Monday, 28 June 2010
Last month I attended a Consultation Workshop on the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), now called AADHAR. With the first UID numbers being issued between August 2010 and February 2011, this was a part of UIDAI’s campaign to hold a wide range of consultations with Civil Society Organizations in various parts of the country.
For those of us, who are curious about the UID, and recognize the potential benefits it can have (can being the operative word here) but yet have our reservations, the workshop was definitely enlightening. One of the main things that came out from the consultation was the amount of confusion that still exists about what exactly the UID can and cannot do and how much of an invasion of privacy it actually is.
I thought it would thus be useful to lay out some facts regarding the UID.
Fact 1: The UID itself will collect only standard attributes such as name, date of birth, gender, father/mother/spouse/guardians name, address and a photograph. The only unique information is the biometrics (10 fingerprints and both iris scans).
Fact 2 : The UID will be given to all residents who are in India and avail services and not just citizens.
Fact 3: The information in the database will be used only for authentication purposes and will not be shared or transmitted. Anyone seeking to authenticate the identity of another person using the UID database – will only get a response in YES or NO.
Fact 4: The UIDAI is working on a partnership model with a variety of agencies and service providers ( both government and private sector) to enroll residents for UID Numbers and verify their identity. For e.g. Insurance companies, LPG marketing companies, RSBY, MG-NREGA etc. The UIDAI will also engage with Outreach Groups (essentially CSOs) to target, the homeless, urban poor, tribals, differently-abled population of the country etc.
Fact 5: The UID database will be guarded both physically and electronically by a few select individuals with high clearance. It will not be available even for many members of the UID staff and will be secured through encryption, and in a highly secure data vault.
Sounds good so far? The obvious question then is that if these ideas are indeed so good then why are people so skeptical and in some cases even taking an extreme position of completely rejecting the UIDAI. I think the answer is nuanced and symptomatic to deeper issues.
Broadly there are 4 main concerns regarding the UID, namely, concerns over exclusion, individual privacy, and misuse of data and finally whether the benefits outweigh the costs. Let’s deal with them one by one.
While the UID team keeps stressing that the UID is voluntary but the fact of the matter is, for all practical purposes, in time, it will become mandatory as service providers may require a person to have a UID to access services. The concern then is, what will happen to those who are unable or purposely unallowed to get the UID.
The case of exclusion is definitely a concern – but not limited to the UID alone. Instead, the UID for its part has tried to mitigate against this by having an introducer system and getting ngos to assist in the enrolment process. Now it is the job of all the enrolling agencies to make sure that everyone has access to it and for us, civil society to assist in the process.
Individual Privacy and Misuse of Data
The UID itself only collects standard attributes, but since the enrolling system is through partnership with existing agencies such as LIC, banks, PDS shops, nrega job cards etc - the full board of the UIDAI may have additional data fields related to identity. The fear being , this kind of information could compromise privacy of the people, and leave it open for misuse—racial profiling being an obvious threat.
This is a legitimate fear, but blaming the UID itself for this, is not.
On the one hand, the question of privacy in itself is a very “urban” concept. No one really talks about the fact that for NREGA, muster rolls, job cards and daily wages are a matter of public knowledge and are instead considered important components for accountability and transparency. Moreover, anyone not privileged enough to have a permanent address or identity proof will ascertain to the fact that finally having some sort of “identity” would alleviate the challenges of something as basic as getting children into school, getting a telephone connection or even a death certificate.
Second, a host of our personal information is already publically available and there are no guarantees that they are not prone to misuse. The Election Commission and Census already collect a lot of our personal information; the railways make the names and ages of passengers public each time we travel , not to mention online social interaction sites such as Facebook , Orkut and Twitter, which are often prone to hacking.
So even without the UID, what is urgently needed is a law protecting our privacy. Last week, the UPA government appointed a panel to create a blueprint for a new law guaranteeing a citizen’s right to privacy. Once in place, the law is meant to recognize the right to privacy of an individual as a fundamental right and have in place provisions against wrongful collection of and misuse of data. While it remains to be seen what shape the law will take, it has to be said, in a way the UID has finally made us think about this important issue.
