Nearly three years after the government began experimenting with Aadhaar-based payments in Jharkhand, it has not been able to start disbursing payments to beneficiaries at their doorstep

Jharkhand was one of five pilot States chosen for an Aadhaar-enabled payment system (AEPS). Beginning with Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) payments in select blocks in four districts in 2012, AEPS added pension and scholarship schemes and the Janani Suraksha Yojana scheme in the second phase and extended to three more districts in 2013.

Nearly three years after the government began experimenting with Aadhaar-based payments in Jharkhand, it has still not been able to start disbursing payments to beneficiaries at their doorstep as envisioned. The push towards getting beneficiaries enrolled in Aadhaar continues in Jharkhand, but in several instances, this is done with the threat of exclusion from existing benefits.

A beneficiary’s Aadhaar is “seeded” in the government’s database. Banks carry out the same procedure for their account holders. Banks then report the fact of the Aadhaar having been seeded to the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) for “mapping” in its database. After all three steps have been completed, a beneficiary can electronically receive the subsidy through an Aadhaar payment bridge system. Then, a banking correspondent, whether appointed by a bank or a post office, acts as an automated teller machine (ATM) for the village or household by making the payment after scanning the fingerprints of beneficiaries. Used in conjunction with a hand-held device/micro-ATM, this biometric system functions as the personal identification number (PIN) of a beneficiary.

In Jharkhand, there have been concerted enrolment drives since 2011, but the beneficiaries of various schemes with Aadhaar and Aadhaar-mapped accounts constitute less than 20 per cent. The numbers are still too low to shift to AEPS, say officials.

In Ramgarh district, for instance, a model district as far as Aadhar penetration is concerned, and where Aadhaar pilots were launched in 2012, enrolment is over 82 per cent of the nine-lakh strong population. But the number of Aadhaar-mapped accounts is 37,938, i.e., less than four per cent. Examining the numbers for individual schemes, in MGNREGA for example — the scheme in which the State government first started linking beneficiary details with Aadhaar — of 1.91 lakh workers in Ramgarh, only 21,110 have Aadhaar-mapped accounts, i.e., 11 per cent. The corresponding numbers are lower in Ranchi and Hazaribagh — also pilot districts — at over seven per cent and five per cent respectively.

“Even after beneficiaries enrolled, they had to be physically located to collect their data, which took time. Banks neither deployed staff to seed data at their end, nor did they forward mapping requests to NPCI,” says N.N. Sinha, Prinicipal Secretary, Information Technology.

Slow switch to post offices

The Bank of India, which has a sizeable network of branches in Jharkhand and was the first to migrate to an Aadhaar-based platform, has been unable to rid the processes of glitches. For instance, none of the banking correspondents it employed during pilots in Ranchi in the Tarup, Tigra and Purio panchayats in 2012 has been paid wages for over a year now. Under the original plan, the correspondents were to earn two per cent of all transactions as commission. Ranchi’s lead district manager S. Ghosal explains this by saying that “technical errors” were behind transactions not being reflected in the bank’s Management Information System (MIS). As a result, invoices could not be prepared.

Further, the two crucial elements of last-mile delivery — “a dense, interoperable network of banking correspondents,” and biometric devices such as micro-ATMs or tablets with fingerprint scanners — are still not in place. The State Chief Secretary, R.S. Sharma, previously the director-general, Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), identified poor cooperation from banks as being the main limiting factor. “For banks, this is simply not a priority. They did not hire banking correspondents or purchase micro-ATMs even after being granted a Rs.15,000 subsidy from the government. Banks were not interested at all.”

Taking cognisance of the tardy response from banks, and recognising that over two-thirds of beneficiaries in schemes such as MGNREGA and pension plans hold post office accounts, the government now plans to start AEPS in post offices. On October 2, 2013, the Union Minister for Rural Development, Jairam Ramesh, inaugurated Aadhaar-enabled payments by micro-ATM in Lali panchayat on the outskirts of Ranchi.

