New Delhi: A group of social activists have taken umbrage at recent comments made by the chief executive officer of Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) Ajay Bhushan Pandey. Pandey recently pointed that issues of Aadhaar exclusion were “misrepresentations” that arose from “a skewed approach”
In a letter to Pandey, the civil rights activists have on behalf of Satark Nagrik Sangathan, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Right to Food Campaign and Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan pointed out that his statement – which was reported by Press Trust of India and appeared in national dailies too – in which he was quoted as saying that “to claim that Aadhaar is responsible for denial is a misconstrued fact presented with malafide intent” has surprised and distressed them.
On August 8, the activists –Anjali Bhardwaj, Nikhil Dey, Dipa Sinha and Amrita Joshi among others – held a press conference during which they stated that there is no official data to back up Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim that the use of “Aadhaar and technology” had led to the discovery of nearly 4 crore bogus ration cards.
The letter to Pandey claims that “all the points put forth at the press conference were backed by evidence which is publicly available, and have been shared by us through multiple platforms ”.
The Wire had reported how at the press conference the activists also cited examples of how the Aadhaar system had resulted in poor delivery of subsidies and benefits.
Pointing out that they have been working for many years with socially and economically marginalised communities in rural and urban India, the activists that said at the August 8 press conference they had presented documents and evidence to buttress their claims.
Apart from contesting the prime minister statement made in the Lok Sabha on February 7, 2007, the activists had also shown that statistics for July 2017 had indicated that only 67% of National Food Security Act ration card holders in Rajasthan (identified by Government and seeded with Aadhaar) were able to procure their rations from the PDS outlets.
Similarly, they had noted that “interim findings from a field study conducted by IIT Delhi in collaboration with Ranchi University” had indicated “continued quantity fraud, higher transaction costs and hardship as well as outright exclusion of the most vulnerable since the introduction of Aadhaar-Based Biometric Authentication (ABBA) in the PDS in Jharkhand”.
Finally, the group had also presented testimonies of people from Delhi, including the homeless, to illustrate how the poor were denied access to rations after Aadhaar was made mandatory for obtaining a ration card in Delhi.
In the letter to Pandey, the activists said they have closely observed Aadhaar and its impact on the ground. “Had Aadhaar in fact been a means of inclusion, empowerment, anti-corruption and efficiency in delivering entitlements to the poor and marginalized, we would have had no hesitation in presenting what we saw, and congratulating the government for its success. However, what we have seen is that as a result of the multiple government directions making Aadhaar mandatory for accessing rights and entitlements, countless numbers of people have been put through great distress to access their entitlements,” they said.
Allegations backed with data, testimonies
Questioning Pandey on what basis had he termed their findings to be influenced by “malafide intent”, the activists said “the suffering caused to people due to mandatory Aadhaar linking and biometric authentication can be witnessed across the country.” Alluding to the sense of responsibility with which they had made the presentation, the activists said they had restricted themselves to Delhi, Rajasthan and Jharkhand “because this was information backed by official statistics and/or detailed enquiry and testimonies.”
In Delhi, they said scores of affidavits have been filed before the Delhi High Court by people documenting how people have been excluded from the National Food Security Act as they did not possess Aadhaar at the time when ration cards were being made.
Similarly, in Rajasthan, they said the data available on the website of the Department of Food, Rajasthan shows that since September 2016, when Aadhaar-based biometric authentication was made mandatory in the state, 25% to 33% per cent of ration card holders have not been getting their rations. “That amounts to more than 25 lakh families, or more than a crore of the most vulnerable people,” the group contended.
And in case of Jharkhand, it said, according to publicly available data on the state food department website of Jharkhand, a substantial proportion of households in the state are not getting their monthly grain entitlements since Aadhaar-based biometric authentication was introduced in the public distribution system. Here, they said, even 10% exclusion would mean 25 lakh people.
Government, UIDAI not taking corrective action
Picking on Pandey’s assertion that “Aadhaar is a technology of people’s empowerment and not a tool of exclusion or denial as claimed by some activists,” the activists said “it is disturbing that instead of resolving to take corrective action on account of exclusion based due to Aadhaar linking and biometric authentication, the Government and the UIDAI are focusing their energies on denial and escaping from dealing with redressing the core issues.”
The activists concurred with Pandey’s observation that Aadhaar “has never claimed to be a panacea for all ills and dishonesty or acts of unscrupulous elements”, saying that they too have been pointing out for the last several years that “Aadhaar cannot help address problems of quantity fraud, quality fraud and overcharging, which form the bulk of the corruption in the PDS. Such corruption can only be addressed if there are proper mechanisms of transparency, accountability and grievance redress which in real terms empower people to report problems in accessing their entitlements and getting redress in a time-bound manner.”
Aadhaar denied list
And since the UIDAI CEO has insisted that “if a person is denied because he does not have Aadhaar or he is unable to biometrically authenticate, it is undisputedly a violation of instructions issued by the government and such violators have to be punished,” the activists urged him to “make public a copy of all such instructions issued by the government, especially in the context of Delhi, Jharkhand and Rajasthan, including the punishment that violators are liable to face.”
They have also demanded that the list of all violators who have been punished in the last 3 years be put up in the public domain. “The information being requested for is mandated to be put out in the public domain by UIDAI as a public authority as per Section 4 of the Right to Information Act,” they said.
Finally, the activists have urged the UIDAI and Government of India to organise a platform for public discussion where evidence on the impact of biometric authentication and use of Aadhaar in the delivery of public services can be presented in the public domain.