PROMISE AND PITFALLS OF BIG DATA: SERVICE DELIVERY IN INDIA

Biometric Data Collection in India

by Tenzin Chomphel
Director of Marketing

The South Asia Initiative at UC San Diego hosts a series of interdisciplinary events to promote discussion and exchange on South Asia. On Thursday February 14th, they invited Reetika Khera, associate professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Management, along with UC San Diego’s own Karthik Muralidharan, Tata Chancellor’s professor of economics, to discuss and debate India’s new “Aadhaar” system.

“Aadhaar”–meaning “foundation” in Hindi–represents the Indian government’s attempt to usher in as many of its citizens into the digital age as possible through the use of biometric IDs (fingerprints, retina scans, etc.) to connect various social services to a citizen’s own genetic imprint.  First proposed in 2009, citizens were initially not required to obtain an Aadhaar identification. However, after a continuous push from the government and by linking it to numerous services such as bank accounts, pensions, and even free school-meals, over 1.1 billion people have now been registered, making this one of the most ambitious government data collection programs in the world. To advocates of Aadhaar, the new system is hailed as a step towards modernizing India, formalizing the economy, and leaping over illiteracy constraints of many indian citizens in need of welfare. To skeptics, it may be viewed as a huge breach of privacy. On top of these concerns for privacy, arguments against it point towards numerous implementation challenges. Professor Khera voiced some of these concerns, while professor Muralidharan–who played a key role in the early trial runs of Aadhaar–took a more cautiously optimistic stance during their discussion.

In her initial statement, Professor Khera acknowledges the common criticism of privacy issues, but focuses instead mainly on its implementation. She reasons that if Aadhaar is not able to serve its advertised purpose or audience, this massive change is being pushed for naught. First, it fails to prevent economic leakage properly, and thus does not serve its most in-need constituency. Examples she mentions include quantity fraud, wherein a citizen on welfare–who signs off on purchasing subsidized goods such as groceries–likely do not receive the full amount of goods they purchased. This issue is particularly prominent for rural and disempowered populations such as village women, and Aadhaar does nothing to combat it. Additionally, she mentions Aadhaar’s technical failures and the consequences of these failings. Many manual laborers and senior citizens have had their fingerprints faded away over time, and even a simple issue such as this has prevented many in poverty from receiving their welfare rations. Thus, based on where Aadhaar and its capabilities currently stand and the lack of socially appropriate technologies to fix these issues, Khera reasons that the system is doing more harm than good.  

Professor Muralidharan did agree with many of Khera’s proposed flaws but aimed to provide more context and empirical evidence in various sectors for a more holistic view of Aadhaar’s impact. He does so by going deeper into specific regions of India where Aadhaar was implemented and then measuring how effective specific programs were in each region. The adoption of a more basic biometric smartcard system in the state of Andhra Pradesh resulted in a much more efficient and less corrupted payment experience, which was publicly very popular without needing additional government expenditure. Conversely, once economic leakage was reduced in a lower-capacity state like Jharkhand, so too was government spending reduced, demonstrating policies that prioritize fiscal savings over welfare. The sheer scale coupled with the variety of situations in each state present a massive challenge in implementation. This contrast demonstrates the failures in implementation, rather than the system itself. Muralidharan concludes that rejecting the technology itself would be counterproductive. Instead, he highlights the importance of democratic vigilance grassroots measurements to address cases like these, where vulnerable groups are not receiving the protections they need.

Professor Khera (left) and Professor Muralidharan (right) answering questions

Both Khera and Muralidharan spoke from positions of deep investment in India, and understood the reality of such a large nation with scarce resources, and trying to distribute them as judiciously as possible. When asked what he thought the audience’s major takeaways from the discussion should be, Muralidharan again reflected on the role of advocacy in policy making. “The activists are able to see the groundlevel realities that politicians and academia are divorced from,” though he admits, “I do trust activists with diagnosis, but not with solutions.” He believes real long term solutions require valuable data points reflected in sensitive policy processes, echoing a sentiment that the only way to achieve these long term reforms for the public is an organized effort from the grassroots advocates, dedicated researchers, and centralized policy makers.

Images by
Biswarup Ganguly
Tenzin Chomphel

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