With crores of rupees being put into the operationalisation of UID – is it really worth it?
Lets be clear, the UID itself will not solve all of the world’s problems. However, what it does have the potential to do is to centralize and clean up the government databases – a huge step in itself. Anyone who has gone through government databases knows that often, it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack (for more details please see here)
And having authentic, clean, reliable data can be an important step in better delivering our services. Take for example the PDS. While the UID may not be able to solve the problem of people not being included in the BPL list and hence being excluded from the PDS system, it should be able to solve problems related to leakages (see post below) and the presence of a large number of fake ration cards – all of which are literally money down the drain.
Finally, let’s remember, like with most things, the UID model is only as good as its application!
Avani Kapur is Researcher and Coordinator, PAISA Project at the Accountability Initiative
Friday, 25 June 2010
Thursday, 24 June 2010
On Friday, relevant ministries in the Government of India and the National Advisory council are going to start a round of negotiations to finalize the much awaited food security bill. The key issue up for debate is the question of universalization of the entitlement. The initial draft bill restricted the entitlement to the country’s poorest. The current negotiations are an effort to push for universal coverage as well as for a wider grain basket. The second and perhaps more critical issue for debate is the steps that need to be considered to deal with the widespread corruption and leakage in the current Public Distribution system. The new draft bill prepared by the planning commission has proposed that the disbursement process be linked to the UID which could deal help with the elimination of bogus cards ( to give a sense of the scale of the problem- since 2006, 5,300,000 bogus ration cards had been identified in West Bengal. Andhra Pradesh wasn’t far behind at 1,046,000 and Orissa was amongst the lowest at 250,000!). Linking with the UID is one important way of dealing with the corruption menace. But, corruption and leakage in the PDS is not just about bogus cards. At every step of the delivery chain, the system is plagues with perverse incentives that make accountability and efficient delivery impossible. To give you a sense of the problem, the Accountability Initiatives’ Gayatri Sahgal analyses the different levels of corruption in the PDS system. If the new bill is to ensure that entitlements reach the poorest, problems at every level of the system need to be addressed. This requires the political will to address systemic failures and undertake radical administrative reforms. Let's hope the new bill provides for that!
Diversion and Leakages in the PDS System
- There are significant leakages in the functioning of the PDS system. Only about 42% of subsidized grains issued from the Central Pool reach the target group. Over 36% of the budgetary subsidies on food is siphoned off the supply chain and another 21% reaches the APL households. (Performance Evaluation of Targeted Public Distribution System Planning commission, 2005).
- Data regarding the leakages in terms of type of food grain revealed 36% diversion of wheat, 31% diversion of rice and 23% diversion of sugar. Diversion appears to be more of a feature of northern, eastern and north Eastern states (Saxena, 2009).
- Share of food subsidy received by Below Poverty Line (BPL) families and Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) scheme has been decreasing. In FY 2008-09, BPL and AAY received 84% of total food subsidy released, down from 80 % in FY 2006-07 (Accountability Initiative, 2010).
- Amongst the States, Bihar and Punjab have the highest rates of leakages; more than 75% of the grain allotted from the central pool fails to reach the intended beneficiaries. States such as AP, Kerala, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, record leakages below 25% and are considered to be low leakage states (Planning Commission, 2005).
- At the level of the Fair Price Shops FPS, states such as Haryana, Bihar and Punjab record the highest levels of leakages (above 50%), while states such as HP, Assam, MP, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal record rates of leakages less than 10% (Planning Commission, 2005).
- The FPSs are generally not viable because of low annual turnover and they remain in business through leakages and diversions of subsidised grains (Planning Commission, 2005).
- Though the off-take per household has shown some improvement under TPDS, yet only about 57% of the BPL households are covered by the TPDS (Planning Commission, 2005).
