Aadhaar-based biometric authentication including the public distribution system (PDS) has become a common feature of welfare programs in India. Biometrics may help plug leakages but it is the scheme’s design that must take steps against beneficiary exclusion, says a study. 

Mandatory Aadhaar-based biometric authentication has become a common feature of welfare programs in India, including the public distribution system (PDS). This authentication is meant to plug leakages. However, if it is not designed well, it can hurt beneficiary experience, suggests research

Karthik Muralidharan and others conducted a large-scale randomized evaluation of Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA) of Jharkhand’s PDS.

As ABBA was gradually rolled out across the state, they compared the effects of ABBA in sub-districts that implemented it, first with sub-districts that had not implemented ABBA yet and were relying on the erstwhile system of using ration cards to collect subsidized food grains.

The researchers found that ABBA on its own did not significantly affect leakages. One reason for this is that though biometric authentication ensures the right beneficiary receives benefits, it does nothing to eliminate quantity fraud. Ration shop dealers can still undercut entitlements.

Moreover, beneficiary transaction costs rose 17% as unsuccessful authentications resulted in multiple trips to the ration shops. Finally, beneficiary households without Aadhaar were hit as they experienced a 10% fall in benefits after ABBA.

Leakages, though, reduced after another set of reforms. After the complete rollout of ABBA, the government began disbursing grain to ration shops on the basis of authenticated transactions. The researchers found that this significantly reduced the total disbursal of grain and, consequently, leakages. Yet, this did not change beneficiary experience with exclusion and reduced beneficiary benefits persisting

The authors cited a study in Andhra Pradesh, where biometric authentication reduced leakages and improved beneficiary experience. They suggested the Jharkhand experience could be a result of program design. They said biometric authentication can plug leakages but only if it is implemented keeping beneficiary experience in mind.

Aadhaar was first formulated as an idea in 2009 under the then ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDIA) was the main authority responsible for the Aadhaar system and this agency was set up as an extension of the Planning Commission of India (an important government-funded policy think tank).[6] The project was headed by Nandan Nilekani, the co-founder of one of India’s premier IT firms, Infosys and was designed to simplify the bureaucratic nature of government schemes in India.

adhaar’s importance cannot be understated—it contains the data of billions of people, and the security of this data and the system itself is an incredibly important point of political contention. Complicating the issue is that fact that ever since its inception, Aadhaar has been plagued by a myriad of internal and legal problems, as well as major leaks and vulnerabilities in the overall security of the system.