Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.
Welfare schemes for vulnerable sections of the population by the Centre and States and the performance of these schemes; mechanisms, laws, institutions and bodies constituted for the protection and betterment of these vulnerable sections
Issues relating to development and management of Social Sector/Services relating to Health, Education, Human Resources.
Conflict between the Aadhaar-based Biometric Authentication and Public Distribution System
In October 2017, the death of an 11-year-old Dalit child, Santoshi Kumari, of Jharkhand, was widely reported. She had been pleading with her mother to give her rice as she slipped into unconsciousness and lost her life. The government insists that she had malaria but in video testimonies, her mother, Koyli Devi, says she had no fever. According to the State Food Minister, their ration card was cancelled in July because they failed to seed it with Aadhaar.
For months, the Central government has been insisting on 100% Aadhaar “seeding” across schemes such as the PDS, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and pensions.
What is seeding and why is it required?
Seeding refers to the practice of entering Aadhaar numbers for each household member on the ration card. It is a pre-requisite for the Aadhaar-based Biometric Authentication (ABBA) system, the practice of using an electronic point of sale (PoS) machine to authenticate each transaction. The government has made seeding and the ABBA mandatory in the PDS.
Seeding: An important barrier
The seeding has been made mandatory resulting into various issues.
In their zeal to achieve 100% Aadhaar-seeding targets, some field functionaries just deleted the names of those who did not submit Aadhaar details. Others waited till the deadline and then struck off names. The government claims that all of these were “fake”, detected due to Aadhaar, thus saving crores of rupees.
Lack of awareness:
Some people blame the aggrieved for failing to seed Aadhaar. But many of them are unaware of the seeding requirement. When pensions in Jharkhand suddenly stopped for many pensioners, they had no idea why. No one had told them about Aadhaar. In some cases, the middlemen had seeded it wrongly. Others still had tried repeatedly and failed.
High biometric failure rates:
The Finance Ministry’s latest Economic Survey, based on micro-studies, reports high biometric failure rates.
In Rajasthan, government data for the past year show that around 70% of cardholders are able to use the system successfully. The rest have either been tripped up by one of the ABBA hurdles or, less likely, they did not attempt to buy PDS grain.
In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana it is used to disburse MGNREGA wages and pensions: biometric failure rates are between 8 and 14%. In some months, one in four pensioners returns empty-handed.
Many families could not collect rations because of a biometric mismatch at the PDS shop.
ABBA and corruption:
The ABBA has not much role in reducing corruption.
Quantity fraud is the practice of cheating on quantities sold. Neither seeding nor the ABBA can stop quantity fraud. In a survey in Jharkhand, dealers continue to swindle people by cutting up to a kg of their grain entitlement despite successful ABBA authentication.
Identity fraud, for example in the form of duplicate ration cards, only requires Aadhaar-seeding; the ABBA is unnecessary. Two issues related to seeding are: it can be foolproof against identity fraud only in a universal system. More seriously, it raises privacy issues.
Further, in Aadhaar’s rulebook for example, an elderly person asking a neighbour to fetch their grain would count as identity fraud. In fact, it is flexibility that is lost when the ABBA is made mandatory.
Five meaningless hurdles:
Thus, each month, people are being forced to cross five meaningless hurdles in order to have access to their ration. The hurdles are:
Functional PoS machine.
Connectivity, State and Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR) servers.
Failing any one hurdle even once causes anxiety in subsequent months. The resultant anxiety defeats the very purpose of such forms of social support. Failure in consecutive months leads to people giving up entirely. They stop trying.
The ABBA should be withdrawn immediately from the PDS and pensions in favor of alternative technologies such as smart cards. This will allow us to take the advantage of offline PoS machines with smart card and get rid of the issues associated with Internet dependence and biometric authentication. Insisting on the ABBA will result into failure of PDS, which is a lifeline for the poor.
Connecting the dots:
Insisting on Aadhaar-based Biometric Authentication (ABBA) will result into failure of PDS, which is a lifeline for the poor. Critically analyze.