- The cost of income transfer to the poor through PDS is much higher than that through other modes. According to the study, for one rupee worth of income transfer to the poor, the GoI spends Rs 3.65, indicating that one rupee of budgetary consumer subsidy is worth only 27 paise to the poor (Saxena, 2009).
- Leakages due to improper storage and transportation facilities are also significant. In FY 2008-09, Rs. 101 crore and Rs. 133 crore was lost due to poor storage and transportation respectively (Food Subsidy Budget Brief, Accountability Initiative, 2010).
- Leakages in the form of ghost cards are also widely prevalent. In West Bengal, 53 lakh fake ration cards were cancelled from July 2006 till December 2009 (Accountability Initiative, 2010).
Tuesday, 8 June 2010
Monday, 7 June 2010
An elderly man, standing beside his daughter, is yelling and waving his arms. “A tree is overhanging his property and polluting his pond” whispers my Malayalam translator. “He wants it removed, but the panchayat has done nothing”. The man pauses briefly before resuming his offensive. His embattled target is another elderly man, a retired high court judge – the Ombudsman of Kerala. He is here in the northern city of Kannur in Kerala for two days to hold sittings and hear grievances – though they are not all as colourful as this one.
The Ombudsman – literally, the people's protector – is originally a Swedish institution which has since been adopted widely across the world. At its core, the Ombudsman is an office which dedicates itself to receiving, investigating and resolving citizen's complaints against government. The intent is to create an independent and powerful check on government bodies – state bureaucracies, service providers, and other state institutions. To do this, the Swedish Ombudsman for instance most often issues simple requests to state institutions. The Swedish Ombudsman also has the power to act as a public prosecutor – he or she has the power to bring a case to the courts on behalf of those who submit complaints. However, this has rarely been necessary.
Other Ombudsmen have had a more turbulent relationship with the state. In the early 1990s, many Ombudsmen offices were created in Latin America. In many cases, simple requests were not enough to resolve grievances. Faced with indifference and occasionally outright hostility, the Latin American Ombudsmen more often used their “moral power” as public protectors of the people to force change. In Guatemala the Ombudsman denounced prominent politicians, and in Honduras the Ombudsman defended the right of the opposition to run for President. In some cases, the state responded with more hostility. Some Ombudsmen had their budgets slashed, or were simply replaced.
The Kerala Ombudsman represents a particularly Indian approach to the institution. It functions effectively like a court, albeit one where some rules of procedure are simplified. A citizen files a complaint and is given a date for a hearing at one of the Ombudsman's sittings around the state. Once both parties are present at the hearing, they present their cases. The Ombudsman can then resolve the case if there appears to be a solution. Or, if he believes more information is necessary, he may order an investigation. In the case above, he might order the Deputy Director of panchayats to produce a report containing photos and measurements of the offending tree along with copies of the relevant building or pollution codes. At the next available sitting – which might be one month away, or much longer – the report will be presented and the Ombudsman will make a further decision.
Many of the complaints submitted to the Ombudsman are more serious than some dead branches in a pond. At the hearings I attended I saw cases regarding access to drinking water, non-payment of wages, construction of public toilets, land encroachment, unlawful construction, false entry in muster rolls for NREGA works, the allocation of houses designated for the poor, pollution from various industries, and the behaviour of commissions under control of a panchayat.
Unfortunately the Kerala Ombudsman has not received the support it needs from the state government. Since 2001 the Ombudsman has requested funds for an independent investigative team, and the government has consistently ignored this and other requests. As it stands, the Ombudsman must rely on local officials – usually the Deputy Director of panchayats – for all investigations. Despite the usual apathy, the state government has not been overtly hostile to the Ombudsman. This may be due to one of the Kerala Ombudsman's unique features – it is only given purview over local self government institutions, rather than any government action whatsoever. The state government – which decides the Ombudsman's budget and effectively appoints him – is beyond the reach of the Ombudsman. While this means that corruption, incompetence and indifference at the state level is left untouched, perhaps it does enable the Ombudsman to effectively deal with complaints at the local level. While having an elderly man yell at him about a tree is bearable, it is not clear whether the Ombudsman could withstand such an assault from the Chief Minister.
