The faces of exclusion lost in Aadhaar debate

The other day, a banker friend pooh-poohed the Aadhaar debate, saying the exclusions due to it were statistically insignificant. I, on the other hand, contended that until the government can ensure that not even a single individual is excluded from his/her entitlements, it should not force Aadhaar down our throats. As we went round and round in a circle of arguments, statistics and the inevitable irritation, I had a sobering thought. The fact is that we don’t know exactly how many individuals have been denied their entitlements because of Aadhaar. Official figures are available for the number of instances when fingerprint verification failed. The government avers that these are incidences of ‘bogus’ card holders being weeded out by the new biometric identification system. Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed in Lok Sabha that this number was as high as 39.5 mn countrywide. Activists, on the other hand, argue that many of these cases where biometrics have not matched, are of genuine beneficiaries being denied their rations, pensions and jobs because the technology is flawed. 

So when Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan asked me to come for a public hearing on Aadhaar-based exclusions contravening the Right to Food, I accepted with alacrity. The hall at Gandhi Peace Foundation was jam-packed with over 150 people, all talking at once and listening to the speakers at the same time. All from localities quite far from the venue, they seemed to have more to say than to listen. Here are some of their stories.

Mohini Devi, a 77-year-old resident of Kusumpur Pahari, couldn’t draw her January 2018 ration as her fingerprints didn’t match. But the online sales data shows that she received five kilos of ration on January 20 after Aadhaar authentication. Two of her neighbours told similar stories of being denied ration for the month of January because their fingerprints could not be authenticated. Yet, as per online data, ration have been drawn in their names. Does this mean that Aadhaar isn’t the foolproof anti-corruption tool it has been made out to be? These cases show that it is possible for a shopkeeper to deny entitlements by saying that the fingerprints of the beneficiaries don’t match — and pilfer their quota later. 

All around me in the hall were worried, wrinkled and angry faces of ‘exclusion’. Some, like Muliya and Kisna, an elderly couple from Motilal Nehru Camp, Munirka, holding a priority ration card, tried to authenticate their biometrics 14 times across different days, but their biometrics did not match. Kaushlya from Kusumpur Pahari and her three family members listed on her card attempted to match their biometrics, a whopping 27 times in January — but to no avail. 

Several senior citizens in the hall were denied their ration entitlement because their biometrics didn’t match. Many lived alone, and depended on social security to survive. Deviki Bai, a 75-year-old resident of Motilal Nehru Camp, Munirka, and Shanti Devi, a 64-year-old resident of Jagdamba Camp in South  Delhi, live alone and have no other family members listed on their ration cards. Both made multiple attempts to authenticate themselves in January. The two figure among the 31,199 cases of “authentication failure” in January 2018.

Towards the end of the public hearing, the hall resounded with the slogan “Sudhaar (improvement) not Aadhaar”. I realised that when Supreme Court rules on the constitutional validity of Aadhaar, or when people like us debate Aadhaar in our rarified living rooms, we must think of these faces of exclusion, not statistics. For these faces expose the mean, dark undertow of our relentless march towards a “developed”, digital India — and they deserve a long hard look.

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