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Can biometrics improve welfare services in India?

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International Visitor Reetika Khera investigates the risks of collecting biometric data on every Indian citizen.
Photo Credit: 
Kent Safford

Reetika Khera is a development economist who studies hunger, nutrition, public health, corruption, and basic education in India. She is the Sulaiman Mutawa Associate Chair in Economics at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. While at the Stanford Humanities Center, she has been working on a book about India's ambitious Aadhaar  program. An initiative of the Indian government, Aadhaar  aims to give a unique identification number to every Indian based on biometrics, including a scan of an individual's fingerprints and iris. Each person can get an Aadhaar  number by using existing identification documents, or using an "introducer" system if they don't have documents.

Advocates of this program have convinced many Indians that Aadhaar  will increase the efficiency of government programming and decrease wastage and corruption in welfare services. Khera questions those assumptions.

Q. What is the focus of your current research?

I am currently working on an edited book on Aadhaar  which brings together critical and dissenting views on the project. The book includes contributions from economists, legal and technology experts, civil liberties activists, and other concerned citizens.

Q. What drew you to examine Aadhaar and how it is implemented in India? 

My interest in the Aadhaar  program arose out of the early claims that it would improve the implementation of social policy in India—through greater inclusion and reduced corruption. The program was the brainchild of Nandan Nilekani (an Indian tech czar), and the claims were, for instance, that fewer people would be excluded from programs of social support such as food aid or social security pensions. In speaking to the program’s supporters and reading their documents, I began to realize that they were, in a sense, barking up the wrong tree. The proponents of Aadhaar  believed that "identity fraud" (i.e., me pretending to be you) was the main source of corruption in Indian welfare services. In fact, "quantity fraud" (my getting less than my entitlement, typically through the deliberate withholding of a portion of the aid by the distributor) is the bigger beast to worry about. Biometric authentication can’t fix quantity fraud. I had to expose their erroneous understanding.

It was like a "cure" (biometrics) that was in search of a "disease" (identity fraud). Let me explain: fraud in welfare is an issue, but it is quantity fraud and eligibility fraud, much more than identity fraud, that plague the system. A resident’s unique number, stored biometric data, etc., can do next to nothing about quantity or eligibility fraud. Moreover, even the cure is not quite the magic pill that it is made out to be, as biometrics are in fact easily replicated, and therefore can enable identity fraud.

Q. How do you conduct your research? 

I have mostly worked with quantitative data, both secondary data, generated by surveys undertaken by the government’s statistical machinery, and primary data. Much of my work around Aadhaar  has been to generate careful field evidence on (what has turned out to be) the fallout of the Aadhaar  program for the most marginalized groups of Indian society.

For example, quite recently—during the time I was in residence at the Stanford Humanities Center, in fact—an eleven-year-old girl named Santoshi in the eastern state of Jharkhand, died of starvation. Her family was entitled to subsidized rations as part of the government’s food security program, but because their Aadhaar  number had not been properly linked to the appropriate database, her family’s name was struck off the rolls. Her mother says she was pleading for rice as she lost consciousness. After Santoshi, three other hunger-related deaths have occurred. After these deaths, for a day or so, this was national news. This is a sad comment on Indian democracy.

Santoshi’s case is not unique, although it is particularly tragic. Across the Indian states that have linked  food distribution to Aadhaar  biometric demands, increasing numbers of people have reported being unable to access their allocated grain entitlements. These are quite literally the foods that sustain them. Due to technical failures with the machinery, problems with electrical and cell connectivity, registry mistakes, and the sheer fact that elderly and disabled people must now appear in person to be biometrically identified (whereas previously an elderly widow might have sent a family member or neighbor to collect her rice, for instance), many have been unable to access these desperately needed foods.

Given the scale of the damage that the project has caused, in the course of our field visits we have also been recording video testimonies and documenting individual cases on a large scale to help people understand what is going on. Recently, I worked with two documentary filmmakers who have produced a film called Food or Aadhaar about the impact the Aadhaar  program has on individuals in villages. By and large, my methods are quantitative, although my motivations remain "humanist."

Q. What would people be surprised to learn about Aadhaar?

The marketing of Aadhaar  as a welfare-enhancing, pro-poor, anti-corruption program has been hugely successful. So much so that no matter how much contradictory evidence is presented, and no matter in what form it is presented, the view that it is helping disadvantaged people is hard to dislodge.

Santoshi’s case is one which has tragically resulted in her death. There are thousands, or even millions, of others who are in similarly vulnerable situations (e.g., old people who cannot walk to claim their benefits), leading to exclusion. Their voices rarely make it to mainstream media. I think if people realized the scale of the problems, they would be outraged. Moreover, the Indian Supreme Court has issued six orders categorically prohibiting the government from making Aadhaar  compulsory, but neither this nor the previous government have paid heed to the Court’s orders.

Q. Why is it valuable to study universal ID numbers, biometrics, and how they are collected by governments?  

Universal ID numbers, biometrics, the creation of centralized databases, and so forth have become very popular with governments even in countries where those same governments are otherwise inclined to do very little. Even the World Bank is pushing in this direction (e.g., the 2016 World Development Report was on "Digital Dividends").

Anytime you create a centralized database, you create a data security vulnerability. Centralized databases that are interlinked among each other magnify those vulnerabilities. I suspect that the government’s enthusiasm for Aadhaar  is rooted in the fact that large databases, and big data in general, create huge commercial opportunities for data mining. Contrary to many claims, not all the data mining is used for the advancement of human well-being; mathematician Cathy O’Neil’s recent work shows us that it is also deployed in dubious ways.

Political commentator and comedian John Oliver has also made us acutely aware that as academics we have terrible communication skills. I suggest that everyone watch his discussion on surveillance, forensics, and the recent Equifax data breach to fully understand the dangers that lie ahead if we go down this path. I look forward to Oliver creating an episode focused on Big Data and helping us out!