Joshua Stark is an intern with Research Foundation for Governance in India, Ahmedabad. He has been researching grievance redressal mechanisms in India with a special focus on the institution of the Ombudsman.
Thursday, 3 June 2010
Delhi is a city under siege! Over the last year, a silent army of civil engineers, urban planners, construction workers and contractorss have brought this to a standstill. Signs of the siege are everywhere – on uneven sidewalks and pavements which threaten to send pedestrians sprawling, on roads and flyovers where monstrous potholes threaten to swallow unsuspecting motorists and bring the city to a grinding halt. The mission? Make Delhi ready and able to host the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in October this year.
The games have been heavily criticised and not only because preparations for them have thrown everyday life in the city completely off kilter. Concerns have been raised about the ‘game worthiness’ of several venues, the hurried efforts to ‘beautify’ certain sections of the city, the efforts to ‘clear’ the city of slum dwellers, beggars and hawkers which in practice has meant the demolition slums across the city leaving thousands homeless. A recent report by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) titled “The 2010 Commonwealth Games: Whose Wealth? Whose Commons?” puts a spotlight on some of these issues. Using the Right to Information Act 2005, HLRN accessed a copy of India’s Bid Document for the CWG games as well as information from different departments on the monies spent so far on the games. Their findings are staggering:
- The bidding process from start to finish cost India Rs 137 crore. The Bid Document included an unprecedented offer by India to provide free luxury accommodation, travel and trips to participants, delegates, officials.
- India made a last minute offer of $7.2 million or Rs 32.4 crore to train all Commonwealth Games athletes’ which apparently ensured India’s bid for the games.
- The proposed expenditure on sports infrastructure for the games was pegged at Rs 150 crore in the Bid Document but a whopping sum of Rs 3390 crore has already been spent on building stadiums. That’s a shocking 2160% increase on the initial budget!
- Official and unofficial estimates of the total cost of the games range from Rs 10,000 crore to Rs 30,000 crore;
Several studies have shown that the economic benefits of mega-sporting events such as the Olympic Games or World Cup are hugely over-estimated. In a post-games scenario, many countries have struggled to earn back in revenues the huge amounts invested. For instance, American cities hosting the 1994 FIFA World Cup earned $ 4 billion in revenues from hosting the games but they collectively lost between $ 5.5 billion and $ 9.3 billion. Many countries are overwhelmed by debt – after barely pulling off the Olympic Games in 2004, Greece struggled to keep public debt down, the effects of which are being felt now. The costs continue to escalate for years after with countries having to find resources to manage and maintain games venues.
There are also questions about who really benefits from such events? South Africa has spent 3.5 billion pounds on preparations (1.72% of its GDP) to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, but there are concerns that most of the facilities will really benefit tourists and the middle class rather than South Africa’s urban poor. Over and above the, investments in infrastructure mean budget cuts for other sectors. The Delhi Government has already announced that it will not have funds to undertake new projects in the forthcoming fiscal year. Moreover, according to the HLRN report funds marked for social sector expenditure have already been reallocated by the Delhi Government for the CWG. Couple this with the city wide drive against hawkers and beggars and it’s no wonder many have termed the CWG ‘anti-poor’ in its approach.
It is perhaps keeping of all of these factors in mind, that the Government of New Zealand recently refused to support the country’s bid to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games because at $600 million it was too expensive. If only, such prudence had prevailed in Delhi. Come October, Delhi will play host to athletes’ and tourists from countries across the Commonwealth. In true sarkari style, things will be completed in breakneck speed, we’ll put on a grand old show and maybe we’ll even win a medal or two. But let’s not kid ourselves; we’re in for some tough times ahead – fiscal and otherwise.
Mandakini D Surie is a Research Associate with the Accountability Initiative.