While much of the debate on the legitimacy of Aadhaar, a 12-digit unique identity number, has raged around the question of privacy, there is another vital issue at stake. Exclusion, or the problem of people being barred access to essential government benefits and services after they were linked to Aadhaar, is a problem that affects the poorest, most vulnerable sections of society. In its Aadhaar judgment, delivered on September 26, the majority opinion of the Supreme Court shows a troubling tendency to unsee the problem.
The ranks of the deserving far outnumbered those who were left out, said the majority opinion. They could not be deprived because “there is a possibility of exclusion of some of the seekers of these welfare schemes”, according the majority opinion delivered by AK Sikri. Even the statement that the court was not “trivialising the problem of exclusion” comes with the caveat, “if it is there”. The sweep of progress must not be halted by the travails of a negligible minority, the judgment seems to suggest. Even if there were problems, it continues rather sanguinely, the government would take care of it.
The court accepts the government’s contention that the objective of the act is to plug leakages and ensure that welfare schemes reach the targeted beneficiaries, weeding out “ghosts” and fake recipients in the system. It refuses to question government figures that say that 99.76% of beneficiaries would suffer if the project were to be shelved because of the authentication failures of 0.232%. This figure is debatable and seems to elide the complexities of linking Aadhaar to welfare schemes.
An independent survey conducted across rural households in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, for instance, suggest that only 85.1% were aware of fingerprint authentication and just 41.6% knew Aadhaar enrolment was free of cost. In some of the poorest districts, which depended heavily on a public distribution system linked to Aadhaar, the rates of exclusion were much higher than the government figure suggests. According to a survey conducted in Jharkhand’s Ranchi district in 2017, soon after biometric authentication was made compulsory in ration shops, exclusion rates hovered around 20% for months.
The court, in its judgment, seems to identify fingerprint authentication as a major problem for authentication. Yet there are a myriad other factors, from connectivity to server problems to wrong seeding or linking, that resulted in beneficiaries being excluded. A tragic case in point was the death of 11-year-old Santhoshi Kumari, who had starved for eight days before she died. Her family, who live in Jharkhand, had not received food rations for months before she died because the ration card had not been seeded to an Aadhaar number. While the court asserts that no one could be denied their entitlements because of technical errors, such is the case in many places, often with devastating results.
Exclusion may also work in other ways. In April 2017, it was reported that the government had deleted 90 lakh fake job cards nationally. These cards were required to get work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. But an application filed under the Right to Information Act revealed that only 4% of the deletions were fake card holders. Many others lost a source of income that was desperately needed because of the so-called streamlining of welfare schemes linked to Aadhaar.
Even if the government figures were to be taken at face value, 0.232% of beneficiaries still amounts to 27.60 lakh people who were excluded because of authentication errors. These include some of the most vulnerable groups, widows who lived alone or elderly couples. It is worrying that the court looks at aggregates instead of particulars. After all, is it not the court’s duty to ensure justice down to the last man or woman, especially the most marginalised sections of the population?
While the majority opinion airily waves away the problem of exclusion, it may be useful to heed the cautionary note struck by DY Chandrachud’s dissenting judgment. The “dignity and rights of individuals” should not depend on a probabilistic technology. Constitutional guarantees – the right to food and the right to livelihood, among others – should not depend on the “vicissitudes of technology”.