Given how Aadhaar-based cash transfers are the best way to reduce the galloping subsidy bill—the LPG cash trials in pilot districts provided enough proof of concept—the home ministry’s proposed takeover of Aadhaar is unfortunate. The plan is to physically verify if the 640 million Aadhaar-number holders are bona fide citizens. This would entail, for instance, putting the names of Aadhaar-number holders up on a notice board in a locality and then inviting comments on whether they are citizens or not—in short, it will be a long and dispute-ridden process. While a citizen card is a good thing, Aadhaar is quite distinct from the home ministry’s National Population Register (NPR) which is where the citizen card would emerge from. Ideally, they should have been part of the same project but they were separated for reasons of speed—right now, for every three Aadhaar numbers, NPR has issued just one. While it is still not clear the NPR’s detailed surveys of an area and its residents before doing biometrics will actually weed out non-citizens—it would be a good idea to see how it works in
Assam—Aadhaar’s job was to get biometric data of people, regardless of whether they were citizens or not.
So even if an illegal Bangladeshi migrant got an Aadhaar number, what Aadhaar’s de-duplication software did was to ensure there were no two persons with the same biometrics that had different Aadhaar numbers—the software was robust enough to allow points of sale like ration shops to SMS the biometrics of a user to check on her identity and get a reply within a few seconds. So, in the case of LPG cylinders where oil company officials believe a seventh of the registrations are fake—one person has more than one LPG account—use of Aadhaar would help cull these out. Putting all Aadhaar numbers through the NPR filter will ensure it can’t be rolled out for direct cash transfers for several years.
Even the NPR, it has to be pointed out, can be misused when it comes to giving cash transfers to just the poor if the local authorities aren’t doing their job well. If an area has 100 people of which 10 are poor, neither Aadhaar nor NPR can determine whether the chosen 10 are in fact poor—that is something the local administration has to do. All that either scheme can do is to match the 10 persons chosen for the subsidy with their