In the landmark case from 2018, Justice K. S. Puttaswamy vs Union Of India, the Supreme Court pitched Aadhaar-enabled welfare delivery as a promising move that can eliminate leakages in service delivery and address the “malaise” of ghost and duplicate beneficiaries. The court also cautioned the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) by flagging the possible exclusions due to failure in Aadhaar-seeding and biometric authentication, and suggested that the project will only be deemed constitutional “if it is responsive to deficiencies and accountable to the beneficiaries”. The bench explicitly placed the “burden of ensuring that benefits reach the marginalized on the state and its agencies”.
Despite the Supreme Court’s order to treat public benefits for the vulnerable as economic rights that are legally protected, the digitized welfare delivery infrastructure has continued to make it difficult for marginalized citizens to claim rightful entitlements.
Using theoretical insights and case studies gathered by infomediaries from IT for Change’s information centers, this article elucidates how exclusions due to Aadhaar-enabled welfare delivery severely impact women in rural Mysuru. The article also pulls secondary data from across the country to emphasize the scale of the problem.
Aadhaar is India’s colossal project to identify and document its citizens by assigning everyone a 12-digit unique identification number. It collects citizens’ biometrics information including fingerprints, iris scans, and photographs — a move criticized for its violation of people’s right to privacy. Since the Aadhaar card serves as an identity and address proof, the Indian state uses it to identify and verify ‘authentic’ beneficiaries of public schemes and services.
Aadhaar is also pushed as an initiative to address the corruption in bureaucracy and local administration. For instance, The Public Distribution System (PDS) under the National Food Security Act is a safety net that provides subsidized food rations to the poor, but it also has a history of corruption due to eligibility and identity fraud. In the name of patching leakages, the state has now made Aadhaar mandatory to procure foodgrains. Essentially, what this means is that a paper-based ration card alone is not enough to procure foodgrains from the local ration distributor or the Fair Price Shop (FPS). People are now required to get Aadhaar cards for all their family members, enroll each Aadhaar number into their family records on the PDS database, and, finally, carry out biometric authentication of one member each month.
In total, 325 public schemes under 51 ministries are shifting to Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT) and rely on the Aadhaar digital database for payments. Another knot in the digitization of welfare delivery is the JAM Trinity (short for Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) that makes it mandatory for citizens to link their Jan Dhan Bank accounts with their Aadhaar and mobile numbers to claim entitlements. With poor mobile penetration and financial infrastructure in rural India, the JAM acts as an additional hurdle in claims-making processes. As Reetika Khera insists, we must expand the scope of the public schemes instead of making Aadhaar another source of exclusion. Apart from disenfranchisement of rights, the digitized welfare delivery also engenders greater surveillance and commodification of data; if one has to claim public benefits, they must barter away their right to privacy.
A Missed Data Point = A Missed Entitlement
Silvia Masiero and S. Shakthi reviewed the literature on Aadhaar and illustrated how it takes several forms and performs various functions for the state. Aadhaar, they write, can be looked at as a “datafier” because it translates “individuals into machine-readable data”. This digitization of citizens’ data affords the state automated paths to recognize entitled beneficiaries and assign the said entitlements. However, the catch is that the allotment of benefits happens based on what the system already knows about the beneficiary. If, for whatever reason, the system does not know enough about the citizen, the transfer is immediately withheld. Biometric and mobile numbers have become pieces of information that the state now needs to know to provide public services.
Latamani*, an 80-year-old woman, lives alone in a village in Hunsur block of Mysuru district and survives on the welfare benefits that the state promises. She depended on the PDS to get subsidized grains for several years. After the biometric mandate was rolled out, Latamani’s supply of rations was discontinued because her fingerprint could not be detected on the biometric machine. “They [ration distributors] asked me to go to the food office [Government of Karnataka’s Food and Civil Supplies Office], which is 7 kilometers away, to get written permission for procuring grains. I am very old and it is not possible to do this”, she shared. Without registered biometric data in the Aadhaar-database, she continues to be denied subsidized grains.
Latamani is just one of many such women who have been denied access to government schemes due to Aadhaar-related issues. Journalist Anumeha Yadav illustrates how older citizens from rural Jharkhand are forced to buy rations at un-subsidized prices because of the failure in biometric authentication. Even if a person has a small cut on their finger, the biometric system does not recognize the fingerprint. People who work with stones and bricks face this issue most frequently and are often asked to apply a cream and return to the Aadhaar registration centers after their cuts heal.
What About Access to the Digital?
