It is easy to wake a person who is sleeping, but difficult to wake someone pretending to be asleep. This aphorism rings true for several decisions of the Modi government.
One such example is the manner in which the government has pushed the unique identity project, despite several Supreme Court orders stating that the Aadhaar number cannot be made mandatory.
For instance, in August 2015, the Court said:
“Having considered the matter, we are of the view that the balance of interest would be best served, till the matter is finally decided by a larger Bench if the Union of India or the UIDAI proceed in the following manner:- 1. The Union of India shall give wide publicity in the electronic and print media including radio and television networks that it is not mandatory for a citizen to obtain an Aadhaar card; 2. The production of an Aadhaar card will not be condition for obtaining any benefits otherwise due to a citizen...” [emphasis added]
But the government has gone ahead and made the Aadhaar number mandatory for several schemes. For instance, in the span of just a week in February-end and March, the government made the use of Aadhaar peremptory to obtain benefits of 11 schemes, including mid-day meals for school children. The justification for this seemingly draconian measure is unclear.
The Supreme Court, in October 2015, also allowed the voluntary use of Aadhaar card for labourers to get wages under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. However, block and district level administrative staff in various states, under pressure from the top, have been on an overdrive to enrol people under Aadhaar.
Several MGNREGA beneficiaries have reported that they have been coerced to sign the consent form during Aadhaar enrolment by the administrative staff, crushing the very meaning of consent. In a rush to meet targets, beneficiaries were hurriedly enrolled under Aadhaar, without giving them any explanation. This chaos also led to many errors in linking Aadhaar numbers to bank account numbers of workers under MGNREGA.
Consequently, there have been many “rejected payments” as well as many possible instances where one person’s Aadhaar number has been seeded to someone else’s bank account, as a result of which the wages have not gone to the intended beneficiary.
One such case is that of Anita Devi (name changed) of Chainpur Panchayat in Chhattisgarh’s Surguja District. Devi, who is in her 30s, was used to her MGNREGA wage payments being delayed. But this time, the wait was unusually long.
For four weeks of work last May and June, she was owed Rs 4,454 in wages – but the amount has not been credited to her account.
However, image below, from the the Management Information System of the MGNREGA online portal, shows her job card, listing out the work done and payment supposedly made against it.
But Devi never received the money. After all attempts to get the matter resolved through the local bureaucracy failed, Devi contacted Sabhil Nath Paikra, co-author of this piece and a community worker in the area, and told him about her pending wages.
A village-level MGNREGA official we spoke to was certain that her payment had been credited to her account, because that is what the Management Information System reflected.
Upon verifying this, we found that the government had indeed released a payment for Rs 4454 for Devi – but it had been deposited into another person’s account. This happened after she was made to link her Aadhaar card to her bank account.
Below is a copy of Devi’s original bank passbook, which has no entry pertaining to a deposit of Rs 4,454 as on March 27, close to nine months after the work was completed. According to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, workers whose payments have been delayed by more than 15 days are entitled to a compensation, which, for Devi, would come to at least Rs 568. But this compensation is neither being calculated nor is it being paid. And this does not take into account the cost of the number of trips she has made and the harassment she has faced while trying to get the wages due to her.
We investigated further by entering Devi’s Aadhaar number in the Public Finance Management System, a platform under the Ministry of Finance to track the disbursal of funds under various schemes. Here, we found that in Devi’s Fund Transfer Order (Figure 4) that the amount due to her had been credited into another person’s account. The names entered next to the heads “beneficiary name” and the “favouring as per bank” are of two different people. Further, Devi’s account number as per her bank passbook and the MGNREGA Management Information System, seen in Figure 3, ends in 70 (see the last entry) and is different from the account number in the Fund Transfer Order, which ends in 39.
We have intentionally retained only the last two digits of the account number and first two letters of her name to protect the identity of the complainant and yet prove that the money is actually being deposited in another person’s account.
The fact that Devi’s account number is correct and consistent both in her job card obtained from the Management Information System (see Figure 3) and her bank passbook (see Figure 2), some extremely important questions and concerns arise:
- How was her account number changed in the Fund Transfer Order?
- How did her Aadhaar Card get linked to another person’s account?
To begin with, it is extremely difficult to catch such errors. And even if they are found, the beneficiaries have no idea of what is happening.
To make matters more complicated in Devi’s case, we found that a staggering amount of Rs 1,35,500, unrelated to her MGNREGA wages, had been mysteriously deposited in her account. The bank manager, noticing the incongruous amount, arbitrarily cut the deposit with a pen, meaning she cannot access this amount.
We filed an online complaint about the non-receipt of NREGA wages on her behalf.
The report of the investigation done by the block office dated January 25 (Figure 6) does not even recognise the mistake, despite them having a copy of both the Job Card and the Fund Transfer Order, as acknowledged in the last lines of the response.
Rubbing more salt on her wound, the response from the district office (Figure 7) January 30 states that the complaint was closed.
Despite repeated visits to the block programme officer and to the district collector’s office and filing a complaint online, the matter remains unsolved in reality, though on paper it is stated as solved.
There is no recourse for Devi and others like her. She continues to be in limbo due to these supposed technical problems. Additionally, there is no trace of the large mysterious amount that is deposited in her account. In spite of filing the complaint, the government has not rectified the apparent error, visible in the Funds Transfer Order. Instead of preventing identity theft, the blind imposition of Aadhaar has callously countenanced the theft of Devi’s wages.
In fact, her Aadhaar number was prominently displayed in the above response from the administration (we have blurred it) in complete violation of her right to privacy. Devi is no MS Dhoni and if her Aadhaar number is freely displayed and misused, the repercussions could be impossible for her to bear.
This illustrative case is not one off and the huge amount of monetary loss prompted by the Centre’s haste in pushing Aadhaar goes untabulated. Lack of any easy-to-use, and transparent redressal system further precludes registration of such grievances. These cases cannot be unearthed unless there is a comprehensive audit of payments or a strong presence of civil society organisations.
In most cases, as with Devi, the worker is completely unaware of the reasons for the delay in payment of wages. Consequently, such complaints go vastly undocumented, unnoticed and the scale of such problems remain unaccounted. When there is no process of collecting feedback from the beneficiaries and acting on their legitimate grievances, continuing to make Aadhaar mandatory for every welfare programme is inexplicable. The aggregated statistics hide the truth behind granular experiences.
The government has, with impunity, disregarded the orders of the Apex Court and the observations from the ground of practitioners and academics alike about the many systemic issues with linking Aadhaar to such schemes. Large-scale omission of people from access to welfare schemes gets a dry label of “technological errors” with no recourse to easy resolution. Despite this, the government continues to celebrate the success of Aadhaar enrolment and is bringing other schemes into this web of control masquerading as a magic wand.
Technology can be a powerful enabler if harnessed creatively and has the potential to reap rich rewards in the implementation of welfare programmes. However, the manner in which this behemoth called Aadhaar is being pushed without due thought to the questions of privacy, inclusion and purpose is alarming.
There is much dissonance between ground realities and the BJP government’s claims of development for all, or “sabka saath sabka vikas”. It is matter of grave concern that the introduction of technological intervention with the claim that it will improve the running of welfare measures is actually leading to more inefficiency and exclusion.
Sabhil is a community worker in Surguja, Chhattisgarh. Sakina is a student of Public Policy in St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. Rajendran is an independent researcher. The views expressed are personal.