The pilot project meant to introduce internet-linked biometric technology to stop corruption and prevent leakages in the public distribution system (PDS) has run into trouble from the word go. “Point of sales” (PoS) machines installed at distribution outlets are unable to recognise the fingerprints of a large number of National Food Security Act (NFSA) beneficiaries in Jharkhand’s Ranchi district.
The machines recognising only about half of all cardholders has not only resulted in the denial of rations to many poor people, but also highlighted the inappropriate nature of Aadhaar technology for rural Jharkhand and similar areas where it is expected to be introduced later.
According to economist Jean Drèze, who has worked extensively on issues like hunger, famine, gender inequality, child health and education, the new system requires many fragile technologies to work at the same time: the PoS machine, the internet, biometrics, remote servers and mobile networks.
In addition, groundwork data collection has to be done correctly. This includes Aadhaar seeding, which involves entering unique identity numbers of cardholders in the system and linking them with ration cards.
In Jharkhand, where there are huge connectivity problems even in the capital, Drèze said these conditions are very demanding. “No wonder, then, that many people are finding themselves deprived of their PDS entitlements.”
Drèze has been a prominent critic of the UID system from virtually the outset.
The unique identity-based Aadhaar number system was meant to eliminate corruption and middlemen by assisting direct benefit transfers to the genuine beneficiaries, thereby plugging leakages. However, despite directions to the contrary by the Supreme Court, the Centre and several state governments have made its use mandatory at a time when the numbers have still not been provided to all the applicants and several have not yet applied. This is resulting in the denial of basic social benefits, like rations, to millions in the hinterland.
What has further aggravated the issue is that the technology being used is not foolproof. According to latest ground reports from Jharkhand, which happens to be a BJP-ruled state, the biometric authentication, originally meant to make the system secure and leak-proof, has in fact derailed the entire PDS, depriving large number of citizens of their ration entitlements over the past several months.
Drèze, who has been studying the issues faced by people along with Sneha Menon, said problems began surfacing the moment Jharkhand made Aadhaar-based biometric authentication compulsory for PDS users in the Ranchi district. “Sneha had first gone through the list of beneficiaries on the website and had then contacted them individually to corroborate the data with their statements on whether they had been receiving the rations or not.”
With the PoS machines installed at PDS outlets simply not being able to recognise the fingerprints of all the registered NFSA cardholders, the pilot district got less than half its food entitlements and consequently lower distribution.
The system involves matching the fingerprints of the cardholders at the PoS machines at PDS outlets with the Aadhaar database on the internet.
Drèze said the government’s own data, easily accessible from its NFSA website, suggests that the system has run into serious trouble. In July 2016, NFSA cardholders in Ranchi district received barely half of their foodgrain entitlements from the PDS. In August, the situation was no better as NFSA cardholders received just 53% of their entitlements through the PoS system.
While the fall-back register system is supposed to work as a backup in case the technology fails, in the case of Ranchi, Drèze said it was not clear whether those for whom the system does not work are getting any rice through the old “registers” system. The register system is no longer allowed, according to local dealers and officials. With only the dealers aware of the modalities of such a system, even if it does exist, he said there is no incentive for them to explain it to cardholders.
Talking to The Wire, Drèze said there was no clarity on whether oral orders had been issued by the officials to the PDS staff to release rations on the basis of the registers. “Till around June, they were releasing rations through both registers and PoS system, so effectively the latter was non-existent. Then came the orders to go the PoS route and this resulted in chaos.”
In such a scenario, Drèze expressed apprehension that “quite likely, the new system has revived corruption in the PDS, in a state where much progress had been made in recent years in fighting PDS corruption through other means.”
Enquiries from cardholders in several villages of the Ratu block of Ranchi suggested that very little rice, if any, had reached them outside the PoS system.
Incidentally, what is happening in the Ranchi district goes against the letter and spirit of the Supreme Court order that prohibits Aadhaar being made mandatory for the PDS. The court had allowed Aadhaar to be used in the PDS (for deduplication, for instance), but had noted that it could not be made compulsory. Also, since section 7 of the Aadhaar Act has not been notified yet, the government cannot invoke the Act to justify the move.
