Does Arun Jaitley’s blog on Aadhaar accidentally reveal much more than intended?

Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley has written a flog on Aadhaar, which makes several statements that should cause concern to the citizens of India. They indicate not just a willingness to fling around unverified numbers for dramatic effect, but an alarming recklessness as to the implications of those numbers.

Here are some of those implications:

Digital Dividend Report prepared by the World Bank estimates that India can save Rs. 77,000 crore every year by the use of Aadhaar.

This number has rightfully drawn the ire of critics since it has been shown to be false repeatedly since the time it was first published over a year ago. For those who missed it, here is the critique in a nutshell.

  • Shweta Banerjee authored a brief for the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) titled ‘From Cash to Digital Transfers in India: The Story So Far‘. This document estimates the Indian government’s total expenditure on cash transfers (of direct benefits) to be $11.2 billion (Rs. 70 crore).
  • A 2016 World Bank report ‘World Development Report 2016 – Digital Dividends‘ referenced this brief, but misquoted the total expenditure of $11.2 billion as estimated savings through reduced leakages and efficiency gains.
  • This was used by the government to “prove” the benefits of Aadhaar and it continues to be used, regardless of how many times the false data is pointed out. These known-to-be-wrong figures have been presented in Parliament and in the Supreme Court of India to justify the very existence of the Aadhaar scheme. Jaitley’s blog is a piddly detail in comparison.

However, this insistence on using a figure that has repeatedly been debunked raises some questions, none of which bode well for India.

If the Finance Minister of the country does not have access to data related to Aadhaar, who is in control of this runaway horse?

While Arun Jaitley using the much debunked misquoted data has led to extensive and justified criticism and ridicule, what seems to have escaped the attention of most is that the government, their lawyers speaking for them in the Supreme Court, the UIDAI, the lawyers of the UIDAI and the Finance Minister of the country appear to have no access to the actual data around Aadhaar.

A number being disproved would be a simple matter to abandon and correct figures be used – IF – they had them. Even if the figures were inconvenient and actually showed lesser savings or losses, the government could simply have talked about other things. It appears that the government has no actual official figures on savings directly under their control, which is why they are reduced to quoting a World Bank report that misqotes a brief….. instead of simply placing official data on record. [Note: The few times data has been tabled in Parliament, only select schemes have been discussed and never the entire gamut of Aadhaar-linked subsidies.]

If the Finance Minister of the country has to rely on World Bank reports about money saved under him, then is there anybody at all in the driving seat, and what does this mean for the country and its finances?

Is the government actually planning to axe welfare spending altogether?

Another explanation for this persistence in expecting Aadhaar to save the entire amount of money transferred to the poor is if…..

the government is actually planning to save the entire amount in the future.

So far, we have seen Aadhaar result in exclusion rates averaging around 10% or higher when it comes to welfare, with rates as high as 47% reported for some welfare schemes. We are talking of widows and old people denied pension, gas subsidies not being transferred in spite of linking Aadhaar repeatedly, failures in MNREGA payments for work already done and more. This denial of rights has resulted in stiff opposition among those affected.

The government has repeatedly denied that exclusions happen. At other times, they have assured that exclusions will not happen. The exclusions continue to happen. The pilot for DBT in Jharkhand was a dismal failure and rejected completely by both people and government.

Yet, are these 10% failures merely a preparation for increasing exclusion to reach 100% – the amount Jaitley and the government have repeatedly projected as savings and refuse to budge from in the face of all reason – because it is a prophecy awaiting fulfilment?

The 40 rupee dollar is not going to happen

From $11.2 billion being INR 70,000 crore to Arun Jaitley saying it is INR 77,000 crore…. you get the picture.

But there are more dubious numbers here.

Here are some quotes:

In the last 28 months over 122 crore Aadhaar numbers have been issued.

Arun Jaitley

This is incorrect in so many ways, that there needs to be an award for how much incorrectness can be fit into asingle sentence.

But firstly, what is the big deal about 28 months, you wonder? Why not a nice round figure? Why not a number of years? Well, you see, the Aadhaar Act came into force 28 months ago. Before that, Aadhaar had no legislative backing. As was forcefully argued in the Supreme Court, enrolments up to that point, largely involving private entities as enrolling agencies, were illegal, and invariably conducted without any concern for informed consent – even the forms did not explicitly ask for consent!

The government has miserably attempted to conceal its shame over the gross unconstutionality of this process: even now they are manipulating the Aadhaar Act through specious amendments to get around the Supreme Court flat out calling out the unconstitutionality of allowing private entities access to the Aadhaar ecosystem, so Mr. Jaitley is trying to whitewash all Aadhaar enrolments in a nice and lawful hue. So that they can now figure out how to sell that non-consensually acquired data further down the road while showing the Supreme Court the middle finger. But I digress. Here are the facts.

  • 122 crore is the total number of Aadhaar holders enrolled since the beginning in September 2010 and not 28 months ago from September 2016 (when the Aadhaar Act came into force in entirety, and the government would like to believe that it did all enrolments legally, when it didn’t).
  • More importantly, the press release by the Ministry of Communications in April 2016, before the Aadhaar Act came into force states that they have crossed 100 crore enrolments.
  • The 122 crore Aadhaar numbers include any wrongly created Aadhaars, dead people and more. There is no way for the UIDAI to verify the validity of the Aadhaars issued by them, as admitted in the Supreme Court. They consider it the duty of the enrolment agents – those people they conned into taking loans to get into the enrolment business at their own expense and dumped when the obvious flaws in allowing any semi-literate jugaadu Tom Dick and Harry access to their database started avalanching. Of course, it isn’t like they pay rates for enrolments that could possibly cover verifications. Basically, no one verifies. So, the 99% is at best a guess and more likely wistful thinking. The STF had stated in the wake of the Kanpur Aadhaar enrolment scam that only a complete audit of Aadhaar data could determine how many fake Aadhaars were in the system. No such audit has ever been done.
  • This is also not counting 13 states with more Aadhaar holders than their existing populations as far back as 2015. Of course, the dramatic winner here is Hyderabad. Probably because it got a head start on fake Aadhaar enrolments.

There are more problems with the blog, not the least being a complete lack of acknowledgment of the extensive exclusion of rightful beneficiaries that is being counted as “savings”. Even with the exclusions, the actual savings are nowhere close to the claims.

In the beginning of the article, Jaitley mentions issues the BJP had earlier with illegal immigrants being enrolled for Aadhaar. Suffice it to say, not just has that problem not been resolved, the UIDAI actually has no way to prevent such enrolments even now, despite direct orders from the Supreme Court. Somehow it does not appear to bother him as much, even as terrorists are routinely being found with Aadhaar cards.

It is paramount to understand that the Supreme Court struck down access to Aadhaar data by private entities as unconstitutional; the government is pushing through Amendments to the Aadhaar, Telegraph, and PML Acts in order to guarantee such access; and the Finance Minister of the country is busy blogging lies about Aadhaar.

Vidyut

Vidyut is a commentator on socio-political issues with a keen understanding of tech and policy. She has been observing and commenting on Aadhaar since 2010 from a perspective of human rights, democracy and technological robustness.

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