Archive

Posts Tagged ‘UID’

Can Aadhaar-enabled cash transfer schemes deliver?

December 20th, 2012 1 comment

Recently, the government announced that it plans to transfer benefits under various schemes directly into the bank accounts of individual beneficiaries.  Benefits can be the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) wages, scholarships, pensions and health benefits.  Beneficiaries shall be identified through the Aadhaar number (Aadhaar is an individual identification number linked to a person’s demographic and biometric information).  The direct cash transfer (DCT) system is going to be rolled out in 51 districts, starting January 1, 2013.  It will later be extended to 18 states by April 1, 2013 and the rest by April 1, 2014 (or earlier).  Presently, 34 schemes have been identified in 43 districts to implement the DCT programme.

Currently, the government subsidises certain products (food grains, fertilizers, water, electricity) and services (education, healthcare) by providing them at a lower than market price to the beneficiaries.  This has led to problems such as high fiscal deficit, waste of scarce resources and operational inefficiencies.  The government is considering replacing this with an Aadhaar enabled DCT system.  It has claimed that the new system would ensure timely payment directly to intended beneficiaries, reduce transaction costs and leakages.  However, many experts have criticised both the concept of cash transfer as well as Aadhaar (see here, here, here and here).

In this blog, we provide some background information about cash transfer, explain the concept of Aadhaar and examine the pros and cons of an Aadhaar enabled direct cash transfer system.

Background on cash transfer

Under the direct cash transfer (DCT) scheme, government subsidies will be given directly to the beneficiaries in the form of cash rather than goods.  DCTs can either be unconditional or conditional.  Under unconditional schemes, cash is directly transferred to eligible households with no conditions. For example, pension schemes.  Conditional cash transfers provide cash directly to poor households in response to the fulfillment of certain conditions such as minimum attendance of children in schools.  DCTs provide poor families the choice of using the cash as they wish.  Having access to cash also relieves some of their financial constraints.  Also, DCTs are simpler in design than other subsidy schemes.  Even though cash transfer schemes have a high fixed cost of administration when the programme is set up, running costs are far lower (see here, here and here).

Presently, the government operates a number of DCT schemes.  For example, Janani Suraksha Yojana, Indira Awas Yojana and Dhanalaksmi scheme.

In his 2011-12 Budget speech, the then Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, had stated that the government plans to move towards direct transfer of cash subsidy for kerosene, Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG), and fertilizers.  A task force headed by Nandan Nilekani was set up to work out the modalities of operationalising DCT for these items.  This task force submitted its report in February 2012.

The National Food Security Bill, 2011, pending in Parliament, includes cash transfer and food coupons as possible alternative mechanisms to the Public Distribution System.

Key features of Aadhaar

The office of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was set up in 2009 within the Planning Commission.  In 2010, the government later introduced the National Identification Authority of India Bill in Parliament to give statutory status to this office.

  • The Aadhaar number is a unique identification number that every resident of India (regardless of citizenship) is entitled to get after he furnishes his demographic and biometric information.  Demographic information shall include the name, age, gender and address.  Biometric information shall include some biological attributes of the individual (such as fingerprints and iris scan).  Collection of information pertaining to race, religion, caste, language, income or health is specifically prohibited.
  • The Aadhaar number shall serve as proof of identity, subject to authentication.  However, it should not be construed as proof of citizenship or domicile.
  • Process of issuing and authenticating Aadhaar number: First, information for each person shall be collected and verified after which an Aadhaar number shall be allotted.  Second, the collected information shall be stored in a database called the Central Identities Data Repository.  Finally, this repository shall be used to provide authentication services to service providers.

For a PRS analysis of the Bill, see here.

Aadhaar enabled direct cash transfers

Advantages

Identification through Aadhaar number: Currently, the recipient has to establish his identity and eligibility many times by producing multiple documents for verification.  The verification of such documents is done by multiple authorities.  An Aadhaar enabled bank account can be used by the beneficiary to receive multiple welfare payments as opposed to the one scheme, one bank approach, followed by a number of state governments.

Elimination of middlemen: The scheme reduces chances of rent-seeking by middlemen who siphon off part of the subsidy.  In the new system, the cash shall be transferred directly to individual bank accounts and the beneficiaries shall be identified through Aadhaar.

Reduction in duplicate and ghost beneficiaries: The Aadhaar number is likely to help eliminate duplicate cards and cards for non-existent persons or ghost beneficiaries in schemes such as the PDS and MNREGS.    