But as Drèze pointed out, none of this, unfortunately, seems to be deterring the state government. “Despite growing evidence (not only from Jharkhand but also from other states, especially Rajasthan) that Aadhaar-based PoS machines can turn into minor weapons of mass destruction as far as the PDS is concerned, the government is planning to extend this technology to the entire state within a few months,” he said.
The issue of social benefits being compulsorily linked to Aadhaar was recently raised by the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, where it was alleged that the Centre has issued instructions to state governments to stop ration card benefits, pensions and subsidised LPG to those without Aadhaar cards.
Sukhendu Sekhar Roy of the Trinamool Congress also asked the government if it was aware of the October 2015 order of the Supreme Court that Aadhaar should be voluntary and not compulsory. He argued that while section 7 of the Aadhaar Act grants exemption to those who have applied for Aadhaar but not received it, there was no protection for those who failed to apply for the card due to ignorance or poverty.
On behalf of the Centre, minister for urban development M. Venkaiah Naidu had made it clear that the government wanted to move ahead with the project. He said while 100 crore Aadhaar cards have been issued, the process would be hastened to issue the remaining. Noting that the direct benefit transfer scheme was started by the previous UPA regime, he said it remained the “need of the hour”. But the minister clarified that Aadhaar will not be made mandatory till the entire population gets such cards or UID numbers, assuring that the “necessary clarification” will be issued at the earliest.
Troubles for dealers and beneficiaries
A surprise visit by Drèze and Menon to a PDS shop in Ratu block, just outside Ranchi, on August 26 revealed all the ills that are plaguing the current PoS-based distribution system. “This block has a much better record of PoS transactions than the district average. We visited the PDS shop closest to the block headquarters, among those that were open that day. In other words, this was a best-case environment for the new system,” said Drèze, explaining why this shop was chosen.
At the shop, they were astounded to find many complaining bitterly about being denied PDS rations for a variety of reasons.
Some of the households not having a UID at all as their number had not been “seeded” or entered in the system and linked with their ration card. Others suffered due to “faulty seeding” or their UIDs not working due to data entry errors. Some cardholders also did not get their rations because of “biometric failure” or fingerprint recognition problems. In some cases, despite successful biometric authentication, the PoS machine still returned “zero quantity” messages, which resulted in the denial of rations.
Besides, the machines also often showed other error messages, which neither the dealer nor the cardholder could understand. What further added to the woes of the people were system failures due to connectivity problems, remote server failures, machine defects or other glitches.
Citing the case of Charo, who has been repeatedly visiting the PDS shop in the hope that his fingerprint would ultimately work and he would be able to receive the rice he has been denied since June due to biometric mismatch, the group said, “Before June, he used to get it through the old register system. Until August, he had no UID; now he has a UID but biometric authentication is not working for him.”
The system is also proving to be time consuming for the cardholders. Many have to send different members in turn, until the machine cooperates. Sometimes even school children are asked to skip classes to try their luck at the PDS shop.
For the PDS dealers too, the unreliable system holds no charm. As Drèze said, “The state government had started providing Rs 80 per quintal commission to them”, but now the distribution takes up much more time. “In this PDS shop, the dealer used to be able to distribute the monthly quota within four days. Now, he said he has to distribute almost continuously, because it is difficult to manage more than 15-25 transactions per day. This is not an exaggeration,” he said, adding “this waste of time gives dealers a ready excuse to siphon off some grain, just to recover their costs.”
In this particular shop, Drèze said that by the end of August, only 282 successful transactions had occurred against 500 ration cards. But when contacted on the phone, the dealer claimed that he actually managed 419 transactions.
Drèze maintained that the PoS system is fraught with danger as it is dependent on the internet and several gadgets for optimal functioning. “We had earlier faced similar problems in Rajasthan,” he said, adding that the answer probably lies in adopting the offline system, which is in use in Madhya Pradesh, as it does not suffer from so many technological shortcomings.