Is Aadhaar, India’s biometric-based unique identification number for citizens, making it easier for people to access welfare programmes?

That does not seem to be the case in many Indian villages where this verification system has been adopted for public distribution schemes.

After the Jharkhand government made a biometric authentication linked to Aadhaar compulsory for people lining up to buy the subsidies food grain from ration shops in Ranchi district, ration-card holders received only 49%, or less than half of their entitlement, according to an analysis of government data by development economist Jean Dreze. Under the National Food Security Act, 2013, low-income households are entitled to five kilos of subsidised foodgrains per head every month.

This is comparable to the situation in Rajasthan, where only 45% of beneficiaries were able to buy their rations after being verified by handheld biometric-reading machines between December last year and May.

After Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, Jharkhand is set to become the third state to make Aadhaar-based authentication compulsory at all ration shops.

Improving welfare delivery?

The government claims that one of the main advantages of Aadhaar is that it helps identify beneficiaries accurately and ensures that the benefits of social schemes go only to the deserving.

At ration shops that have adopted Aadhar-linked authentification, beneficiaries must place a finger on a point-of-sale device, which, using the internet, verifies their fingerprints with the data stored on the Aadhaar servers. Such verification, the government has argued, helps weed out fakes.

On the ground, however, things are not going as designed.

The first problem is not all beneficiaries have an Aadhaar number. Second, there are data entry errors in the details that have been linked to or seeded in the public distribution database, as a result of which several beneficiaries are not being recognised, making them ineligible for the subsidised grains.

Third, fingerprint authentication does not work for many beneficiaries who do manual work, or among the elderly. In some instances, the point of sale devices show that beneficiaries are entitled to only a part of or no subsidised grains even if the devices authenticates their fingerprints. Moreover, there are electricity and internet connectivity problems, especially in remote villages.

Several of these problems reported earlier from Rajasthan’s implementation of Aadhaar authentication in ration system are now cropping up in Jharkhand as well.

Errors in authentication

For his analysis in Jharkhand, Dreze studied government data from Ranchi over two months, July and August, to examine the functioning of the ration scheme right after Aadhaar-based authentication was made mandatory.

He found that ration beneficiaries could get only 46% of their monthly grain entitlements of 1.14 crore kilograms in July. In August, beneficiaries received just 53% of their entitlements through the point-of-sale device system.

In some areas, such as Namkum block, beneficiaries received only 14.6% of their grain entitlements in July and in Bundu block, they received only 29%.

Even those recognised as eligible by the system faced difficulties in accessing grains because of recurring glitches during the authentication process. Many of them said it worked only after repeated trips and several family members had to take turns to go to the ration shop to get their fingerprints verified.

Despite these glitches, no clear mechanism had been created to compensate beneficiaries for the loss of subsidised grains during these months.

“On August 26, we made a surprise visit to a ration shop at Hurhuri in Ratu block, which had a better than average record of point of sale transactions of 69.3% in July,” Dreze said in a press statement. He said the team of researchers visited a shop closest to the block headquarters, selecting it as an example of the best-case scenario under the new system. “Within minutes, we were surrounded by a small crowd of women and men who complained bitterly that they were unable to collect their rations, for a range of reasons, including lack of Aadhaar number, faulty seeding, biometrics failure, ‘zero quantity’ messages and other error messages shown on the devices,” Dreze said.

He said there were cases where school-going children skipped classes to get their fingerprints authenticated so that their families could get their monthly grain entitlements, because the Aadhaar-linked authentication had not worked for other household members.

Nazia Parveen missed school and was at the ration shop in Hurhuri, Ratu block, for biometric authentication so her family could get their monthly ration entitlements.

"Charo Oraon, an elderly tribal farmer, had not been able to get his grains for three months starting June, because he did not have an Aadhaar number, and since August, when he got an Aadhaar, it had not worked even once," noted one of the researchers.

Dreze said that violated the Supreme Court order of 2015, which prohibited compulsory use of Aadhaar for welfare schemes and allowed only its voluntary use only in select services, including the public distribution system. The economist said the Supreme Court order was still in force as the Centre was yet to notify section 7 of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial, and Other Subsidies, Benefits, and Services) Act, which was cleared by the Parliament in March. Section 7 allows the government to demand proof of Aadhaar number for certain subsidies, benefits or services.

A "zero entitlement" message on the point of sale device being used at the ration shop in Hurhuri in Ratu block in Ranchi.

Scope for corruption

Saryu Roy, the minister for food, public distribution and consumer affairs in Jharkhand, said the government had adopted the best practices for implementing Aadhaar-linked authentication in the public distribution system.

"We studied the system in Rajasthan as well as other states such as Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh that are in the process of implementing this," said Roy. "We started the new system after ensuring at least one member of all households had their Aadhaar number and their details seeded in ration database. We will allow anyone who is not able to collect their rations in one month to access the benefits the next month."

Roy said government is planning to implement the system in all 24 districts of Jharkhand by October. "In areas where there is no connectivity, we will devise an offline system of disbursing grains,” he said.

In Rajasthan, where several beneficiaries reported that they were excluded from their grain entitlements because of authentication-related glitches, the state has permitted ration shop dealers to disburse grains after noting the beneficiaries’ details in registers kept at public distribution outlets.

In Jharkhand, however, officials have not yet permitted this. Dreze said that with so many people being unable to collect their entitlement, allowing dealers to unofficially disburse grains by noting the details of beneficiaries in registers could exacerbate corruption.

“Even if it happens unofficially, this dual system, where some public distribution system grain goes through the point of sale system and the rest through the fallback register system, is the worst,” he said. “Only the dealers know the modalities of the fallback register system, and they have no incentive to explain it to cardholders."

Dreze observed that in cases where the Aadhar-linked system was not functioning as desired, it could revive corruption in the public distribution in states where much progress had been made in reducing pilferage in the past few years.