Disadvantages

Lack of clarity on whether Aadhaar is mandatory:  According to UIDAI, it is not mandatory for individuals to get an Aadhaar number.  However, it does not prevent any service provider from prescribing Aadhaar as a mandatory requirement for availing services.  Therefore, beneficiaries may be denied a service if he does not have the Aadhaar number.  It is noteworthy that the new direct cash transfer policy requires beneficiaries to have an Aadhaar number and a bank account.  However, many beneficiaries do not yet have either.  (Presently, there are 229 million Aadhaar number holders and 147 million bank accounts).

Targeting and identification of beneficiaries:  According to the government, one of the key reasons for changing to DCT system is to ensure better targeting of subsidies.  However, the success of Aadhaar in weeding out ‘ghost’ beneficiaries depends on mandatory enrollment.  If enrollment is not mandatory, both authentication systems (identity card based and Aadhaar based) must coexist.  In such a scenario, ‘ghost’ beneficiaries and people with multiple cards will choose to opt out of the Aadhaar system.  Furthermore, key schemes such as PDS suffer from large inclusion and exclusion errors.  However, Aadhaar cannot address errors in targeting of BPL families.  Also, it cannot address problems of MNREGS such as incorrect measurement of work and payment delays.

Safeguard for maintaining privacy: Information collected when issuing Aadhaar may be misused if safeguards to maintain privacy are inadequate.  Though the Supreme Court has included privacy as part of the Right to Life, India does not have a specific law governing issues related to privacy.  Also, the authority is required to maintain details of every request for authentication and the response provided.  However, maximum duration for which such data has to be stored is not specified.  Authentication data provides insights into usage patterns of an Aadhaar number holder.  Data that has been recorded over a long duration of time may be misused for activities such as profiling an individual’s behaviour.

NATGRID: Should Parliament have a role?

June 20th, 2011 1 comment

The Union government’s Cabinet Committee on Security recently gave clearance to the Home Ministry’s NATGRID project.  The project aims to allow investigation and law enforcement agencies to access real-time information from data stored with agencies such as the Income Tax Department, banks, insurance companies, Indian Railways, credit card transactions, and more.  NATGRID, like a number of other government initiatives (UIDAI), is being established through governmental notifications rather than legislation passed in Parliament.  The examination of this issue requires an assessment of the benefits of legislation vis-a-vis government notifications.

Government notifications can be issued either under a specific law, or independent of a parent law, provided that the department issuing such notification has the power to do so.  Rules, regulations which are notified have the advantage of flexibility since they can be changed without seeking Parliamentary approval.

This advantage of initiating projects or establishing institutions through government notifications is also potentially of detriment to the system of checks and balances that a democracy rests on.  For, while legislation takes a longer time to be enacted (it is discussed, modified and debated in Parliament before being put to vote), this also enables elected representatives to oversee various dimensions of such projects.  In the case of NATGRID, the process would provide Parliamentarians the opportunity to debate the conditions under which private individual information can be accessed, what information may be accessed, and for what purpose.  This time consuming process is in fact of valuable import to projects such as NATGRID which have a potential impact on fundamental rights.

Finally, because changing a law is itself a rigorous process, the conditions imposed on the access to personal information attain a degree of finality and cannot be ignored or deviated from.  Government rules and regulations on the other hand, can be changed by the concerned department as and when it deems necessary.  Though even governmental action can be challenged if it infringes fundamental rights, well-defined limits within laws passed by Parliament can help provide a comprehensive set of rules which would prevent their infringement in the first place.

The Parliamentary deliberative process in framing a law is thus even more important than the law itself.  This is especially so in cases of government initiatives affecting justiciable rights.  This deliberative process, or the potential scrutiny of government drafted legislation on the floor of Parliament ensures that limitations on government discretion are clearly laid down, and remedies to unauthorised acts are set in stone.  This also ensures that the authority seeking to implement the project is

The other issue pertains to the legal validity of the project itself.  Presently, certain departmental agencies maintain databases of personal information which helps them provide essential services, or maintain law and order.  The authority to maintain such databases flows from the laws which define their functions and obligations.  So the power of maintaining legal databases is implicit because of the nature of functions these agencies perform.  However, there is no implicit or explicit authorization to the convergence of these independent databases.

One may argue that the government is not legally prevented from interlinking databases.  However, the absence of a legal challenge to the creation of NATGRID does not take away from the importance of establishing such a body through constitutionally established deliberative processes.  Therefore, the question to be asked is not whether NATGRID is legally or constitutionally valid, but whether it is important for Parliament to oversee the establishment of NATGRID.

