Sixty kilometres from Ahmedabad in Gujarat, in a village called Hebatpur in Dholera, 78-year-old Gaguben Zala made five unsuccessful attempts to enrol in Aadhaar, the biometrics-based database that assigns a unique 12-digit number to every resident of India.
“Each time I tried, the machine would fail to capture my fingerprints and the staff sent me back home,” recalled the gaunt and feisty Dalit woman, with deep wrinkles running through the dry skin of her hands that had hardened from years of farm work.
The sixth time, one of the boys working at the enrolment camp came to her help.
“He rubbed my dry fingertips against the hair-oil on his scalp for a few minutes,” she said. “After this, the scanner captured my fingerprints.”
India is introducing Aadhaar in ration shops. The fingerprints of people like Zala will be matched against their biometric data stored in the Aadhaar database before they are given subsidised foodgrains. This process is called ‘authentication’.
The public distribution system, which provides subsidised wheat and rice to 67% of India’s population, is one of the first social welfare delivery systems to use Aadhaar-based authentication. The Centre has asked states to move to the new system by March 2017.
In the government’s view, this will ensure only real beneficiaries are able to access the foodgrains, bringing an end to theft and pilferage in the system.
But evidence from an earlier experiment in Gujarat shows fingerprint authentication does not work for lakhs of people, particularly manual workers and the elderly like Zala.
One in three transactions fails
Well before the Aadhaar database was created, in 2010, Gujarat introduced fingerprint authentication in the public distribution system. For this, the demographic details and biometrics of existing ration card-holders were collected and each was allotted a unique number.
Since then, anyone wanting to pick up monthly food rations must submit this unique number and provide her fingerprints at the village computer services centre called ‘e-gram’, which is connected through a statewide area network.
Once the fingerprints match, an “e-coupon” or a slip of paper bearing the person’s name and quantity of ration is issued. Beneficiaries can use the coupon to get their quota of foodgrains at the fair price shop.
In places with sufficient network connectivity, the beneficiary can provide their fingerprints directly at the ration shop, receive a coupon with details of their entitlements, and collect the foodgrains.
But Gujarat government data shows the system is not functioning smoothly.
Of the 1.2 crore ration cards linked with the state biometrics database, only 83.7 lakh cards recorded transactions in October 2016. Of these 83.7 lakh cards, fingerprint authentication failed for 24.6 lakh cards – nearly one in three families.
In the villages of Koli Adivasis in Panchmahal district, 125 kms east from Ahmedabad, such failures are common. Nearly 85% of the district’s population is rural. Infrastructure is weak in the area.
“On Tuesdays, there is a full-day power cut, and electricity is irregular on other days as well,” said Gangaben Fatesi, a Koli Adivasi. “When the power goes, the computer too stops working.” The residents had to make repeated trips to get their rations, she said.
Data shows that fingerprint authentication in Panchmahal did not work for 74,131 of the 234,702 ration beneficiaries who attempted it – a failure rate of nearly 32%.
In the state capital of Gandhinagar, officials gave two reasons for the failures. “One, there are network connectivity issues,” said Ronak Mehta, deputy secretary in the state department of food, civil supplies and consumer affairs. “Two, fingerprint authentication often does not work for those who do hard work with their hands, like farm workers, construction workers.”
Sumi Kapadia, an official in the project management unit of the department, said nearly 15%- 20% of all transactions failed solely because fingerprints did not match on account of skin abrasions, and in the case of the elderly, because of unclear fingerprints.
“The fingerprint problems magnify in winter months as the skin becomes rough and dry,” she said. “But the villagers are impatient. They are not willing to wait even an hour to get their fingerprints authenticated.”
For those whose fingerprints do not match, the state has asked ration shop owners to dispense foodgrains by noting down their details in a register. Called “open” transactions, such cases amount to more than 40% in some districts, showing the new biometrics-based system is not working.
Mehta, deputy secretary in the food and civil supplies department said they provide an additional check through a one-time password sent on mobile phones of beneficiaries, so that they know if their transaction went through or not, and do not depend on this for the ration dealer’s whims. He said the department has tried to reduce the fingerprint failures to “5 to 10%.” But as shown above, government data show in October, more than 29% of the fingerprint transactions failed. No transactions were recorded under the “with mobile” category in October.
