A judicious use of Aadhaar bodes well for India’s service delivery and creation of robust data systems.
A secure unique digital identity will revolutionise governance and bring about social inclusion, and ‘ideological opposition’ to Aadhaar will take us nowhere.
On 9 June, Aadhaar got a shot in the arm when the Supreme Court validated section 139AA (1) of the Income Tax Act requiring taxpayers to provide their Aadhaar number for filing tax returns in the ‘Binoy Viswam Vs Union of India’ case. From its inception, certain NGOs and civil society leaders have been holding a staunch ideological position against Aadhaar. They fear that Aadhaar is turning India into a surveillance state, where citizens will be tracked while the poor will be denied their right to government subsidies and services.
The problem with the ideological opposition over rational debate is that it ends up hurting the very cause it’s advocating. Let us look at some of the basic reasons why the fear of Aadhaar is unfounded, and a judicious use of Aadhaar can lead to better targeting and social inclusion.
Myths About Exclusion
One of the biggest myths and propaganda about Aadhaar is that it leads to the exclusion of beneficiaries. As of June 2017, 1.15 billion individuals including 98 per cent of the adult population (excluding the non Aadhaar states of Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Manipur) got their Unique ID. Aadhaar coverage is wider than all other forms of identification in India such as passports, ration cards, PAN cards, Voter ID and driving licence, making it one of the most inclusive identification systems in India.
As for those small minorities who do not currently possess Aadhaar, the social benefits can’t be denied. As per section 7 of Aadhaar (Target Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act 2016, states that “if an Aadhaar number is not assigned to an individual, the individual shall be offered alternate and viable means of identification for delivery of the subsidy, benefit or service.”
The Centre’s affidavit to the Supreme Court in the ‘Binoy Viswam vs Union of India’ case (as reported in The Hindu) states that seeding of Aadhaar has led to the deletion of 2.33 crore fake ration cards, detection of 3 crore fake LPG connections, resulting in the saving of Rs 14,000 crore and Rs 26,000 crore respectively up to December 2016.
Aadhaar has also shown a huge potential in providing access to banking for the poor. It minimises the need for having a physical bank or even a banking correspondent. Aadhaar based UPI (United Payments Interface) transactions (based on Aadhaar enabled payment system) can be a game changer as it can improve (improving) accessibility, enable cross-platform integration and minimise transaction costs. Over 7.35 crore bank accounts have been opened using e-KYC based on Aadhaar, 47.24 crore bank accounts, including 19 crore Jandhan accounts have been seeded with Aadhaar as of 31 May.
Weeding Out Fake Enrollments In Schools
India with 1.27 million elementary schools and 197 million children enrolled makes it one of the largest educational hubs in the world. Gathering accurate information about schools, children and teachers is essential for effective implementation and monitoring of education programmes. The DISE (District Information System on Education) introduced by NUEPA (National University for Education Planning and Administration) in 1995 is still replete with errors in enrollment figures.
Reports based on surveys conducted in Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have suggested large scale fake enrollments in schools. These fake enrollments lead to siphoning off funds allocated for school development, scholarships, uniforms, books and mid-day meals. A recent report says that Aadhaar seeding of children in states like Jharkhand, Manipur and Andhra Pradesh has helped strike off 4.4 lakh “ghost students” from schools. In Haryana, total enrollment in 2015-16 went down by 3.26 lakhs (16 per cent) from the previous year largely due to the elimination of fake registrations.
Mid-Day Meal And Aadhaar
Recent government statement linking the mid-day meal scheme with child Aadhaar number raised a furore among public and media. Many activists saw this as an attempt to undermine the largest school meal programme in the world that would exclude children from the nutrition scheme. About 9.78 crore children benefit from the midday meal scheme, and linking child Aadhaar details can make the scheme transparent and efficient. Aadhaar saturation in the 5 to 18 years category is still small at 74.5 per cent.
Hence caution has to be exercised so that no child is denied midday meal simply for not having Aadhaar. Seeding has to be a one-time exercise for the child at the school, and daily authentication is impractical and unnecessary for the child to get the noon meal.
Building Child Tracking System
Another advantage of Aadhaar seeding of child enrollment is that it will build an effective child tracking system, providing accurate information about the child’s age and enrollment status in schools. Child tracking would enable tracing dropouts and bringing them back to school, especially the children of seasonal migrants from rural areas and migrant construction workers in urban areas. It will cleanse enrollment databases like U-DISE (Universal DISE), give accurate educational statistics like net enrollment, dropout rate and transition rates at district and block levels, and assist in educational planning.
Eliminating Fake Teachers
A recent move by the Ministry of Human Resource Development to seed the teacher's database (teachers portal) with Aadhaar to weed out fake teachers was widely interpreted as a move to profile teachers based on caste and religion. It is a well-known fact that appointment of teachers is replete with fraud in both government and private educational institutions. Private colleges repeatedly fudge teacher appointments and their qualifications to meet the norms set by regulatory authorities. Private medical colleges have a large number of ghost faculty on their roll who exist only on paper.
On the day of inspection by the Medical Council of India, doctors are “bought” from various places to show their strength. Aadhaar linkage of registered medical practitioners and medical college faculty could deal a death blow to such ghost faculties.
Moving From Census To Population Registers
India’s civil registration system to record parameters like births, deaths, and cause of deaths is rather weak. India relies on an established sample registration system to get an estimate of these vital rates at the state level. This data is inadequate to assess the population and health status of small states, districts and union territories and at the block level.
A comprehensive assessment of population is done only through the census once in 10 years. It takes years for the census data to be compiled and released for analysis. For efficient administration and planning, we need regular data at district and sub-district level, updates on demographic parameters such as population, age and sex composition, marriage, urban population, migration and employment status.
Many countries like Austria, Denmark, Finland, Israel, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden have removed the decennial system and have adopted a system updating through population registers. In this system, unique ID enables linking across different administrative registers (births, deaths, marriage etc) to record data at a centralised place, enabling near real time acquisition of status of the population, health and mobility, and enable collection of longitudinal data of events experienced by cohort for research purposes. These countries have rigorous data protection laws, along with anonymizers help to prevent misuse of data linked to population registers. This also helps in getting a longitudinal data to understand the life course of cohort.
Although India had ambitious plans for the National Population Register, and started the work, it is essentially dead now. India should take advantage of the near universal coverage of Aadhaar and revive the National Population Register, along with a robust data protection law.
These are few of the many advantages offered by the judicious use of Aadhaar for better service delivery and creation of robust data systems. Secure unique digital identity can have a transformative effect on governance and bring about social inclusion. Ideological opposition to Aadhaar will take us nowhere.