A definite acknowledgement of the potential of Aadhar for public service delivery, and especially for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA) by Bharat Bhatti, Jean Drèze, and Reetika Khera in their article “Experiments with Aadhaar” (editorial page, The Hindu , June 27, 2012), is a small step for Aadhaar, but a giant leap for the authors!
Process re-engineering in government is never easy, there is enormous resistance both from within and outside the system. The most radical initiatives related to MGNREGA for instance, including mandatory payment of wages through bank and post-office accounts, and universalisation of the Management Information System (MIS), were originally greeted with great scepticism, but eventually recognised as path-breaking reforms — today 80 per cent of households are paid directly through bank and post-office accounts and 90 per cent of the total expenditure is reported on MIS (including details of beneficiaries, works, etc.).
On MGNREGA wage payments, there are two primary issues that need attention — first, the delay in payments to beneficiaries, and second, the lack of transparency in dissemination of these payments.
Let us look at delayed payments first. While delays are caused due to issues at different stages of the MGNREGA process (as also pointed out by Drèze et al.), the government is trying multiple solutions. Experimenting with payments through Aadhaar is one concrete way forward. The Ministry’s new guidelines and reform agenda, namely MGNREGA 2.0, address concerns on several other dimensions across the MGNREGA life cycle, such as closing of muster rolls on time, improved tracking of expenditure and measurement of works.
The second issue is of transparency and accountability in payments. For this the Government is in the process of deploying information and communication technology (ICT)-based end-to-end solutions in a much broader way — for capturing attendance, preparing muster rolls (e-muster rolls), disbursing wage payments, etc. This will also enable real time data capture on the MIS and provide information at the panchayat , block, district and state levels. The government is also working with the States to move towards an Electronic Fund Management System (e-FMS) that will ensure timely availability and transparent usage of MGNREGA funds at all levels. Coming back to biometrics and Aadhaar. Biometric-based approaches for improving MGNREGA have been tried before. The best example comes from Andhra Pradesh, where a biometric model has been operational in MGNREGA for the last three years. As per a recent evaluation of the A.P. biometric model, workers have a high level of satisfaction and prefer it to the older non-biometric system. But in spite of sustained effort of the A.P. Government, enrolment rates are still below 60 per cent and biometric authentication rates remain low (less than 70 per cent).
Aadhaar has the potential to be superior to other biometric solutions for four reasons. First, it allows for interoperability among banks and Business Correspondents (BC), i.e., the same Aadhaar biometrics can be used by any bank or BC that the worker may use. Second, it allows for uniformity of biometric standards across the country and across applications. Third, it is a single biometric service available across all government schemes and beyond, vitiating the need to do the biometric enrolment separately for different programmes. Fourth, Aadhaar is a mobile identity that travels with the resident even when he/she moves or migrates.
All this does not however take away from the fact that significant challenges remain in implementation, many of which have been rightly highlighted by Drèze, et al. Millions of potential and existing MGNREGA workers need to still be enrolled into Aadhar (and the National Population Register, depending on the State) so they can benefit from it. This remains a non-trivial task as the A.P. experience shows us. Issues with technology implementation on the ground, such as ensuring foolproof fingerprint recognition, especially for manual workers and the elderly, remain. And the biggest issue is of connectivity – ensuring real-time online authentication where there is little or no mobile phone network (as in several MGNREGA worksites and panchayats ).
Compared to other government programmes like pensions and scholarships, integrating Aadhaar with MGNREGA is not a “low-hanging fruit.” However, given that MGNREGA is the government’s largest scheme, providing employment to 25 per cent of our rural households, 50 per cent of which goes to SC/ST, and 47 per cent to women, it is an appropriate area to integrate with Aadhaar — it is exactly to improve service delivery of large-scale aam aadmi programmes like MGNREGA, that Aadhaar has been conceived. As we experiment and learn, we need to continuously innovate — improving the biometric recognition system, fast-tracking enrolment, and considering hybrid online-offline models to address the issue of connectivity, for example. At the same time we have to ensure that while we experiment and learn, we do not ‘exclude’ anyone just because they do not have a foolproof Aadhaar identity.
It is in this spirit that the Government proposes to extend the use of Aadhaar in MGNREGA, including enrolment at worksites and payments through Aadhaar-linked bank accounts in districts where Aadhaar enrolment is nearing 90-100 per cent. Only by moving forward, evaluating, learning and then scaling up, will we be able to realise the full potential of both the MGNREGA — a flagship programme of UPA-I, and Aadhaar — a flagship of UPA-II, for the common man.
(Jairam Ramesh is Minister of Rural Development & Drinking Water and Sanitation, Neelakshi Mann is Consultant, MoRD, and Varad Pande is OSD, MoRD.)