The Centre may allow Aadhaar authentication on a voluntary basis for delivery of social welfare benefits by government entities in order to ensure good governance and prevent leakages, new rules issued by the ministry of electronics and information technology have said.
Under the new rules, issued on Wednesday, any central or state government department or ministry can approach the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) — the statutory body that manages Aadhaar and runs Aadhaar-based services — to use the unique 12-digit biometric number for authentication.
This request can be made for three purposes: usage of digital platforms for good governance, prevention of dissipation of welfare benefits and enabling innovation and spreading knowledge. Innovation and knowledge have not been defined.
“The central government may allow Aadhaar authentication by requesting entities in the interest of good governance, preventing leakage of public funds, promoting ease of living of residents and enabling better access to services for them,” the Aadhaar Authentication for Good Governance (Social Welfare, Innovation, Knowledge) Rules, 2020, said.
Activists said the move could lead to exclusion of poor people from getting benefits.
To be sure, the rules are in consonance with the 2018 Supreme Court judgment that struck down section 57 of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016, which earlier allowed private entities to use Aadhaar database for authentication.
Currently, the central government allows seeding of Aadhaar number for delivery of social welfare benefits under some programmes such as the Public Distribution System. However, for delivery of the benefit such as food grains under the public distribution system or money under pension schemes, Aadhaar authentication is not needed.
But with the new rules, Aadhaar authentication may become a part of withdrawing other government benefits such as pensions.
A central government official privy to the developments said the purpose of the order was to ensure that “genuine” beneficiaries get benefits of the government schemes in real-time without any delay. “Authentication will also help in plugging the leakages, if any, in the schemes. The rules provide government agencies a framework to seek UIDAI’s authentication services,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Under the authentication mechanism, the UIDAI uses its database to verify whether an Aadhaar number or biometric detail provided actually belong to a particular individual. The UIDAI server replies only in “Yes” or “No” without providing any demographic details of the person whose identify is being verified.
Currently, in the Aadhaar seeding system, the verification is done through the concerned department’s database — not that of the UIDAI.
According to the Aadhaar Act, a requesting entity means “an agency or person that submits the Aadhaar number, and demographic information or biometric information, of an individual to the Central Identities Data Repository for authentication”.
The new rule makes it clear that only the government agencies would be allowed to use Aadhaar authentication services, not any private entity. This is in line with the 2016 Supreme Court judgment that upheld the Aadhaar law but struck down section 57 which allowed private entities to use Aadhaar database for authentication.
Activists said poor connectivity in rural areas may hurt disadvantaged people.
“There is already so much evidence to show that Aadhaar has led to exclusion of poor people in disbursement of subsidised ration in Jharkhand, Odisha and Bihar. The decision could lead to further exclusion as in rural areas there is very poor connectivity and biometric of many people don’t work,” said Reetika Khera, a development economist working at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.
A study done by the Abdul Lateef Jamil Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) in 10 districts of Jharkhand by economist Karthik Muralidharan in 2019 found that the Aadhaar seeding in PDS lead to many genuine persons getting excluded with little plugging of leakages.
The rules say Aadhaar authentication will be voluntary.
“If the department say that people will not get the welfare services without authentication, voluntary becomes mandatory,” said development economist Jean Dreze, who has been arguing against making Aadhaar mandatory to avail social welfare schemes.