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POOR: CASUALTY OF AADHAAR

Social scientist Khera discusses the media’s ‘propagandist coverage’ of Aadhaar, damage to the public distribution system and her faith in the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court on Tuesday, March 13, extended the March 31 deadline for linking various services to UIDAI’s Aadhaar.

A five-judge constitution bench, headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, is hearing a bunch of petitions against government directives making Aadhaar – a 12-digit unique identity number issued to all Indian residents based on their biometric data – mandatory.

With both sides still presenting arguments, the court extended the deadline indefinitely, i.e., until the five-judge bench delivers its verdict on the constitutional validity of the biometric identification programme. The extension, however, does not apply to the linkage of Aadhaar for accessing benefits under the government’s social welfare schemes.

The decision thus fails to bring relief to vulnerable Aadhaar-holders facing problems posed by biometric authentication failure – mainly the poor who are unable to access rations, subsidies or other benefits.

While the larger Aadhaar debate is about safeguarding citizens’ civil liberties, including their right to privacy, as well as preventing the country from becoming a “totalitarian regime”, at the microscopic level it means a choice for many. A choice between privacy and access to basic necessities such as grains, pensions and/or other entitlements.

Newslaundry catches up with Reetika Khera, a social scientist and development economist, to discuss issues relating to this debate. Khera speaks about the media’s role in the Aadhaar discourse, the press as a tool of propaganda, impact of policies such as Aadhaar and more.

Earlier this week, the deadline for linking Aadhaar with phones and bank accounts was extended, though it is still mandatory for accessing social schemes. Doesn’t this become a case of leveraging the need/dependency of a vulnerable section while being in breach of their fundamental right to privacy?

You are right in saying that what is essentially happening, what is de facto happening right now, is that for the right to life to be honoured for these vulnerable people, they are being forced to give Aadhaar but that means that another fundamental right, which is the right to privacy, is getting compromised. And, I think, in law, there is a principle which doesn’t allow this kind of barter.

So, how do we overcome this? What’s the solution? 

To overcome this we have to be patient and help the constitution bench understand what the problem is, and that is what is happening in the Supreme Court right now. The lawyers, who are arguing for different petitioners, are making this case, especially the ones who have taken up the Shanta Sinha petition.

Aadhaar is also perceived as a tool of surveillance. Right now, it is being done by private entities through data-sharing resulting in targeted ads, while Aadhaar would make it state-mandated. What are your thoughts? 

First of all, it’s already problematic that some private companies are able to mine our data and indulge in corporate surveillance, if I may call it that. And my response to that is that they must also be controlled and it is the role of the government to control them and lay down rules that put some restrictions on what they can or cannot do. But what we are seeing with Aadhaar is that the government is almost acting on their behalf, as their agent, and making the population fall in line and do their bidding, so to speak.

That’s why this case is very important and I do believe the judges are going to give a fair hearing and the minute they understand the problem, I am fairly confident the judgment will be in favour of the people.

With privacy deemed a fundamental right, why is the apex court not ruling in favour of the petitioners already?

If the right to privacy judgment is applied to the Aadhaar project, then there is no case really. But the fact is that we are dealing with a very impressive propaganda machinery which has made not just the judges, but also some sections of the population, believe that there are some genuine benefits of Aadhaar. And, in fact, some of them quiet laughably believe that the benefits are actually for the poorest sections of society.

What we have seen through our surveys is that the heaviest price of Aadhaar is being paid by the poor — they are being harassed, they are being excluded and are being denied rights and entitlements that they were getting before.

Lakhs of people are unable to buy their ration under the National Food Security Act because either they were unable to sync their Aadhaar number or because their fingerprints failed (authentication). And it is happening in Delhi itself, at ration shops that are just outside the Supreme Court. So you don’t have to go to Jharkhand to do a survey, it is all over the place. You go to an Aadhaar enrolment centre at Pragati Maidan and you can see the queues there, and see how bad things are, right under the nose of the Supreme Court. These facts have to be communicated. Because we are familiar with the issues, we know the facts. The judges hear all kinds of things, so once the judges know the facts they can take a call on this.

There are different means to bypass the system. And Aadhaar does little to address issues such as over-pricing in case of sugar and kerosene or quantity fraud. What are your thoughts? Outside the ambit of Aadhaar, how can these practices be curbed? 

