The 15th Lok Sabha is close to the end of its tenure. A key legislation that proposes major reforms in food security was listed for discussion in Parliament. The National Food Security Bill, 2011 has been scrutinised by a Standing Committee. In January, we compared the Standing Committee's recommendations with the provisions of the Bill. Since then, amendments to the Bill have been introduced in Parliament. Debates on the Bill have revolved around the method of delivering food security, the identification of beneficiaries and the financial implications of the Bill. Method of delivery The Bill aims to make the right to food a statutory right. It proposes to use the existing Public Distribution System (PDS) to deliver foodgrain to 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population. However, the Bill also allows for cash transfers and food coupons in lieu of grains as mechanisms to deliver food security. While the PDS is known to suffer from leakages as high as 40%, cash transfers and food coupons are known to expose recipients to volatility and price inflation. Each method of delivery would have its own implications, financial and otherwise. The table below compares these methods of delivery.[i] [table id=7 /]
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).
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
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.
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.
A recent news report has discussed the methods by which states such as Chattisgarh have attempted to reform the Public Distribution System (PDS). Chattisgarh has computerised its PDS supply chain and introduced smart cards as part of a slew of measures to plug pilferage and weed out corruption in the system. In an effort to create a national computerised database for PDS, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs has launched an online National Transparency Portal for the Public Distribution System. The portal aims to provide end-to-end computerisation of PDS; it is a single platform in the public domain for all PDS related information. The PDS is a centrally sponsored scheme that entitles beneficiaries to subsidised foodgrains every month. Currently, beneficiaries are divided into the following groups: Below Poverty Line (BPL), Above Poverty Line and Antodaya Anna Yojana. As such, several challenges have been identified in the implementation of PDS. Some of them are as follows:
- Targeting errors: Separating beneficiaries of the PDS into three categories requires their classification and identification. Targeting mechanisms, however, have been prone to large inclusion and exclusion errors. In 2009, an expert group estimated that about 61% of the eligible population was excluded from the BPL list while 25% of non-poor households were included in the BPL list.
- Large leakages and diversion of subsidized foodgrain: Foodgrain is procured by the centre and transported from the central to state godowns. Last mile delivery from state godowns to the Fair Price Shop (FPS) where beneficiaries can purchase grain with ration cards, is the responsibility of the state government. Large quantities of foodgrain are leaked and diverted into the open market during this supply chain.
The creation of the e-portal could help track these issues more effectively and increase transparency in the system. The portal contains information relating to FPS and ration cards attached to the FPS. It is likely that this will help weed out bogus ration cards and improve targeting of subsidies. The portal also has information on capacity utilization of Food Corporation of India, state storage godowns, and data on central pool stocks. This helps track storage supplies of grains at each level and aims to prevent leakage of grain. With respect to data on PDS in states, the portal hosts information such as the central orders on monthly allocation of foodgrain to states, state-specific commodity sale prices, lifting position of states, etc. for public view. All states and union territories will be required to maintain and update the data on the portal. The reforms come at a time when the National Food Security Bill, 2011 is pending in Parliament. The Bill aims to deliver foodgrain entitlements through Targeted PDS to 75% of the rural and 50% of the urban population. The Bill is currently under examination by the Standing Committee of Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution. It proposes reforms to the TPDS, which include the application of information and communication technology, including end-to-end computerisation. These reforms seek to ensure full transparency of records in the PDS and prevent diversion of foodgrains. The creation of the e-portal might be a step towards reforming the PDS. For an analysis of the National Food Security Bill, see here.