As the Digital India dream is being vigorously pursued across the country, it could very well turn into a nightmare for a crucial segment of the population inhabiting the reality that is Bharat. These are the people eking out a precarious existence in remote interiors where the government machinery does not reach them. Many are unlettered, homeless, mentally ill, utterly destitute, abandoned and beyond the pale of society. They are the ones who need the government’s help utmost. Not only has the country hitherto failed them, they now risk being kept out totally by digital walls being erected in the me of efficient governce. A case in point is the mandatory linking of Aadhaar number to an ever expanding set of identity proofs, which in turn is determining the access of the poor to welfare schemes. When slip-ups occur, consequences can be tragic, as it happened in Simdega district of Jharkhand recently. An 11-year-old girl allegedly died after starving for over a week — because her family had been struck off from PDS rolls for failing to link their ration card with Aadhaar number. With her mother recounting to the media how the girl kept begging for a morsel of rice till her last breath, an embarrassed Jharkhand government has ordered a probe. Official cover-up attempts seem to have already begun, with some quarters attributing the girl’s death to malaria. But all that is beside the point. Right to Food activists fear that such incidents could recur due to faulty grassroots implementation of the government’s efforts to clean up the public distribution system (PDS). Blanket insistence on Aadhaar linkage to ration cards by block and village level officials is leading to lakhs of poor, needy people being left out of PDS rolls. While these officials scramble to meet targets of weeding out bogus ration card holders — activists allege that even when genuine beneficiaries arm themselves with Aadhaar card, officials fail to link these with ration cards as internet networks are feeble in rural areas, the server or portal is down, and the power supply is intermittent or absent. For poor families, a new ration card ‘seeded’ with the 12-digit Aadhaar number could come after a long, anxious wait, or too late in the day. Clearly, governments at the Centre and various States are steadily bypassing the Supreme Court’s directive that Aadhaar number cannot be made compulsory to avail of benefits under government welfare schemes, particularly ration cards to buy subsidised foodgrains.
A range of public and private services, however, are being inexorably linked with Aadhaar. Mid-day meal for government school students and provident fund accounts of employees will not be accessible without Aadhaar; deadlines are being set for Aadhaar linkage with bank accounts, PAN cards, income tax returns and passports. The Reserve Bank has recently clarified in response to a RTI query that while it has not issued any order for mandatory Aadhaar linkage with bank accounts, it is being done as per law ected by the Central government — under Prevention of Money-laundering (Maintence of Records) Second Amendment Rules, 2017. Telecom companies, meanwhile, have begun sending alerts to customers about linking their SIM cards with Aadhaar numbers by February next year. This drive in turn is being challenged in Supreme Court with the petitioners arguing that there is no provision under the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Fincial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 for compulsory Aadhaar-mobile phone number linkage. As for biometric details of individuals embedded in their Aadhaar card, many cyber experts have been repeatedly contesting government claims of absolute security. Threats like hackers cloning fingerprints and iris patterns, getting past facial and voice recognition software, stealing passwords and fincial information of individuals — are all too real, experts warn. These are all issues that people in Assam need to follow keenly as well, with Aadhaar rollout scheduled from December this year till 2018 end. There is talk of banks and post offices starting off as early service providers for Aadhaar in the State, though it will be the Unique Identification Authority (UIDAI) that will filly verify documents and issue Aadhaar cards. But the State government will have to ensure that ‘100% coverage’ of population is not just a target on paper. It must apply its mind so that the genuinely poor and needy — if left out from Aadhaar idvertently — are kept in the welfare net through other grassroots monitoring agencies. Union Fince Minister Arun Jaitley has outlined a vision of “1 billion Aadhaar numbers linked to 1 billion bank accounts and 1 billion mobile phones”, so that all of India can become part of the fincial and digital mainstream. Digital exclusion of utterly destitute and helpless citizens due to ham-handed implementation could well sour this dream.