The popular tagline for the Aadhaar-linked Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) is Aam aadmi ka paisa, aam aadmi ke haath (People’s money in their own hands).
The DBT pilot project was launched in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh earlier this month, with Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh hailing the scheme as a panacea. “It is the largest experiment to reform a broken-down delivery system. If we are successful in this, we will… reform the welfare delivery system.”
And yet the pilot project, with a claimed 95 per cent penetration of DBT, has itself been full of problems. This highlights the pitfalls of extending the programme nationwide without adequate preparation.
Indeed, a cross-section of activists, bureaucrats and experts, this correspondent spoke to at the launch, felt the Union government was rushing things.
The near consensus is that there is too much pressure on the State governments to go ahead with the scheme. “At this rushed pace, the process will leave out the vulnerable and marginalised sections of society.”
East Godavari district has won the ‘National Aadhaar Governance Award’ for achieving a near total coverage of DBT. Yet, only 75 per cent of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) workers had been enrolled as on January 6, when the project was launched in the Gollaprolu block.
Over 3,96,040 out of the total 15,84,161 registered workers in the district were yet to be enrolled, according to Andhra Pradesh Principal Secretary (Rural Development) R. Subrahmanyam. The situation was the same in the enrolment of pensioners. Not just this. Locals complained that those without the Aadhaar number were denied MGNREGS wages and access to PDS grain, which is not included in the schemes covered under DBT.
Mr. Subrahmanyam denied any irregularity. “Those who are yet to be enrolled in the Aadhaar system will be allowed to use the existing smart card for a period of two months,” he said.
The situation on the ground though is different. Take the case of Kurakula Ammaji of Narsingapuram village. Ammaji, who is in her eighties, travelled a few kilometres to the Gollaprolu block to complain about denial of PDS grain because she didn’t have the Aadhaar number.
“The authorities ask for the Aadhaar number for every social scheme… They are depriving us of food and pension because we do not have the number. Now you tell me, how are we supposed to feed ourselves?”
Kurakula Bhadrachalam alleged that he was not able to get MGNREGS payment from his bank. Earlier the payment used to be deposited in the bank account of a worker. But DBT links the bank account to the beneficiary’s Aadhaar number, making access to cash difficult without it.
Others like Perantala Goda, who have got the Aadhaar number, were worried about the transition from the smart card or the old system of the State biometrics to DBT.
“Even a slight disruption in the delivery system adversely affects our lives.”
The exclusion of a number of people from Aadhaar enrolment has led experts and activists like Reetika Khera to question the efficiency and credentials of the Central government, which has been “displaying unprecedented hurry… in pushing the UID at any cost.”
Ms. Khera, a faculty member of IIT Delhi, involved in the implementation of the MGNREGS and the PDS, argued that if the purpose of Aadhaar was “financial inclusion” of the poor, the cash transfer should not have been launched without covering all intended beneficiaries, especially the vulnerable sections.
Ms. Khera supports cash transfers for old-age and widow pensions, maternity entitlements and scholarships but opposes the government’s plan for “accelerated mass conversion of welfare schemes into UID-driven cash transfers.”
She also argued that Aadhaar was not equipped to address the bigger leakages through cuts and bribes, or inclusion of ineligible persons in the rolls.
Aadhaar registration has been low in most districts of Andhra Pradesh, so much so that the State government has had to defer its plans to roll out DBT in Hyderabad, Ranga Reddy, Chittoor, Anantapur and East Godavari districts.
An official told The Hindu that though beneficiaries of schemes such as the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana, Dhanalakshmi and the Janani Suraksha Yojana were very few, DBT could not be rolled out because even this small number was not enrolled for Aadhaar by the January 6 deadline.
Andhra Pradesh has managed to evolve an institutional mechanism for social audit of schemes like the MGNREGS. Sowmya Kidambi, Director of the Society for Social Audit, Accountability and Transparency, argued that what was needed was social audit of welfare schemes. “Rather than pursuing the path of social audits, which is the way to plug the bigger leakages in the schemes, the government is showing unnecessary haste in pushing DBT through.”