Ever since the central government introduced the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 last year, there has been a deliberate push to link disbursements of subsidies and social entitlements with the biometric data based 12-digit unique identification (Aadhaar) number of citizens.
The subsidised LPG supply and payments under national employment guarantee scheme (MNREGA) are already Aadhaar linked. The latest to the list was the food ministry's decision, announced on February 9, to make Aadhaar mandatory to avail subsidised food entitled under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) with immediate effect.
The government claims that the use of Aadhaar as an identity document simplifies the delivery of services or benefits or subsidies, brings in transparency and efficiency, and enables beneficiaries to get their entitlements directly in a convenient and seamless manner as it obviates the need for producing multiple documents to prove one's identity.
There are over 800 million beneficiaries of the NFSA. And 20 percent of them are yet to have an Aadhaar number. The notification wants all those who have Aadhaar numbers to furnish their Aadhaar card, or prove their identity using Aadhaar linked biometric authentication before receiving their entitlements. Others will have to produce proof to show that they have already applied for one.
The notification says that state/UT governments will link the Aadhaar number of beneficiary with the Ration Card or with Bank Account for Cash Transfer of Food Subsidy within thirty days after receiving the same.
Provision has also been made that any member of eligible household listed in the Ration Card shall be entitled to receive the entire quantity of entitled subsidised food grains or Cash Transfer of Food Subsidy under NFSA, if one member of that household fulfils the identification conditions in the Ration Card -- if Aadhaar number is not yet assigned to all such members of the household.
In other words, the ministry move is a dilution of sorts from the original objective of providing government subsidies and welfare measures, including cash transfers, on the basis of Aadhaar linked biometric identification. The need for biometric authentication was opposed by some as they found that in many cases, especially among people engaged in physical labour, it (fingerprints) failed to be a credible way of authentication. By making it optional and allowing mere display of Aadhaar card as proof of identify, the government has made Aadhaar based identification similar to what one would have done with Ration Card, Voters Identity or similar official identity proofs, at least at this stage.
Perhaps, the government sees this as an interim arrangement. It can always go for biometric authentication once every eligible citizen gets an Aadhaar number. Also there will be no scope for duplication once the Aadhaar numbers are tagged to the bank accounts of the beneficiary. The other reason for the dilution could be a pending litigation in the Supreme Court against mandating Aadhaar for benefit transfers. The interim order of the apex court does not permit compulsory use of Aadhaar for such purposes.
This is not to say that food ministry's decision will not serve any purpose.
Given the fact that the immediate objective of the government to force Aadhaar identity on every citizen is to have a direct connect with the section of the population that avails social benefits, the new requirement will speed up enrolment among those who survive on subsidised food grains. To that extent, the move will increase Aadhaar penetration among the weaker sections of the society who may be the target group for other kinds of government support in future.
Mandating Aadhaar for disbursement of subsidised food may not bring in dramatic changes in the subsidised food disbursement pattern, but it will certainly help in getting all the NSFA beneficiaries tagged by Aadhaar.