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Old-age brings with it, it’s own misery. In India of the 100 million elderly, more than 51 million live below the poverty line. They are supposedly entitled to pension and subsidized rations. The meagre Rs. 200 per person per month pension (under the IGNOAPS) reaches them late, not at all and in most cases after a payout to the corrupt disbursing authority. The Aadhaar scheme has been touted as the panacea to all these ills.
While theoretically, the universal adoption of the Aadhaar card will permit direct disbursal of pensions and subsidies to the disadvantaged elders and others below the poverty line, ground realities appear very different.
The biometric recognition system militates against those with fading fingerprints or ageing irises. There is difference in fingerprint image quality across age groups, although most pronounced deterioration is found in > 60 age group. Error rate in biometric identification significantly increases with increase in age group. Aging results in loss of collagen; compared to younger skin, aging skin is loose and dry. Working with your hands — especially if it involves handling bricks, or other rough objects — can damage prints. The official rebuttal to this argument is that the Aadhaar also records iris information, so it doesn’t really matter. There are two problems with this — one, reading iris information itself is just as error-prone, especially in senior citizens with cataract issues. Secondly, most nodal agencies are loathe to install the costlier iris-reading software.
Pension and Ration is today disbursed using POS machine with finger print recognition. As far as Rations are concerned, the thousands of PDS outlets, are starting to be provided POS terminals. The last few months have shown dismal performance with majority of elders being turned back due to their finger recognition transaction not being successful. In fact it is reported that even successful recognition transactions are taking upto 8 minutes. Even after poor, indigent elders are being issued with an Aadhaar card, their fingerprints are difficult to match, when they use the POS machines. POS machines connect to a Central Data Registry which houses the biometric details of the Aadhaar card holders. For the POS machines to work – the machines have to be error free, there has to be reasonably high quality internet bandwidth for the transaction to go through and most importantly electricity/battery availability.
The experience in the last few months has been that in majority cases, the elderly are turned away after long waits from POS / PDS shops due to one or the other above mentioned reasons. Now, there are manual overrides which have been permitted, which leads to corruption as is expected. So, what good is Aadhaar?
In the case of pensions, the problems are even graver. Earlier, elders had to go to their banks to withdraw pensions from their accounts. Often, the overcrowding at banks, and the elder unfriendly procedures caused distress. As a solution, a few months ago, Micro ATMs were started to be used, to disburse pensions. The e-Mitr Kendras were converted to Banking/ Business Correspondent (BCs) who authenticated identity of elders with a swipe on the micro-ATM machine.
BC is a representative authorized to offer services such as cash transactions where the lender does not have a branch. Primary role of BC is to oversee the proper development and functioning of indirect banking channels. These business correspondents are subject to RBI regulations and would have direct contact with one or more financial institutions. These BC’s charge a commission from the bank for enrollment of clients, transactions, deposits etc.
Initially only ‘not for profit’ entities were allowed to become B.C’s. However, off late RBI has eased the norms like inclusion of for profit entities and interoperability of business correspondents, aimed at helping customers in rural areas access banking services such as cash deposits, withdrawals, remittances and balance enquiries from anywhere in the country on the lines of ATM facilities available to customers in urban areas.
However, this gives impetus to major corruption as each time a poor elderly who cannot read/write places the thumbprint the transaction is authorized with the BC. When the fingerprint does not match, the elder is asked to swipe his smartcard on the POS terminal. Majority of the times, it is the BC who swipes the card and asks the technology unfriendly elder to provide his PIN number. In effect, the unsuspecting elder has just handed over control of his bank account to the BC. The potential of corruption and mischief is frightening with likelihoods of assuming staggering proportions.
The problem now
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced in the Union Budget that Aadhaar will be made into a law. In fact, the government is in such a hurry that they have already circulated the draft of the bill and decided to pass it as a money bill in this session, so as not to allow any Parliamentary delays in its implementation. This makes the Aadhaar card, and the important biometric information it stores, mandatory for many things. Most serious among this is access to ration and the public distribution system. The poor, who qualify for this, and are often the ones working with their hands, will be the worst-affected. Yet, the proposed law does not have any alternative provisions. It simply abandons those whose fingerprints have failed them, to their own devices.
Technology is expected to be an inclusive mechanism. In not thinking through an alternative for biometrics, the Aadhar technology could work in the exact opposite manner.
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) conducted a Proof-of-Concept (PoC) study of biometric enrolment from March 2010 to June 2010 in the predominantly rural areas of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Bihar. One of the objectives of the study was to measure the biometric quality that could be achieved in rural Indian conditions. The study that involved 135,000 biometric enrolments found out that Older people took longer (20% longer enrollment time) to enroll than younger people, and enrollees whose employment involved manual work took longer to enroll than the rest of the PoC population. For the system to be ‘called successful’ there should be at least about 98% accuracy, which is far cry as of now.