The Guilty Party?

Biometric authentication in India’s Public Distribution System is designed so that the ration dealer, from whom food rations are collected, is constructed as responsible for diversion of goods to the private market. Our work in Kerala in 2011-2012 problematised this assumption, asking questions about the role and financial sustainability of ration shops in the state.

“Only fraudsters will not want it”. It is August 2012 and we sit in a telecentre in Malappuram district, northern Kerala. Telecentres are government-coordinated, but privately managed, one-stop shops where users can access a computer and connection to the Internet, at a time where this – especially in rural districts – is far less than ubiquitous in Keralan society. Telecentres grouped under the Akshaya telecentre project, an award-winning project which connected villages throughout Kerala through low-cost telecentres accessible to poorer citizens, are already a fundamental interface for Internet access in poorer villages. Since early 2012, they are also in charge of Aadhaar registration, the process through which user credentials are collected in the national biometric identification programme.

It is 2012, and Aadhaar is nowhere near the staggering enrolment rates that will characterise the following decade. But the system’s message is clear. If all Indian residents are to be Aadhaar-registered with their biometric and demographic credentials, in a unique programme capable of combining such credentials with entitlements, large-scale leakage such as that affecting the Public Distribution System (PDS) of the country will be attacked at its basis. As the biggest food security programme in the nation, providing highly subsidised food to below-poverty-line people across the country, the PDS suffers from the systematic diversion of its commodities to the private market, where the same commodities are sold at much higher prices. Ration dealers, in charge of the ration shops through which PDS goods are redistributed through the nation, are largely seen as “the guilty party” for such diversion.

Food supplies, Taliparamba municipality, Kerala, November 2011

The new biometric technology is designed around their responsibility. Back in August 2012, Kerala is still to see the first pilot project that will link the PDS to Aadhaar, making access to food in ration shops conditional to the person’s authentication through the Aadhaar system. A few years later, when implemented, the Aadhaar-based PDS will require users to be enrolled in the programme, and to have linked their ration cards (displaying their entitlements according to poverty status) to their Aadhaar records. For ration dealers, this will mean a restructuring that ties sales of subsidised rations to successful authentication of individuals through the system, leaving no backup option in the event that authentication does not work or is not supported by the needed infrastructure.

Time and again, much has been said on the exclusion of users who, for reasons spanning from fingerprint readability to incorrect registration, have had their ration provisions discontinued since the incorporation of Aadhaar into the PDS. Less is known, however, on the ration dealers’ experience of the programme, and on the extent to which they were given a choice at the time of registration. But as we sit in the telecentre in Malappuram district, and I ask what will be of those ration dealers who will be unable or unwilling to shift to Aadhaar in their transactions, the response of the field facilitator is trenchant: “Only fraudsters will not want it”.

There is more to deepen on what is meant by a “fraudster” here. Ration dealers, through whom rations are distributed to PDS users across the country, have been seen as the main actors of a leakage that amounts to about 30% according to the lowest estimate for 2011–12. But what is the financial situation of ration dealers, and what scope is there for the biometrically reinforced policing of their role?

The 1990s were an extremely harsh decade for the PDS in Kerala. Started up as universal, the PDS became then targeted to below-poverty-line users in a way that left a minimal quota – approaching the market price – to users above the poverty line. Sudden and narrow, the move to a targeted system shrunk the customer basis of ration shops in the state, leading many to either closing down or resorting to debt. A wave of ration dealer suicides followed the shift to a targeted PDS, whose memory was still very vivid during my work in the state. Having been constrained by a structural adjustment programme that imposed tight constraints on the PDS, ration dealers became widely unable to generate a living from the shrunk customer basis that remained active in their shops.

A biometric system of transaction monitoring targets exactly the ration dealers. On the one hand, such a system leaves untouched the distribution chain before the ration shop: but it is here that a substantial part of diversion has scope for happening, across the multiple phases of transportation and storage of goods. On the other, the system targets the transaction point where “fraud” can happen, constraining the ration dealers’ opportunity to sell goods on the market for a higher price. This makes the ration dealer the targeted, “guilty party” in a biometric monitoring system: Aadhaar-based monitoring is here at the last mile, leaving open questions on a distribution chain that comprises of many passages, especially in foodgrain-consuming states.

The “guilty party” logic inscribed in the biometric PDS presents at least two issues. The argument that “only fraudsters will not want it” was powerfully articulated early in Aadhaar’s uptake, and openly stated as we assisted to the major campaign of Aadhaar enrollment in the state. But the issues of (a) not targeting transportation and storage, and (b) presenting no survival alternatives for ration dealers roughly affected by the structural adjustment that shrunk their customer basis, have remained. While designed to be effective in controlling the ration dealer, the technology leaves no option for them to rebuild business lives destroyed by a tight policy of structural adjustment.

Technologies crystallise the policies behind them. In constructing the ration dealers as “the guilty party”, Aadhaar’s biometrics dictate a clear causal narration of PDS leakage. While the exclusionary effects of the technology have been tackled by research, the assumption seeing the ration dealer as responsible needs investigation, starting from the structural adjustment policies that cut the PDS down to its bare essentials.

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