The services will enable transfer, application procedures to be brought to one's door

Last Christmas Eve, 35 people in a remote village of Jharkhand received a unique present. They became the first Indians to access their Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme bank accounts on their doorstep, having had their identities authenticated through their Aadhaar numbers.

They are among the earliest beneficiaries of the next phase of the ambitious — and controversial — project of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Having wrangled a mandate to continue collecting biometric information and issue the unique identity numbers termed Aadhaar, the UIDAI has now announced the launch of its authentication services programme.

“The rollout of these services will help people see the tangible benefits of Aadhaar,” said UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani on Tuesday. “This will be a turning point.” He hopes that over the next 12 months, as he woos a variety of service delivery agencies to start using the UIDAI's authentication system, the 20 crore people who had already been issued Aadhaar numbers would start to see some practical use in the process and, as a result, the increasingly vocal critics would be subdued.

The delegates at Tuesday's workshop on Aadhaar Enabled Service Delivery included government officials administering a vast range of benefit schemes, as well as representatives of banks, financial institutions and the telecom and insurance industries. The UIDAI team is trying to convince them that whether it's a State Public Distribution System eyeing a shift to cash transfers, an MGNREGS payment or an application for a mobile SIM card, their procedures would be streamlined by using Aadhaar's global online authentication services. Delegates were invited to register their interest in being declared Authentic User Agencies and Authentication Service Agencies.

‘It's like magic'

Sujata Chaturvedi, UIDAI's deputy Director-General from its Ranchi office, explained the success of the Jharkhand pilot scheme of using Aadhaar for financial inclusion. “A typical MGNREGS labourer may spend many days and up to 20 per cent of his wages simply trying to access the money from his bank account,” she said. “With Aadhaar, it literally happens in ten seconds on his doorstep. It's like magic.”

The marketing pitch came right from the top. “It is now going to be 100 per cent possible for cash transfers to be delivered into the bank account of the person for whom it is meant,” said Planning Commission Deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia. “The costs of the system are trivial compared to the efficiency gains when you consider the total payment the government makes in benefit schemes.”

However, certain questions still remain. Mr. Nilekani has promised to tweak the enrolment system over the next six weeks to accommodate the Home Ministry's security concerns, but still has no details on what changes will be made.

The UIDAI's own data also dilutes Mr. Ahluwalia's claim of 100 per cent authentication capabilities. Instead, the fingerprint accuracy record is a less impressive 85 per cent if a single finger is used once. Only when two best fingers are used multiple times does the rate improve to 98 per cent.

There is also uncertainty regarding who will pay for the benefits in the long term. There will be no charge for authentication services until December 2013, but it is unclear what would happen after that. In regard to the MGNREGS payments using Aadhaar authentication, the Ministry of Rural Development is currently paying the two per cent transaction fee to the last-mile operative who actually wields the Aadhaar authentication device, but that could work out to a substantial bill in the long term.

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