Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Work on SC observations…..but expand Aadhar even more

The SC has made a few caustic observations about the Congress’s ambitious Aadhar program. While no one can fault the specific observations made by the Apex court, the SC could have used language that encouraged this progressive initiative of the government. It needn’t have looked like a rebuke (The TOI yesterday reported “The Supreme Court on Monday dealt a crippling blow to the UPA’s showpiece Aadhaar scheme”). Rather than getting disheartened, the government must work on the SC’s observations and make Aadhar all-pervasive.

One of the rulings made by the SC is that the Aadhar card should only be given to Indian citizens. This is perfectly right. After all, if the purpose of Aadhar is to identify Indians, it should only be given to Indians. The Social Security card in the US is given only to Americans after all, right? The reality is that this ruling hardly affects the actual program. The number of illegal immigrants is rather limited – a few millions, largely from Bangladesh, and largely limited to the East/North-East. Putting a process of verification of Indian citizenship may be cumbersome, but its not such a difficult thing to do. The government must develop new means, not relying only on the police (which we know is inefficient), of identifying citizenship.

The other observation is that the Aadhar card should be voluntary. This means that the government cannot deny the benefits of its subsidy programs to those who do not opt for the card. This also is fair, given that in a democracy, sharing personal information like biometrics should be voluntary. However, this ruling is also not a problem, for if the government links cash dole-outs to Aadhar, there is an in-built incentive for the poor to enroll. Who doesn’t want cash in hand, instead of the poor service and sub-standard grains he gets at a PDS shop?

Why I am saying that the SC should have used encouraging language is because of the massive benefits that it brings for the country. If anything, it is an example of exemplary governance. India would be ahead of even developed countries with this program. One of the biggest benefits that has already been highlighted enough is that of cutting wasteful subsidies. Today, many beneficiaries avail of a higher quota of foodgrains than they are eligible for, by faking the identities of others. With a biometric card, this would become a thing of the past, cutting subsidies dramatically (by some estimates, by 25-50%).

But there are at least three other major benefits that the Aadhar programme achieves.

First, it is a bold move to cut corruption out of the entire PDS system. With payment being routed directly into the beneficiary’s bank a/c, there is no role left for middlemen. The PDS shopkeeper who routinely diverts foodgrains to the market for profit will be unable to do so, as beneficiaries will buy their requirements in the open market. In the case of MNREGA payments, the role of the contractor would be substantially reduced (though it will continue to exist, because the contractor would still be the one certifying the work done by a beneficiary). Ditto in other government schemes, where concepts like “facilitation fees” and “speed money” account for a bulk of the corruption.

Second, and no one has pointed this out, is the impact that biometrics will have on solving crime. Every criminal leaves behind tell-tale signs of his act. Investigators can lift finger-prints from most crime scenes. The problem is that these finger-prints are useless without a database of finger-prints of all citizens of the country. With Aadhar, that becomes a reality. In the future, every finger-print lifted from a crime scene can be identified, thanks to Aadhar. Most crimes would get solved. Our investigation work would be better – hence the innocent won’t have to suffer. More importantly, the real criminals will be put behind bars with a definite certainty.

Third, Aadhar’s role in social inclusiveness is unparalleled. My own driver finally managed to open his bank account in SBI with his Aadhar card. Now I can pay him by cheque or electronic transfer, bringing his finances into the open. He is kicked about having a debit card, and if he starts paying more using his card, our economy will become more “documented”. The benefits to him, in terms of safety of cash, availability whenever he wants it, being able to earn interest, etc are huge. Transferring money across states – like all migrants do to their families in the villages – becomes easy. Also, since most people already have mobile phones, the advantages of mobile phone banking could be brought to them.

That’s why I get upset when politics enters this vital transformational agenda of the government. The BJP hates Aadhar because it knows that it is proof of the Congress’s commitment to the poor. And a sign of good governance. BJP supporters (readers of my blog) make inane comments like “the photo is of poor quality” or “the card looks trashy” when they comment on Aadhar. Other critics have pointed out the several start-up problems that the government has faced in is Direct Benefits Transfer (Cash transfers) program. But lets not forget, this is just a start. We must expect teething problems. But we shouldn’t give up. The benefits are just too enormous for us to give up.

The real truth is that Aadhar is a revolutionary move. It is evidence of good governance. It should be supported by all who want to weed out corruption. It has huge benefits in reducing crime. It’s impact on social inclusiveness, and the resultant transparency it brings out, is profound. We must support the program, not politicize it….

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