Behind Biometrics

What is the politics of anti-poverty artefacts? In this article I examine it with examples from the early history of the biometric Public Distribution System (PDS) in India, tracing links between today’s Aadhaar-based system and the policy of conditional inclusion that the structural adjustment of the 1990s imposed.

I have recently participated in an extremely enriching event, Digital Urban Infrastructures, organised by colleagues at the University of Twente. A colleague on my same panel asked an important question: what is behind biometrics in anti-poverty programmes?

Based on my research on the datafication of India’s Public Distribution System (PDS), I had just argued that biometric recognition of users inscribes a very clear logic in anti-poverty schemes. It is a logic centred on combating inclusion errors, meaning the erroneous inclusion of non-entitled users in anti-poverty schemes, rather than exclusion errors, meaning the erroneous exclusion of entitled users. Such a logic inspires the biometric transformation of India’s PDS, where Aadhaar-based recognition denies access to non-entitled users, but does not take any action to give access to those who, while entitled, are erroneously excluded from the system. While such a move is friendly to the fiscal burden concerns that have long pertained to the PDS, its consequences are reflected in the perpetuation of stories of user exclusion, told in this blog and in econometric studies of the Aadhaar-based PDS.

But then, what is behind biometrics in anti-poverty schemes, and behind their consequences?

As information systems research has long argued, policy choices are deeply inscribed in technology. In an older piece of research with Amit Prakash, we have sustained this point: anti-poverty artefacts are shaped by the politics that lies behind them, and enact policy decisions that deeply and directly affect their users. In our work, the “politics of anti-poverty artefacts” was illustrated through a pre-Aadhaar case of point-of-sale machines in the state of Karnataka, where a weighing scale connected to speakers announced exactly how much was being sold at each transaction. The fact that we found the point-of-sale machine speakers muted, in most of the ration shops we visited, spoke about ration dealers’ reaction to the policy inscribed in the machines: at the same time, the presence of a paper register, to be used by ration dealers when the point-of-sale machine did not work, revealed the intention to still give rations to those users who were entitled and still not recognised.

PDS transaction through the weighing point of sale machine, Bengaluru, August 2014

The question from the colleague at Twente led me to look back into the anti-poverty policy of the PDS, and note how a policy that prioritises inclusion errors – as opposed to the fight to exclusion ones – finds its origins well before Aadhaar. As early as the 1990s, India suffered a fiscal crisis that turned the PDS, back then a universal food security programme, into a narrowly targeted one, induced by the stringent recommendations imposed by World Bank advisors. Doing away with a universal policy, with the one exception of the Tamil Nadu state, resulted in the distinction of subsidy between Below-Poverty-Line (BPL) residents and Above-Poverty-Line (APL) ones, for whom only a meagre subsidy, approaching the market price, remained into place. The institution in 2000 of Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), involving larger quantities of subsidy for the poorest of the poor, complemented a policy that effectively subjected remaining in the PDS to proven poverty status.

This policy, at the same time, caused severe harm to users – with the exclusion of needy households, classified as non-poor – and to ration dealers, who started having to run their ration shops with a suddenly and massively reduced customer basis. It is the same policy that, in the state of Kerala alone, reduced PDS offtake – meaning, the combined quantity of goods collected from ration shops in the state – from 4.64 tonnes to 1.71 in 1997-2001 alone. And it is the same policy that originated the shrink in PDS ration dealers’ customer basis, leading to the wave of ration dealer suicides whose memory was still very vivid during the fieldwork I started in Kerala in 2010. What the Aadhaar system does today, subordinating access to the PDS to the successful recognition of users, is effectively crystallising the same policy of prioritisation of inclusion errors that the structural adjustment generated in the 1990s, reproducing, though with changed times, the same dynamics of user exclusion and ration dealer blaming for diversion that structural adjustment hinted to.

As Langdon Winner argued as early as 1986, artefacts have politics. And anti-poverty artefacts have politics that if not carefully tailored, and if oblivious of user needs, may severely harm users and participants in the making of anti-poverty schemes. In looking at what is behind biometrics in anti-poverty programmes, we needs to look at the policy choices inscribed in them, and on the sheer effects that these have on people.

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