India’s Unique Identification Card adventure excludes millions

Apka Aadhar Sahi nahi hai,” says the Unique Identification point-of-sale (POS) terminal – “Your Unique Identification is incorrect.” After his second attempt at placing his finger on the fingerprint scanner, Bheru Lal (not his real name) looks dejectedly at the machine that now determines whether he will be able to feed his family for the month.

In the tiny village of Chitamba, Rajasthan, I witness a phenomenon that has now become commonplace across the country, but more so in rural India, far from the reach of mainstream media.

The owner of the Fair Price shop looks at us and says, “I got his ration card done years ago seeing the state of his family, and when it came, I checked that it represented his BPL [below poverty line] status; but ever since the arrival of this machine, he has been unable to claim his ration.”

As our conversation takes place, two or three people have surrounded the aged Bheru and are pouring water on his hand and helping him clean it before his next attempt at confirming his identity, which also ends in failure.

“He’s too old. His fingers have cracked and now the machine can’t recognize him. It happens to all the old mazdoors,” or laborers, one says.

In this tiny village alone, there are at least 50 families who face this problem. For the past month, the bypass mechanism, which sends a one-time password (OTP) to the registered mobile-phone number to allow ration collection without the fingerprint process, has been dysfunctional. Under the illusion of the infallibility of the biometric POS that seems to be gripping Indian technocrats, those dependent on rations to make ends meet have been left high and dry.

However, this in itself is not a new story, but one that has been established and repeated in various states across India. In Rajasthan itself, since Aadhaar (the controversial Unique Identification Card that holds information down to the biometric level) was made mandatory to draw rations in the state late last year, it is estimated that almost 10 million of the most impoverished within the state have been unable to draw their rations. Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan social movement point to an additional 500,000  families being added to this list of the excluded in April and May.

By cutting off the option of an OTP override that has taken place this month, the numbers of those excluded can only be expected to rise exponentially. More worrying, however, is that the likeliness of this exclusion being celebrated by the Indian government is almost certain because of the ease with which such exclusions can be declared a reduction in leakages from the larger public distribution system (PDS) and then garbed in anti-corruption rhetoric.

Even with such telling evidence of the limitations of the biometric mechanisms in the country, technocratic policymakers at the federal and state levels have pushed on, buoyed by numbers that point to a supposed cutting down of leakages in the PDS mechanism, without any qualitative study or investigation into whether these were genuinely leakages caused by corruption and inefficiency or the cutting off of assistance from those genuinely in need.

Several authors and commentators around the country, based out of urban metropolises built on technological capital, have been vocal in their support of the Unique Identification Card and its ability to reduce leakages, but have fallen silent when questions of exclusion have arisen. They have been vocal proponents of Aadhaar’s mandatory linking to government schemes, but have not been able to explain why individual Unique Identification Cards in Maharashtra are linked to nearly 100 farmers, making any linked delivery mechanism unworkable.

Explaining this to Bheru Lal, however, would be an exercise in futility for two very simple reasons. One, my articulation of technocratic policy frameworks built around quantitative efficiency and complex cost-benefit analyses would offer no clarity to someone concerned with the basic question of how the same government that he voted into power can then let him and his family starve.

Second, explaining the politics behind policy formulation to its victims would involve letting them know a truth that most top-level technocrats seem to have accepted long ago: that discriminating against the most disadvantaged in a country such as India is not really a trade-off in the real sense, since those losing out have lost out so often that consolidation and protest against such policies will always remain a distant dream.



The author is a public-policy researcher at the National Law School of India University, and this piece is a byproduct of his work with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan.


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