For Latamani, failure in biometric authentication not only impacted her access to rations but also the pension that she is entitled to under the government’s National Social Assistance Program (NSAP). To claim her pension amount of Rs.1200 under the Sandhya Suraksha Yojana (SSY), she has to have an ‘updated’ Aadhaar card with a linked mobile number. However, Latamani does not have a mobile phone. Similarly, Kanthamma* (55) and Gowri* (35) are daily wage laborers who are entitled to a widow pension of Rs. 600 each. Their pensions were also discontinued because their Aadhaar cards were not linked to a mobile number. They could not afford to buy one, and even if they did, recharging their phones regularly was a matter of worry. With no choice left, Kanthamma asked her nephew to share his mobile number for their Aadhaar linkage.
Making Aadhaar-seeding a prerequisite for claiming benefits overlooks women’s access to the digital, lack of control over financial resources, low levels of literacy and patriarchal norms that restrict women’s mobile usage. A 2018 study found that only 38% of women own mobile phones in India. As the state continues to roll out the Aadhaar mandate without improving women’s social and economic conditions, women have no choice but to depend on the male members of the family to mediate transactions with the state. This is not to say that men are not negotiating with the state over the increased digitized proceduralism. But Aadhaar poses another barrier in women’s transactions with the state and restricts their autonomy, even more. Wendy Brown in the book, The Anthropology of the State, writes that bureaucracy “...operates as power, as well as in the service of other powers, all the while presenting itself as extrinsic to or neutral with regard to power, [making] it especially potent in shaping the lives of female clients of the state”
Brown’s words capture the story of Aadhaar and its subversive logic – the purported claim to undo the power of the bureaucracy to push an ideological project with an increasingly elusive power structure that, at once, undermines the autonomy of the individual as well as the responsibility of the state to secure such a sphere of autonomy. Not only does a centralized technological system deprive women of access to resources, it also engenders newer modes of social inequality where the possibility of seeking accountability from the state and private players gets foreclosed by the erroneous claim that, “The UIDAI are meant to bypass the corrupt bureaucratic system.” As Shamnad Basheer rightly points out, “At the heart of the Aadhaar debate today is not just government control over data subjects. But the ability of private corporations to exploit our data (the new “oil”) for their own commercial gain. Section 57 of the Aadhaar Act enables such private enterprises to ride on the backbone of Aadhaar authentication architecture. Little wonder then that an entire ecosystem of private enterprises have developed around Aadhaar.”
What’s Left Is An Inflexible Infrastructure
The state pushes Aadhaar as necessary to ‘fix’ the problem of leakages in the service delivery processes. Nandan Nilekani, the former chairperson of the UIDAI, in a typically technocratic vein said, “The real use of Aadhaar is when it is used for delivering online benefits”. LM Sacasas warns us against this technocratic impulse when he writes that the blanket application of a universal data code [or employing a technological system] cannot be equivalent to justice itself.
For instance, Vanitha*, a 28-year-old woman in a village in HD Kote, applied for maternity benefits under the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana (PMMVY) which provides pregnant and lactating women Rs. 5000 in 3 installments. When she went to the bank (details of which were registered under the PMMVY) to collect her first installment, the bank informed her that no such transfer had been made. Turns out that Vanitha’s claim was against her bank account in Nagamangala since that was the latest Aadhaar-seeded account. “I gave my local bank account, and yet the money got deposited 70 kilometers away. How can I go there to collect the amount? It will be an expensive affair. My husband has to let go of his day’s wages if he decides to go”, Vanitha shared. She could not collect her first installment in time, as the woes of traveling were far greater than the benefits of the scheme.
Vanitha’s is not an isolated case. In a survey of 706 mothers across six states of India, it was found that Aadhaar is one of the major roadblocks to claiming maternity benefits. 28% of all PMMVY Aadhaar-based payments are going to different bank accounts than the ones that had been provided by the beneficiaries.
All the stories we have looked at so far suggest how rigid service delivery infrastructure becomes when braided with technological solutions that fail to understand people’s idiosyncratic contexts. When Kanthamma and Gowri told the post-master that they had no phones and asked if there was any other solution to it, the postmaster responded, “Sorry, this is not in my hands.” Similarly, despite understanding Latamani’s plight, the ration distributor in her village found himself powerless and could not help her out even if he wanted to. Akhil Gupta draws attention to the fact that local offices (such as Fair Price Shops, Post Offices, etc.) are sites where the “majority of people in a rural and agricultural country such as India come into contact with ‘the state,’ and this is where many of their images of the state are forged.” With the Aadhaar-based payments, one of the images that the state projects is that of inflexibility.
In an attempt to be ‘standardized’ and ‘neutral’, the infrastructure has become so removed from local contexts, that it leaves little scope to accommodate and alter according to local needs. The service providers (who are closest to the citizens) are rendered powerless. Thus, the crux of the problem with Aadhaar-enabled welfare delivery is its inability to recognize and address people’s problems, placing the burden of claiming entitlements on the citizens as opposed to the state.
*Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.
This piece is written by Nayana Kirasur as part of her Notes from the Field for Prakriye.