Activists, Scholars Respond to Various Issues Raised by Dr Ajay Bhushan Pandey, CEO UIDAI

On 8th Aug, 2017, a press conference was organized in Delhi by Satark Nagrik Sangathan, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Right to Food Campaign and Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan to expose the claims of the Government about the benefits of Aadhaar. During the recently concluded hearings on privacy in the Supreme Court, the government made tall claims about Aadhaar ensuring food security for millions of people. The Prime Minister in February 2017, in Parliament, stated that the use of Aadhaar and technology had helped weed out 3.95 crore bogus ration cards. However, experience on the ground and information accessed under the RTI Act shows that such claims are not backed by evidence. 

In response to the press conference, the media reported Dr. Ajay Bhushan Pandey, CEO UIDAI, as saying that the findings “arise from a skewed approach” and “misinterpretations”. Further, it was reported that according to him, “to claim that Aadhaar is responsible for denial is a misconstrued fact presented with malafide intent”.

Anjali Bhardwaj, Nikhil Dey, Dipa Sinha & Amrita Johri have written to Dr. Ajay Bhushan Pandey, replying to the various issues raised by him. The contents of the letter are below and can be downloaded here.

Help us help you

Dr. Ajay Bhushan Pandey

Date: 17-8-2017

Dear Dr. Pandey,

We are a group of activists who have been working for many years with socially and economically marginalized communities in rural and urban India. We write to you with reference to the comments made by you, as reported in the media, in response to a press conference organized in Delhi by Satark Nagrik Sangathan, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Right to Food Campaign and Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan on the 8th of August 2017.

At the press conference, the following documentation and evidence was presented:

  1. Information obtained under the RTI Act which showed that there was no official data to corroborate the Prime Minister’s statement made in the Lok Sabha on February 7, 2017 that nearly 4 crore bogus ration cards had been detected through use of technology and Aadhaar.
  2. Statistics indicating that as of July 2017, only 67% of NFSA ration card holders in Rajasthan (identified by Government and seeded with Aadhaar) were able to procure their rations from the PDS outlets. The figures discussed (33% exclusion) were from the Food Department website of Government of Rajasthan.
  3. Interim findings from a field study conducted by IIT Delhi in collaboration with Ranchi University indicating continued quantity fraud, higher transaction costs and hardship as well as outright exclusion of the most vulnerable since the introduction of Aadhaar-Based Biometric Authentication (ABBA) in the PDS in Jharkhand.
  4. Testimonies of people from Delhi, including homeless people, some of whom have also filed affidavits in the Delhi High Court, explaining the different ways in which they have been unable to access ration entitlements since Aadhaar was been made mandatory for obtaining a ration card in Delhi.

On the 10th of August 2017, the media (Times of India and syndicated feed from PTI) quoted you as saying that our findings “arise from a skewed approach” and “misinterpretations”. Further, the report states that according to you, “to claim that Aadhaar is responsible for denial is a misconstrued fact presented with malafide intent”.

We were surprised and distressed to read these comments for many reasons: Some of us belong to organisations and networks who have been working for peoples’ empowerment for decades. We have carefully watched Aadhaar and its impact on the ground as it has been rolled out. Had Aadhaar in fact been a means of inclusion, empowerment, anti-corruption and efficiency in delivering entitlements to the poor and marginalized, we would have had no hesitation in presenting what we saw, and congratulating the government for its success. However, what we have seen is that as a result of the multiple government directions making Aadhaar mandatory for accessing rights and entitlements, countless numbers of people have been put through great distress to access their entitlements. We see it as our duty to put this information in the public domain, and hope that Government officials, such as yourself, would take cognizance and try and immediately find a remedy.

Unfortunately, you have been reported as questioning our presentation, and as having stated, that we have “malafide intent”. We would like to know what you base your comments upon, including having determined the malafide nature of our intent.

The suffering caused to people due to mandatory Aadhaar linking and biometric authentication can be witnessed across the country. However, we confined ourselves to Delhi, Rajasthan, and Jharkhand, because this was information backed by official statistics and/or detailed enquiry and testimonies. We would like to point out that in an ongoing matter before the Delhi High Court, scores of affidavits have been filed by people documenting how either they themselves or members of their family have been excluded from the National Food Security Act as they did not possess Aadhaar at the time when ration cards were being made.

The data available on the website of the Department of Food, Rajasthan shows that since September 2016, when Aadhaar based biometric authentication was made mandatory in the state, 25% to 33% per cent of ration card holders are not getting their rations. That amounts to more than 25 lakh families, or more than a crore of the most vulnerable people (http://food.raj.nic.in/). Similarly, according to publicly available data on the state food department website of Jharkhand (http://aahar.jharkhand.gov.in/), a substantial proportion of households in the state are not getting their monthly grain entitlements since Aadhaar based biometric authentication was introduced in the PDS - even 10% exclusion would mean 25 lakh people. It is distressing to note that despite such large scale exclusions of the poor and marginalised, the government has not been able to explain the reasons why these people have been unable to access their ration entitlements and has not taken adequate steps to remedy the problems.

Despite, official government data and evidence from the ground to the contrary, we are surprised to note that the report quotes you as saying, “Aadhaar is a technology of people's empowerment and not a tool of exclusion or denial as claimed by some activists”. All the points put forth at the press conference were backed by evidence which is publicly available, and have been shared by us through multiple platforms and fora. As you know, the Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for availing services. The Rajasthan High Court also passed an order that no beneficiary could be denied rations due to Aadhaar. We regret that the Government continues to audaciously violate the orders of the Courts. In addition, it is disturbing that instead of resolving to take corrective action on account of exclusion cased due to Aadhaar linking and biometric authentication, the Government and the UIDAI are focusing their energies on denial and escaping from dealing with redressing the core issues.

The report quotes you as saying that Aadhaar “has never claimed to be a panacea for all ills and dishonesty or acts of unscrupulous elements”. In fact, we have, for the last several years, been pointing out that Aadhaar cannot help address problems of quantity fraud, quality fraud and overcharging, which form the bulk of the corruption in the PDS. Such corruption can only be addressed if there are proper mechanisms of transparency, accountability and grievance redress which in real terms empower people to report problems in accessing their entitlements and getting redress in a time-bound manner. Grievance redress mechanisms, if any exist, remain completely ineffective, an issue on which the Supreme Court also recently expressed its disappointment and summoned chief secretaries of various states.

Further, as per the media report you said, “if a person is denied because he does not have Aadhaar or he is unable to biometrically authenticate, it is undisputedly a violation of instructions issued by the government and such violators have to be punished”. Even people like us do not know where to go, and have little knowledge of any such punishment that might have been ordered and carried out. We would like to request you to make public a copy of all such instructions issued by the government, especially in the context of Delhi, Jharkhand and Rajasthan, including the punishment that violators are liable to face. Also, kindly put the list of violators who have been punished in the last 3 years in the public domain. The information being requested for is mandated to be put out in the public domain by UIDAI as a public authority as per Section 4 of the Right to Information Act. With this letter we are enclosing a copy of the RTI application we have filed in this regard.

We would urge the UIDAI and Government of India to organize a platform for public discussion where evidence on the impact of biometric  authentication and use of Aadhaar in the delivery of public services can be presented in the public domain. We would appreciate if you would also invite us to the public discussion so that we could present our findings. In any case, we would like to organize a public dialogue, which we would like to request you to attend. If you agree, we will fix a mutually convenient time and place.

Thank you
Best wishes and regards,
Anjali Bhardwaj, Nikhil Dey, Dipa Sinha & Amrita Johri

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