In October 2010, the Ministry of Personnel circulated an “Approach paper for a legislation on privacy”.  The paper states: “Data protection can only be ensured under a formal legal system that prescribes the rights of the individuals and the remedies available against the organization that breaches these rights. It is imperative, if the aim is to create a regime where data is protected in this country, that a clear legislation is drafted that spells out the nature of the rights available to individuals and the consequences that an organization will suffer if it breaches these rights.”

As the lines above exemplify, it is important for a robust democracy to codify rights and remedies when such rights may be potentially affected.  The European Union and the USA, along with a host of other countries have comprehensive privacy laws, which also lay down conditions for access to databases, and the limitations of such use.  The UIDAI was established as an executive authority, and still functions without statutory mandate.  However, a Bill seeking to establish the body statutorily has been introduced, and its contents are being debated in the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance and the Bill has also been deliberated on by civil society at large.

A similar approach is imperative in the case of NATGRID to uphold the sovereign electorate’s right to oversee institutions that may affect it in the future.

 

Legislation referred to parliamentary committees for scrutiny and report

December 23rd, 2010 No comments

In the recently concluded Winter Session of Parliament, nine Bills were introduced. Of the Bills introduced, 4 bills have been referred to the relevant Standing Committee for examining the Bill. The Standing Committees have been given three months to scrutinize the bills, hold consultations and present a report.  Details of these Bills are:

1.      The Forward Contracts (Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2010 (to be examined by the Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution)

2.      The Multi-State Co-operative Societies (Amendment) Bill, 2010 (to be examined by the Committee on Agriculture)

3.      The NIMHANS, Bangalore Bill, 2010 (to be examined by the Committee on Health and Family Welfare)

4.      The National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 (to be examined by the Committee on Finance)

The composition of the Standing Committees examining the Bills can be found here. Typically, during the process of review the parliamentary standing committees issue advertisements in newspapers inviting public feedback and comments on the Bill. As and when the advertisements appear, details can be found on the PRS website.

Pre-legislative scrutiny: How can citizens be more actively involved?

December 18th, 2010 1 comment

In recent public discourse over lobbying, two issues that have underscored the debate are:

  1. Greater transparency in the policymaking process, and
  2. Equality of access for all stakeholders in engaging with the process.

There is a need to build linkages between citizens and the policy making process, especially by strengthening scrutiny before a Bill is introduced in Parliament. Currently, there is no process established to ensure pre-legislative scrutiny by the citizenry.

Other democracies incorporate several measures to enhance public engagement in the pre-legislative process. These include:

  • Making all Bills available in the public domain for a stipulated period before introducing them in the legislature. This includes, publishing these Bills in forms (language, medium etc) that are accessible to the general public.
  • Making a report or Green paper on the legislative priorities addressed by the Bill available for citizens.
  • Forming adhoc committees to scrutinise the Bill before it is piloted in the House.
  • Having Standing Committees examine the Bill before introducing it in the House.
  • Providing a financial memorandum for each Bill, which specifies the budgetary allocation for the process/bodies created by the Bill.
  • Creating online fora for discussion. For the sections of the stakeholders who have limited access to the internet, efforts are made to proactively consult them through other media.
  • Expanding the purview of citizens’ right to petition their representatives with legislative proposals.

There are several instances, in the last few years itself, wherein civil society groups have played an active role in the development of pre-legislative scrutiny in India.

  • Public consultation with cross-section of stakeholders when drafting a Bill: The Right to Information Act is seen as a landmark legislation when highlighting the role of civil society actors in the drafting of a Bill.  It also serves as a prime example for how it the movement mobilised widespread public opinion for the Bill, bringing together different sections of the citizenry.
  • Public feedback on draft Bills: In several cases, after a Bill has been drafted the concerned ministry or public body publishes the Bill, inviting public comments. The Right to Education Bill, the National Identification Authority Bill and the Draft Direct Taxes Code Bill 2009 are recent cases in point. These announcements are made through advertisements published in newspapers and other media. For instance, the government has recently proposed to amend the rules of the RTI and has invited public feedback on the rules by December 27.
  • Engaging with legislators: It is important to expand engagement with lawmakers after the Bill has been introduced in Parliament, as they will determine what the law will finally contain.  This is done by approaching individual legislators or members of the committee which is likely to examine the legislation. Standing Committees invite feedback on the Bill through newspaper advertisements.  For instance, the Standing Committee examining the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill heard testimonies from journalists, civil society groups, thinktanks, public bodies and government departments.

The role of the media and channelising the potential of the internet are other key approaches that need to be explored. Other examples and channels of engagement with the legislative process are illustrated in the PRS Primer on Engaging with Policymakers