Insights into Editorial: Why ABBA must go: on Aadhaar

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Insights into Editorial: Why ABBA must go: on Aadhaar


Why ABBA must go: on Aadhaar

Context:

The public distribution system (PDS) and its disbursal of rations to the poor have come under the scanner in Jharkhand after three persons died recently, allegedly owing to lack of food.

On September 28, Santoshi Kumari, an 11-year-old from Simdega district, died. Her mother, Koyli Devi, said the child died of hunger as the family was not getting rations under the State-run PDS for the past several months because of a biometric mismatch.

Government agencies claimed that the family was removed from the list of PDS beneficiaries as their ration cards were not linked to Aadhaar. The death triggered widespread criticism and it drew attention to the glitches in the PDS.

Earlier, Supreme Court order which says Aadhaar cannot be made compulsory for social welfare schemes.

Why were names deleted?

At the centre of the controversy is an order by Chief Secretary in March, directing the district administration to delete the names of PDS beneficiaries whose ration cards were not linked to Aadhaar. The aim was to prevent leakages but it attracted sharp criticism from several quarters.

In their zeal to achieve 100% Aadhaar-seeding targets, some field functionaries just deleted the names of those who did not submit Aadhaar details. Others waited till the deadline and then struck off names. The government claims that all of these were “fake”, detected due to Aadhaar, thus saving crores of rupees. Santoshi’s family was one such example. According to the State Food Minister, their ration card was cancelled in July because they failed to seed it with Aadhaar.

Deleting ration cards for not being able to link them with Aadhaar has adversely affected the poor.

What is ABBA?

For months, the Central government has been insisting on 100% Aadhaar “seeding” across schemes such as the PDS, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and pensions. Seeding refers to the practice of entering Aadhaar numbers for each household member on the ration card. It is a pre-requisite for the Aadhaar-based Biometric Authentication (ABBA) system. The government has made seeding and the ABBA mandatory in the PDS.

The ABBA system in PDS outlets is built around a set of “fragile technologies” that need to work simultaneously for successful transaction. These are:
 

  1. Seeding of Aadhaar numbers: An eligible individual can become a beneficiary and access the PDS system only if her Aadhaar number is correctly seeded onto the PDS database and added to the household ration card.
  2. Point of Sale (PoS) machines: The entire process at the PDS outlet is dependent on the PoS machine. If it malfunctions, no transaction can be made. The first step in the process requires the dealer to enter the ration card number of the beneficiary’s household onto the PoS machine.
  3. Internet connection: Successful working of the PoS machine depends on internet connectivity as verification of the ration card number and the beneficiary’s biometric fingerprint is carried out over the internet.
  4. Remote Aadhaar servers: Remote Aadhaar servers verify the ration card number and initiate fingerprint authentication.
  5. Fingerprint recognition software: The beneficiary proves her identity by submitting to fingerprint recognition in the PoS machine. Upon verification, the PoS machine indicates that the beneficiary is genuine and that foodgrains can be distributed to her household.

The stated purpose of introducing ABBA in the PDS is to eliminate identity fraud and reduce siphoning of grains by the dealers, thereby improving the delivery of welfare schemes “to the benefit of the poor.” 

Several reasons for Exclusions

  • Many of the aggrieved are unaware of the seeding requirement.
  • When pensions in Jharkhand suddenly stopped for many pensioners, they had no idea why.
  • In some cases, the middlemen had seeded it wrongly.
  • Seeding process is not as simple as it sounds.
  • The ABBA requires that family members be enrolled for Aadhaar and correct seeding. At the time of purchase, the ABBA requires power supply, a functional PoS machine, mobile and Internet connectivity, State and Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR) servers to be ‘up’, and for fingerprint authentication to be successful.
  • The Finance Ministry’s latest Economic Survey based on micro-studies, reports high biometric failure rates.

What are the issues that crop up with the introduction of ABBA?

The identification of eligible households involves two kinds of possible errors:

  • Inclusion of an ineligible household on the NFSA list (“inclusion errors”)
  • Exclusion of an eligible household from the NFSA list (“exclusion errors”).

While inclusion errors increase the financial burden of the state, exclusion errors can often leave poor families vulnerable to hunger.

Since the PDS was introduced to overcome chronic hunger and malnutrition, exclusion errors should be of greater concern.

  • Though Aadhaar is technically not an eligibility criterion, ABBA is systematically leading to exclusion at two levels.
  • The lack of an Aadhaar number automatically disqualifies eligible individuals from being listed in the household ration card.
  • Beneficiaries face persistent and pervasive issues related to ABBA due to issues with one or more of the five technological components of the system such as reported fingerprint authentication errors, Aadhaar seeding issues, and poor connectivity. 
  • Several surveys revealed a fact that 10% of households are excluded due to ABBA and two-thirds reported errors with one or more of its five technological components.
  • It raises Privacy issues.
  • It is flexibility (an elderly person asking a neighbour to fetch their grain would count as identity fraud) that is lost when the ABBA is made mandatory.
  • ABBA has minimum role in reducing corruption in the short time.
  • Aadhaar endeavours of government are in violation of several Supreme Court orders that had ruled (even after the passage of the Aadhaar bill in Lok Sabha) that Aadhaar cannot be mandatory to access welfare services.

Way forward

The results suggest that the ABBA system is neither as efficient nor as dependable as it is made out to be, even in a seemingly best-case environment.

  • The Food and Public Distribution Department has directed officials to adopt a humane approach by giving rations to even those who are not on the list yet.
  • The Department is also trying to provide compensation as per the National Food Security Act to those who have not got PDS supplies.
  • It is essential to deal with issues of duplication, less disruptive methods than Aadhaar such as food coupons, smart cards, and last-mile tracking can be used to produce the same effectiveness with far less administrative burden.