There is one thing which is not well recognised – that in the past decade the public distribution system has been improving even in the worst states. So in Bihar, in the beginning of 2000, leakages were around 90 per cent – that (much) of the grain didn’t reach the people. By 2007-08 and 2011-12, the leakage rate had come down to 20 to 30 per cent. And all of this happened without Aadhaar.

So there are solutions to quantity fraud that are independent of Aadhaar. As far as overpricing is concerned along with these other problems, the solution according to me is awareness generation and creating a grievance redressal machinery so that if people have a complaint, they know whom to approach.

Is there a government provision that allows execution of such solutions?

The Food Security Act is supposed to have all these mechanisms. And in some states, they have been activated but in other states, they have not. The problem is that the scarce administrative machinery that is available to the food department is now entirely devoted to Aadhaar seeding instead of doing the work they were supposed to do, which was in part grievance redressal. So in that sense also, Aadhaar is damaging the public distribution system.

One of the basic problems with implementation of Aadhaar seems to be unavailability of resources. While you gave an example of human resources, it is also resources such as electricity. Earlier, interventions such as demonetisation created disruptions, among other things, for lack of adequate infrastructure. What would be the scale of disruption that Aadhaar’s implementation would cause? Also, how would it impact the way the public distribution system is accessed?

See, there are many states in the country that are taking logistical infrastructural constraints into account when designing the system. Tamil Nadu, according to me, is a reasonably good example. They know that the internet is unreliable so they have designed a system that works offline also.

But Aadhaar is a system which is saying that we have to dance to their tunes. Now that’s possible in some cases and not possible in others. Now because there is no other alternative in those places is why people are being deprived.

If every state was given the right to sort of tailor Aadhaar to their needs and context, would it be okay then? 

No, Aadhaar is unnecessary in the public distribution system. The only form of fraud it could control is identity fraud and now there is a study by J-PAL which is showing that in Jharkhand they found no ghosts in the system. So Aadhaar is bringing nothing to the table, it’s pain without gain. You are controlling people in all these different ways, but in the bargain, you are not improving anything. So even if everything works out beautifully, even then you will be left exactly where you were before, so that’s the problem with Aadhaar. As for the public distribution system, I would say there is no need for it. For pensions, if my money is coming to my bank account, then what is the need for Aadhaar?

If mandated, then what is the impact that we are going to see? 

If Aadhaar is made compulsory then it would be a devastating blow to the welfare system, that has slowly been put in place and has even more slowly begun to work for the people. Like demonetisation, I think Aadhaar is a bad policy, which is being implemented badly.

What would be an ideal solution?

At the moment, the government is telling the states that you integrate Aadhaar, whether the public distribution system benefits or suffers is not our concern. My concern is exactly the opposite. I want the public distribution system to function well and any technology that enables the process is welcome, anything that damages the system is not.

What role has the media played in changing the Aadhaar discourse? How would you rather see it engage with issues, especially those with large-scale impact?

There has been a serious problem of propagandist coverage, especially in the mainstream business media. It has changed a little bit in the past year or so. But certainly, in the initial years, their marketing strategy was so strong that it’s now really hard to dislodge the belief from people’s mind that Aadhaar is good for the poor. It is like you watch a Maggi ad and start believing it is healthy.

Who do you think is behind this propaganda machine? And how has absence of reportage impacted the Aadhaar narrative?

We have some guesses, we know that their budget for publicity is massive. Under an RTI plea, I had asked the UIDAI about its publicity budget but they denied it.

Because there is not enough reporting on the issue, people are not understanding that it is not just me alone who is suffering and that there actually is a common cause. That why I believe reporting on the issue, not editorials, is important. It’s a matter of facts, and the facts are being suppressed because the media is not giving space to these things.

What kind of media coverage would you hope the issue gets?

It is always hard for issues such as these to get space in the mainstream media, it is not a new thing. But now what is happening is that there is a lot of displacement effect because random, nonsensical statements – “nobody saw a monkey become a man” – get a lot of media publicity. So the displacement effect is very damaging.

A good place to start would be just reporting, just asking people what different ways has Aadhaar impacted your life, is it good or bad? Reporting would make a difference as it would establish a common cause and bring more people together.

This article was first published in Newslaundry.