TOPIC: General Studies 3:
Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment
Tackling Pollution: Strengthening coordination among states
The air quality index for Delhi is in the region of 470-500, whereas anything greater than 300 is considered ‘hazardous’ and a reading below 50 considered ‘good. As temperatures dip during winters, pollutants hover around the surface of the city and do not waft upwards. Smoke from burning farm waste descends on the capital from surrounding states at this time.
Government’s failure to tackle the issue of straw burning:
The Punjab government has not been able to abide by the National Green Tribunal’s order to implement a ban on burning paddy straw — nearly 20 million tonnes of it. The farmers are not at fault — they need to clear the land in quick time to prepare for the wheat crop, whereas the combine harvesters leave too tall a stubble of paddy straw for it to be manually removed, both expediently and cheaply. The technological solution — ‘the super straw management system’ which, when attached to a mechanical harvester, shreds the waste to small bits so that it need not be burnt and can instead be put to better uses such as biomass and ethanol and electricity production — has not worked out because of subsidy issues between the Centre and the States.
Pollution and federalism:
Every state blames the other resulting into weak policy response. This is an indication of an institutional vacuum to deal with public goods issues in a federal political system. The intervention should focus on the root of the problem—stubble burning, in this case. The distortion should be dealt with directly. We need to change the incentives for farmers who burn biomass. In the case of the smog in north India, it could mean that farmers should be paid to invest in better technologies to deal with the stubble left over from the previous harvest. A subsidy will change their incentives. The more practical solution is that the state governments of Delhi, Punjab and Haryana be considered the representative agencies for their respective citizens. They should negotiate on how the cost of changing farming practices will be shared. A first step will be to estimate the amount to be paid for every hectare of farmland that is shifted away from stubble burning.
The New York City Watershed Agreement of 1997. New York had been asked by government regulators to build an expensive water filtration plant to improve the quality of water it supplied citizens. To reduce costs, the city negotiated with upstream farmers who were polluting the watershed area to either buy out their land or pay them to change farming methods.
The lack of an institutional structure to deal with such federal negotiations, especially when the three state governments are run by three different political parties.
This is where the Union government needs to step in as a coordinating agency. It can also offer to bear half the fiscal costs of any green bargain between the three states. A better solution over the long term is to set up a federal agency like the Environmental Protection Agency in the US, with powers to get states to the bargaining table. The exact contours of such an agency will need to be debated by climate change scientists, economists, environmental activists and political parties. The current institutional vacuum needs to be filled.
Tackling vehicular pollution:
Buses, which can run both long distances in cities, as well as provide last-mile connectivity to and from metros and local railway stations. Reserved bus lanes are the most cost-efficient and egalitarian means of city transport, which penalise the polluters — cars and two-wheelers — and carry commuters comfortably and cleanly.
Restricting the number of vehicles:
The pollution caused by private vehicles, whether they are four- or two-wheelers, can be curbed by restricting their numbers, as Beijing and other Chinese cities have done successfully even as public transport is greatly increased.
Shanghai, for instance, has emulated Singapore’s example of setting a limit on the number of cars permitted on its roads. Singapore allows market forces to decide the price of such a license, which can exceed the cost of a car sometimes. Parking fees ought to be drastically increased, and payable even at night time. And, following London’s example, the proceeds should be ploughed back into bettering the bus service.
Strengthening public transport:
The solution for large cities is to ramp up public transport (Delhi’s bus fleet has actually been falling, and it needs land for bus depots) and encourage a shift away from cheap industrial fuel to solar, clean thermal power and natural gas. But the fight for better air quality cannot be successful without citizens exercising lifestyle choices to that end.
Focusing on other cities too:
North India continued to fare among the worst on the globe, with Gwalior second, Allahabad third, Patna sixth and Raipur seventh. While Delhi continues to get all the attention on this score, one should pay heed to children and senior citizens in these other beleaguered cities. These residents can’t afford air purifiers like many of the capital’s well-to-do and diplomats.
The winter smog that chokes millions of people every year needs to be dealt with through a long-term institutional strategy rather than hasty administrative responses each time pollution level goes very high.
Connecting the dots:
The lack of an institutional structure to deal with federal negotiations, especially when the three state governments are run by three different political parties is a major challenge while dealing with air pollution in northern India. Discuss.
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