons—such as non-availability of ration—in Rajasthan, 6.5% of PDS beneficiaries were excluded because of non-Aadhaar reasons; the corresponding figure for West Bengal was 5.2%. Juxtapose this with over 67% of the respondents in Rajasthan and 55% in Andhra Pradesh reporting that they found Aadhaar-linked PDS better than the earlier system, with most saying that they thought so because it meant their ration can’t get waylaid.
As per government data, over 27 million fake and duplicate ration cards have been eliminated because of Aadhaar linkage. To be sure, as the authors of the report argue, Aadhaar “is not an unbridled tool for the empowerment of the poor”, given the exclusion of a significant number of PDS beneficiaries it has caused on occasions—extrapolating from the findings, some 2 million people in the three states may not be receiving their monthly due. At the same time, Aadhaar is definitely not the leading factor behind such exclusion. This should give critics some pause—a more nuanced view on Aadhaar and a focus on the non-Aadhaar factors should be in order.
Another key indicator of Aadhaar’s success is the role it has played in securing financial inclusion for many. Among the respondents, 17% of the bank-account holders used Aadhaar e-KYC to open the account and a whopping 67% used the Aadhaar hard-copy. Among those respondents who used Aadhaar to open an account, 97% in Andhra Pradesh, 93% in Rajasthan and 98.5% in West Bengal had alternative “proofs” of address.
However, against such widespread use, banks must adopt some measure of caution as the Unique Identity Authority of India recently clarified that individuals need not submit proof of address to update their address in the Aadhaar server. Coming to the other area that attracts criticism viz. privacy, Aadhaar data getting leaked—210 government websites disclosed individuals’ Aadhaar data—needs to be addressed on an urgent footing.
More than 96% of the respondents in the State of Aadhaar 2017-18 survey said that it is important for them to know how their Aadhaar data is being used by the government. Given Aadhaar’s impact on privacy is being examined by the Supreme Court, and the Srikrishna Committee’s report on data protection is imminent, the appropriate safeguards will likely be created soon.