Despite a series of Supreme Court orders that Aadhaar will not be made mandatory, with weary inevitability, earlier this month, the Ministry of Rural Development under the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act 2016 notified that citizens will have to “furnish proof of possession of Aadhaar” to access work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The consistent and repeated claim has been that the introduction of Aadhaar in MGNREGA will reduce corruption and plug leakages. This claim merits keen examination.
If the mandatory introduction of Aadhaar at ration shops in Jharkhand and Rajasthan is anything to go by, this move for MGNREGA is likely to be hugely disruptive for the poorest, most vulnerable citizens. Even while accounting for the limited forms of corruption that it could reduce, it does little to enhance accountability of the programme to its citizens working to make it corruption free in their own gram panchayats. Second, the manner in which the Aadhaar project has been driven over the past few years, using limited state capacity and at the cost of other functions, has lead to wide-scale errors and further, newer forms of corruption. Third, even after bringing in a legal framework for the Aadhaar architecture, there is no programmatic tying it up with existing rights-based legislations and this accountability void is harming functioning welfare systems.
In the last week of December, an independent collective of workers, NREGA Watch-Samaj Parivartan Shakti Sangathan (SPSS), working in Muzzaffarpur, Bihar, noticed that machines were being used to make a road in their village under MGNREGA, which is disallowed under the Act. On seeing the machines as a clear sign of corruption, they brought it to the attention of the panchayat mukhiya and panchayat rozgar sewak, and subsequently took it to block officials. Instead of investigation and action on these allegations of corruption, an FIR with no less than an attempt to murder charge has been filed against one of the workers of SPSS, Sanjay Sahni. This is not the first time this has happened, with threats and intimidation being the regular response to allegations of corruption raised by this workers’ collective. Aadhaar does nothing to assist people in raising voices against corruption and misappropriation that they see for themselves. Social audits, information in the public domain and collective action remain their methodologies for challenging corrupt practices.
The limited forms of corruption that Aadhaar does claim to address are ghost beneficiaries and de-duplication. However, being able to execute these two conclusively is only possible if 100% of the database of a programme is seeded with the Aadhaar database, meaning that all beneficiaries of a service have Aadhaar-seeded bank accounts. To get every single beneficiary’s bank account seeded into the programme database is a mammoth administrative exercise, bound to have errors and exclusion. When such technocratic interventions are layered upon existing systems, functionaries of programmes have to take this on in addition to their existing roles, largely with no additional compensation but a lot of additional pressure to meet targets. This begs the question, at what cost have we imposing this architecture onto existing systems in comparison to the benefits?
In response to a Right to Information request on the quantification and methodology of savings with the introduction of Aadhaar in MGNREGA, the ministry stated, “Savings are in terms of increasing the efficiency and reducing the delay in payments etc.” This casual response drops any pretense of having to actually base policy on evidence and the effects of this approach are felt far and wide. About ten days ago, through the efforts of another independent citizen collective, NREGA Sahayta Kendra, in Lohardaga district of Jharkhand, about a thousand workers, who had not received their wage payments under MGNREGA, protested at the Kisko block office. Several of these cases of wage delay have actually been because of Aadhaar errors. While wages are being shown as credited, workers have not actually got it, due to Aadhaar seeding errors. Others were due to the fact that their bank account in the MGNREGA database is different from their Aadhaar-seeded bank account. As is obvious, these are errors for no fault of the worker, but that of the field functionary, at times deliberately. Further, this undermines an existing right of receiving wages within 15 days and, unforgivably, there is no one responsible for this.
No systems for grievance redressal
As per the MGNREGA, the functionaries responsible for wage payments within 15 days are to be identified and delays are to be recovered from their salaries. Just in this financial year, Rs 9 crore has been paid to workers as compensation for delays. However, the Aadhaar errors causing further delays are largely unaccounted for in the MGNREGA architecture. In this scenario, where the incorrect Aadhaar number has been seeded against a worker’s bank account, for no fault of the worker, and the MGNREGA system shows it as credited within time, no one within the MGNREGA administrative system is responsible. So where does she go and whom does she complain to?
Surely then, there should be systems in place through the Aadhaar architecture to redress this situation. This is not the case. UIDAI’s grievance redress up till now was through the Centralised Public Grievance Redressal and Monitoring System (CPGRAMS), with a universe of only three subjects available: ‘delay in receiving Aadhaar card’, ‘miscellaneous’ and ‘suggestion’. The Aadhaar Act and regulations do nothing to obviate this ridicule; it provides for a contact centre, accessible through toll free numbers and email. This goes against every single established principle for effective accountability; there are no timelines, no designated grievance redress officers, no written dated acknowledgement receipts, no compensation for the complainants and no penalties for erring officials. The lack of detailing of the grievance redress architecture only continues in the hubristic manner in which Aadhaar was rolled out, with a complete class bias and with no thought for literacy, for connectivity or for accessibility. The floodgates for the actual complaints and their accompanying fury has safely been kept at bay behind email ids and toll free numbers.
The programmatic tying up between new processes and systems introduced by this technology and existing rights-based legislation is completely ignored, and left to be worked out on the fly. The fixing of responsibility for the denial of a service due to errors because of Aadhaar is a gaping void and this leads to the overriding and weakening of what little existing accountability mechanisms are in place.
To conclude, we must rethink the Aadhaar project. Is the alleged corruption at the point of beneficiary the most exigent, that warrants the full might of the state, or is the corruption of values within society that allow for the underfunding of welfare programmes that aim to build greater human capabilities? Are we equipping ourselves, as citizens, with enabling tools that give us more courage and wherewithal to challenge corruption or are we building systems that further centralise power and dehumanise people? Let’s keep in mind the average Indian citizen, who is not the incredibly privileged technocracy. Every other child in this country is malnourished, only one in two children have a chance of making it till secondary school and about half our citizens spend their lives working as casual manual workers. Efforts like the employment guarantee Act go some way in providing livelihood security and additional income to some of the poorest families in the country, if not the world. On the other hand, efforts like the Aadhaar project and their forceful introduction into welfare systems, exacerbate information asymmetry between citizens and administrators, and are having a deleterious effect on the systems that actually manage to deliver some benefits to people.
Inayat Anaita Sabhikhi is a fellow with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and works in Bihar and Jharkhand on social welfare entitlements. The author thanks Saila Sri Kambhatla.