An old experiment
Despite its problems with the use of fingerprints, Gujarat’s food department is introducing Aadhaar-based authentication in all ration shops, with just a few exceptions. “At 200 spots in Dangs, Panchmahal and forest villages where there is no connectivity at all at the ration shops, we will use an alternative method of authenticating,” said Kapadia.
Reetika Khera, a professor of economics at IIT-Delhi who has researched social schemes such as the public distribution system, questioned the use of fingerprint authentication despite such high rates of failure.
“There has been no rigorous study of Aadhaar’s feasibility and suitability before its use in welfare systems,” she said. “The Gujarat biometrics schemes in food rations could have shown crucial evidence on the use of biometrics authentication in welfare schemes. Then why did the government not study this or take it into account?”
After the introduction of Aadhaar in the public distribution system, similar figures of failure in fingerprint authentication have been recorded in states such as Rajasthan and Jharkhand, she pointed out.
In Rajasthan, which is the second state to adopt Aadhaar in ration shops, only about 63.5 lakh of 99.7 lakh people were able to get their foodgrains in August through the use of biometrics.
The state food department records show Aadhaar authentication does not work for 20%-30% beneficiaries in most districts, even 11 months after Rajasthan government introduced the new system.
Said Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a grassroots campaign in Rajasthan, “Despite such a high failure rate, the Government of Rajasthan continues to deny the extraordinary rates of exclusion by stating that this was “weeding out” of bogus beneficiaries from the system.”
Frequent data entry errors
In Dholera’s Hebatpura, for Gaguben Zala, the prospect of using her fingerprints to collect food rations remains a distant one. “The dealer said I do not have clear fingerprints, so my name cannot be linked for grains,” she said, as she sat in the courtyard examining her chapped thumbs.
The state food department needs to link people’s Aadhaar data to the ration database – a process called “seeding” – before fingerprint authentication can take place.
In Zala’s family of seven, only the Aadhaar data of her son, Gobarbhai Zala, has been linked or “seeded” to the ration database. The family gets 25 kg of wheat and 10 kg of rice every month under the Antodyaya category for the poorest of poor families. Earlier, anyone from the family could pick up the monthly rations. Now, only Gobarbhai can.
In Panchmahal, several families are worse off – their details were incorrectly entered in the ration database which has now been linked to the Aadhaar database.
Jayniben who lives in Sanyal village, Ghoghamba block, is wrongly recorded as a resident of “Ranipada, Ghoghamba village”. Madhu Bhopat, another resident, is wrongly recorded as Madhu “Dalphat.” Balliben, a local worker complained that her daughter in law’s name is recorded as “Labita”, when actually it is Lalita.
Fair price shop owner Ashwinbhai Patel said though he appreciated the computerisation of records, but in the biometrics-based ration system, there were frequent data errors. “Of over 800 ration cards, there is hardly one card which does not contain errors,” he said for the neighbouring villages of Shaniada and Vangarva, that are registered at his ration shop.
Ganpatbhai Narsi, whose wife Madhu Bhopat’s name had been entered incorrectly as Madhu “Dalphat”, travelled four times to the block office in Ghoghamba, 40 km away. Each trip costs Rs 100 and led to the loss of a day’s wages.
Officials in Ghoghamba said the block had just two data-entry operators and nearly 100 to 150 people came to the office for data entry corrections every day. “At first, we had designated Wednesday as the day for corrections,” said KP Parmar, a block official. “But the numbers were so high, we had to open it on all days of the week.”
A similar rush prevailed in Godhra district. At the office of the mamltadar, Navinbhai Marwari stood waiting to get the names of four of his family members corrected in the records. He was weighed down with anxiety and a thick application containing the photocopies of each family member’s Aadhaar card, the family’s new ration card, a copy of the bank account passbook of the head of the household, and an attested proof of their address from the patwari, a local revenue official.
After putting in all the effort – first to get an Aadhaar card made, then to link it with the ration card, and finally, to get the database errors corrected – a villager still had no guarantee of fingerprints matching at the ration shop.
But Gujarat officials emphasised that the system had benefits.
“Most people are able to get corrections done in two visits,” said a block official in Godhra. “But the main thing is that we are very strict on corruption in the ration system.”
Has fingerprint authentication in Gujarat reduced leakages in the public distribution system, as officials claim?
The next story in this series finds out.