Interview with Reetika Khera
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The Identity project emerged as a result of our dissatisfaction at the nature of the debate that was emerging on the area of digital governance in India.
Over the past three years we have conducted numerous field visits in seven Indian states.These visits include numerous video-conversations, some short and others very long, with a diverse number of those who were involved with this entire process of participating in the emergence of a digital ecosystem of governance. These are interviews with people being enrolled into the Aadhaar programme, with district-level Panchayat and other officials, with numerous State government bureaucrats, with private enrollment representatives, representatives of various governmental services, with operators and other members of this digital workforce. Conversations are often long, spontaneous and deliberately unstructured: and the focus is mainly on a vérité style using amateur video.
Some key issues that we shortlisted for detailed inquiry were issues of migrants, both domestic and across international borders, homelessness in cities, and the financially excluded. Each of these areas was discussed in considerable detail at major public consultations held in Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Bangalore, in partnership with the CSDS, the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, and the Urban Research and Policy Programme Initiative of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. All videos of all presentations made at these events are also available here.
CSCS also has an extensive text archives of material on the field as a whole, available on http://eprints.cscsarchives.org
This interview with Reetika Khera, social scientist from IIT-Delhi, reveals her scepticism about the UID in programmes such as NREGA and the Public Distribution System (PDS). She questions the lack of information in the UID white papers about these existing schemes. UID needs biometrics but biometrics does not need UID. With regard to the UIDAI claim of portability in the PDS system with Aadhaar, she raises some important points with respect to whether the existing structure of the PDS can allow for portability or whether migrants really want to draw their rations from the places they migrate to considering that, in many cases, they leave their families behind. Another area touched upon by her is the question of cash transfers and challenges associated in successfully implementing it.
But actually when I read the documents that they have on their website I was quite disappointed because you know a very quick read of the document even for a lay person will tell you quite immediately that they know very little about the implementation of both the NREGA and PDS.
For instance in the NREGA document they say that there is a lot of leakage of wages because wages are paid in cash and that once we have UID we can open banks accounts and then when you open bank accounts the money can go into these bank accounts and that will plug leakages to a very large extent.
What is true is that if money goes into bank accounts, wage leakages can be plugged but I was really shocked that this document written in 2010 did not know that bank accounts were being opened for NREGA workers since 2008. In fact it had become compulsory in 2008 to pay NREGA wages through bank and post office accounts.
So you know the possibility of plugging the wage leakages had already been explored and exploited. There was nothing very new that UID could do there. And similarly in the case of PDS, the claims that are made are exaggerated. They are not completely redundant but they are exaggerated. The one unique contribution of the UID to the PDS would be to get rid of the problem of duplicate ration cards.
So if I am entitled to only one ration card and because I know the sarpanch and I know the somebody else in a powerful position, I manage to get two ration cards or even more. If there is UID then it will not be possible to have more than one because everything will be linked to my biometrics.
But again over there what is important is that the de-duplication happens because of the use of the biometrics by the UID project. So UID needs biometrics, but biometrics don’t need UID. So it is possible to reap the benefits that the UID is claiming as its own just by doing a biometric database of PDS card holders without linking it to a UID database.
Andhra has been using biometrics in small places here and there. I am glad you bring up Andhra Pradesh because recently I had a chance to go and look at how things work over there. So the really important thing is that Andhra Pradesh has been putting that system into place since the past 4 years.
And even today relatively higher up officials acknowledge how difficult the whole process has been and that even today, every day they are working on fine tuning the system, and that it is not nearly in place to be scaled up in the way that the government is thinking at the moment.
So biometrics is being used, and theirs is the most sensible sort of approach where they try it out in small pocket and they try to scale it up. They try two or three different approaches. That I don't think is happening in the case of UID.
Interviewer: So coming to PDS there is this thing that once you have the UID. One of the rationales is that you could be a migrant worker in Bihar but if you go to Assam and you have this UID card because of the mobility of the number and identity access to things like food in this case is going to be that much easier. But is that a fallacious argument?
Speaker: So this portability claim is actually worth examining quite carefully. One is, are we talking about portability in the PDS, or are we talking about portable benefits under different social support programmes like cash transfers.
In the case of cash transfers, portability is very easy. You and I have ATM cards and we can use it anywhere in the country. There is nothing new about that phenomena. In the case of the PDS it is not as straight forward. I will try to explain why.