But since then — when three MGNREGA workers were paid at the function — only 15 workers have been paid using the micro-ATM. “The machine stopped working in mid-October. For six weeks, there was no replacement. Sometimes there is no ‘line’ (power failures), and at other times, no connectivity,” says the officer at the post office, Jairam Mahto, while taking the micro-ATM out of a cupboard in his office. Of 540 “active” MGNREGA workers, seeding was done for 190; the figure was much lower for mapping. The government now plans to purchase 2,800 hand-held devices worth Rs.4.8 crore for post offices.

In Ranchi, senior officials say that while they still prefer the Aadhaar route because it allows “interoperability” — the linking of different UID-enabled databases — they are now coming around to acknowledging that a majority of beneficiaries still do not have Aadhaar-seeded and mapped accounts. Instead of biometrics, the government now plans to start payments in post offices based on a system of “one time password” verification sent to the mobile phones of beneficiaries registered on the databases of schemes.

Disruptions for beneficiaries

There is another factor. The government may be beginning to search for alternatives to a biometrics-based, universal database it had set out to create. However, in the rush to enrol and map accounts, beneficiaries already face the prospect of being left out.

In its interim order on September 23, 2013, the Supreme Court said that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory to access government schemes, but investigation reveals another story. In the implementation of individual schemes, Aadhaar has de facto been made mandatory. In MGNREGA, for instance, when district officials found it difficult to locate workers enrolled in the job scheme, they decided to focus on “active” workers — those who had worked in the scheme in the last or current year. Who was a genuine beneficiary or not was to be determined after holding gram sabhas, but in Ranchi and adjoining Khunti district this was seldom done.

“While seeding and freezing details, we could not find workers in remote areas such as Lapung. This lowered the percentage of seeding. There was a lot of pressure. In some instances, the staff resorted to removing workers from the MIS. I have received reports that workers in some villages resisted being deleted from lists when they found this out later,” says a district project officer in Ranchi. Records show that 2,211 workers’ cards were permanently deleted and 11,234 workers “tagged as deleted” — i.e. the cards have been temporarily marked as deleted but could be used if the worker applied afresh for work. Even those who reapply for work will have to submit their Aadhaar numbers or the EID, a provisional number given at the time of enrolment in Aadhaar, or face the threat of being excluded from the job scheme.

If among all districts in the State, Khunti has the highest ratio of 78 per cent of “active” MGNREGA workers, and whose details are seeded with Aadhaar, beneficiaries have one person to thank for this — Mr. Mukesh Kumar. Under his eagle eye and guidance, senior officials set up a district control room for Aadhaar, went to panchayats to seed data manually and hired local private computer centres to digitise the data when banks were reluctant to undertake this job. “I organised training sessions, met with panchayat representatives and explained that this is pavitra karya orsacred work since there is no ulterior motive,” says Mr. Kumar, who was the district collector till early February.

There have been instances of coercion too. A letter by Mr. Kumar, as the Khunti Deputy Commissioner and dated January 25, 2014 to all block development officers (BDOs), says they would face showcause notices if Aadhaar seeding targets were not met. The same day, letters by the Deputy Development Commissioner and Nodal Officer, Aadhaar, stopped salary payments to all BDOs, panchayat sewaks and rozgar sewaks till further orders as they had “failed to achieve 100 per cent seeding.”

A few workers in Khunti say that unlike other workers, they have not received payments since January under the electronic-Fund Management System, which is a transfer system, for work done last year. When a local activist and MGNREGA member asked if this was because the beneficiaries did not have an Aadhaar or EID yet, they faced harassment from officials. While block officials admit that delays may be because of seeding errors, workers say that they have still not got their wages.

In Belahati in Khunti, villagers say they have submitted photocopies of their Aadhaar documents a number of times, spending up to Rs.100 on photocopies alone as it is mandatory now. It is the same situation in other districts. “Aadhaar has been made compulsory. The DC has said this in every meeting,” says Mr. Ravi Kumar, rozgar sewak in the Jabra panchayat of Chatra district. “Every official asks us for Aadhaar. It is necessary whether it is for bank or post office payments,” says Mr. Jagai Lakda, a tribal farmer in Lali panchayat in Ranchi.

A circular by the Ministry of Rural Development on February 12, 2014, that MGNREGA workers shall not be deprived of a work opportunity if they do not have Aadhaar may be too little to address the uncertainty and disruptions on the ground.

anumeha.y@thehindu.co.in

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