Why ABBA must go: on Aadhaar -Reetika Khera
Aadhaar-based Biometric Authentication does nothing in the battle against graft — there are better alternatives
In a sickening way, October 2017 was like October 2002.
Fifteen years ago, in Rajasthan’s Baran and Udaipur districts, there was a spate of starvation deaths. The government of the time made up fanciful stories to deny that the deaths had anything to do with hunger or government failure.
In October 2017, the death of an 11-year-old Dalit child, Santoshi Kumari, of Jharkhand, was widely reported. She had been pleading with her mother to give her rice as she slipped into unconsciousness and lost her life. The government insists that she had malaria but in video testimonies, her mother, Koyli Devi, says she had no fever. After Santoshi’s death, more hunger deaths have been reported, of which at least one, Ruplal Marandi, is related to the government’s Aadhaar experiment.
The starvation deaths in 2002 became the springboard for positive action on many fronts, which included the passing of judicial orders and even political action. Since then, there has been a perceptible improvement in programmes of social support including, but not limited to, the Public Distribution System (PDS). In Baran, it led to a recognition of the vulnerability of the Sahariyas — a tribal community in Baran — and a special PDS package consisting of free pulses and ghee being announced.
Similar action is required today. Instead, the government remains in denial. The Food Ministry in Delhi issued an order in late October that is silent on the crucial issue of reinstating wrongly cancelled ration cards and makes token concessions (with no guarantee of implementation).
Targets and the reality
For months, the Central government has been insisting on 100% Aadhaar “seeding” across schemes such as the PDS, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and pensions. Seeding refers to the practice of entering Aadhaar numbers for each household member on the ration card. It is a pre-requisite for the Aadhaar-based Biometric Authentication (ABBA) system, the practice of using an electronic point of sale (PoS) machine to authenticate each transaction. The government has made seeding and the ABBA mandatory in the PDS. As explained below, the distinction between seeding and the ABBA is important.
In their zeal to achieve 100% Aadhaar-seeding targets, some field functionaries just deleted the names of those who did not submit Aadhaar details. Others waited till the deadline and then struck off names. The government claims that all of these were “fake”, detected due to Aadhaar, thus saving crores of rupees. Santoshi’s family was one such example. According to the State Food Minister, their ration card was cancelled in July because they failed to seed it with Aadhaar.
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