The way the PDS works today, each state is told you can issue 'x no. of BPL ration cards. Only those who have BPL ration cards are entitled to grain from the PDS at subsidized prices. Now in each state there is a fixed amount of grain going for all the BPL card holders of that state.
So think of Bihar and think of a migrant worker in Barsoi Block in Khathar District, and he decided to cross the border into West Bengal and work over there. Now UID people say benefits will be portable and they just have to take the UID card or the number walks with them. Your identity walks with you and you just go and put your finger print at any PDS shop in West Bengal and you can draw you rations there. But it is not so straight forward.
Because my ration is coming to Barsoi. Whereas if I try to avail ration from a shop in Darjeeling in West Bengal, they are not going to have my quota. They don’t have allocation for me coming there. And therefore, either they don't give to somebody else and give me mine or this whole system, the way the PDS system works needs to be overhauled.
In a very different sort of way. So the portability, I mean bringing portability into the system is obviously a very good thing. But whether given the way the PDS is currently structured in not exactly clear. Also this is something I genuinely don't know about. But migrants who come to cities they may not necessarily with draw their rations in the city.
If it is the whole family coming to work as migrant labourers then they may bring their ration card with them and they may appreciate getting their ration in the city. But if only the male member is coming then he may prefer that the ration card stays at home with his family. And maybe his wife and children can get the grain.
This is an empirical sort of question that we need to find out more about.
Interviewer: Coming to this whole question of cash transfers. There is a lot of buzz about cash transfers. The Delhi government with the UNDP and the Seva Bharath is doing a pilot project with some families looking at how had PDS replaced cash transfers. I think pushing the PID makes sense for them. How do make sense of the cash transfer itself. Its viability and its linkages with the UID.
Speaker: If the government wants to do cash transfers then a biometric database which doesn't allow people to get more than one account will be necessary. In the case of subsidised food richer people may withdraw right. They may say that they don't need the subsidised food grains.
You see that in Tamil Nadu. In Tamil Nadu where there is a universal PDS and even IIT professors like me can go and buy free rice 20kilos. You find that amongst the top 20% about 1/3rd don't take from the PDS. There is a self selecting out of system because people feel that we don't need the subsidy from the government.
But in the case of cash. Everyone wants cash right. The proportion withdrawing from the system is going to be much smaller right? So therefore you need to make sure that there are no duplicates in the system and people will try pretty damn hard to get more than one account because cash everyone has use for.
So de-duplication is even more important in the case of cash transfers then it is in the case of subsidized grain. For de-duplication as I said you need biometrics, not necessarily an integrated database like the UID. But you know the prior question is who wants cash, right?
Based on this survey that we just finished in 10 states across the country we find that there is very little support amongst rural people for cash. Except in the state of Bihar where the PDS is completely not working. About 50% of the respondents said that they were open to the idea of cash transfer instead of the PDS. But in all the other states people were very clear that they didn't want cash and the PDS was performing a very useful role in their lives.
And quite surprisingly the reasons that people gave were very enlightening for us. So they said that it ensures supply of grains at our doorstep. In the sense bringing grain into the village. If it going to be cash we will spend a day getting the money out from the bank which is 5 or 10 kilometres away. We will spend another day getting to the market to buy because even the markets are not very nearby.
There might be a kirana shop in the village itself but he sells at a higher price right. If you are going to rely on the market for all the purchases then you don't want to buy from the kirana shop you want to buy it from slightly wholesale kind of market.
So the PDS has this very important role of making sure that the grain comes into the village and it is available at a fixed reasonable price. Whereas cash would increase their transactions costs considerably in terms of time and trips to withdraw money and then get the rations. But also in terms of paying for your bus fare of hiring something or whatever it is to get money and grain.
Besides that, people are very concerned about how the government is going to adequately deal with the problem of inflation. So we explain to these respondents that the amount that is given to them will be indexed to prices. But then they say, how does the government know what is going on in my village. They are going to look at the state inflation rate or they might look at the district inflation rate.
Within a district there will be a lot of variation and certainly with a state there is going to be a lot of variation. And that kind of fine tuning of the system I don't think is possible with the sort of data we have at the moment on prices. So cash, I don't think people at the moment.... people are certainly not very open to the idea and also they appreciate the food security aspect of the PDS.
The rural economy is not quite equipped in many parts of the country. Of course in some places markets are functioning relatively well and access is not an issue there maybe people are more open to the idea.