26 November 2018

Bali Yatra: Aaa Kaa Maa Boi

Bali Yatra is celebrated on the day of Kartik Purnima,an auspicious day that falls on a full moon around November and is celebrated among Hindus, Jains and Sikhs in India and elsewhere. In Odisha, among other things, this also marks the end of the holy month of Kartik (a month when people give up non-vegetarian eating - can also be linked to the breeding season of fish, and hence, a sustainable practice; at earlier times people used to give up non-vegetarian food for four months - the chaturmas - some may follow this practice even today). Besides, in paddy cultivation areas of Odisha the month of Kartik being one of lean agricultural activity (because sowing/transplantation is completed and harvesting is yet to begin) a month of religious vows and spiritualism also keeps them away from uncalled for nefarious activities.
It also marks an end to possible cyclonic storms in the Bay of Bengal, and hence, the time is ripe to venture into the seas or so thought the ancient mariners (Sadhabas), two millennia earlier. It seems that they set sail to Bali (an island to the Southern tip of Indonesia) and on their way touch upon Sri Lanka, Java and Sumatra and sometimes even go beyond. To mark this ancient activity, even today, people in Odisha celebrate Bali Yatra (journey to Bali). A week long festival begins on the banks of the Mahanadi. In 2018, the celebrations began on 23 November. A song sang on this occasion is as follows. 
ଆ କା ମା ବୈ,
ପାନ ଗୁଆ ଥୋଇ ।
ପାନ ଗୁଆ ତୋର,
ମାସକ ଧରମ ମୋର ।

The songs transliteration in Devanagri script will read as follows.
आ   का   मा   बो इ,
पा न   गु आ   थो ई ।
पा न   गु आ   तो र,
मा स क   ध र म   मो र ।

The songs transliteration in English alphabet will read as follows. 
Aaa Kaa Maa BoE,
PaaNa  GuAaa ThoI.
PaaNa  GuAaa ToRa,
MaSaKa DhaRaMa MoRa.

When the mariners set sail they were seen off by their near and dear ones. Given these, I provide two interpretations. The first interpretation from the perspective of the mariner may read as follows.
O Mother of the Mariner - protector of the Seas and our Sails.
We offer before thee the auspicious Betel and Arecanut.
Let these sacred offerings of Betel and Arecanut be Yours,
Protect us in the months when we venture into the high seas.

In short, before we start our journey, we pray thee for our safe passage to and from the far away lands and for peace and prosperity for all.

A second interpretation from the perspective of those who see the Mariners off may read as follows.

O first among equals, all set to sail with thy Mother
We offer you the auspicious Betel and Arecanut.
Let the sacred offerings of Betel and Arecanut be Yours,
It is my month long penance that will bring you back to be Mine.

Note that Aa(a) and Ka(a) are sort of the first vowel and the first consonant in Odia alphabet, respectively. Hence, first among equals, which could refer to a son or to a beloved. If it is being sung by a mother then it may convey that you are going with another mother who will take care of you during your journey and will return you safe and sound back to this mother - one mother's pain, agony and penance will be understood by another mother. If it is being sung by the spouse/partner then it may convey that you are going with your mother and my penance will bring you back - a mother ought to understand the pain, agony and penance of another woman (the subtle difference between mothers and lovers, notwithstanding). The month long penance could refer to the month of Kartik before the Mariners set sail or it could refer to the coming months, beginning with the month of Margasira when women in Odisha pray on Thursdays to thank and welcome the coming of Godess Laxmi in the form of  harvest bounties and other forms of wealth.

30 August 2018

Indian agriculture needs another revolution

The crisis in Indian agriculture, which has been persisting for nearly two decades now, adversely affects farmers and farms and depicts a scenario of poison-to- mouth. This crisis of today has a greater predicament than the ship-to-mouth crisis of the 1960s. To address this, India has to invest substantially on agro-ecological approaches.

The Peasant at Risk
There is an Indian peasant saying: "Abundance of water, destroys life; scarcity of water, destroys life." In spite of these vagaries from the weather-gods, peasants have shown grit and resilience in adapting to the adversities. Their capability to resist is compromised because they have to increasingly address market shocks and withstand climate change.

Indian agriculture, for nearly two decades now, has been in a state of crisis. This crisis has twin dimensions - the agrarian and the agricultural. The agrarian crisis being the adverse impact on the livelihood of the people dependent on it - a symptom of this being the more than three hundred thousand reported farmers suicides in the last two decades. The agricultural crisis stems from the inappropriate designing and inadequate interventions - a reflection of this has been an insistence on increasing production of certain crops through an input-intensive agriculture that may not be in sync with the underlying agro-ecological considerations and thereby adding to the risks and vulnerability.

Ship-to-Mouth and Green Revolution
One ought to acknowledge that the input-intensive cultivation itself was a response to an earlier crisis of the 1960s. At that time, large masses of the population had to depend on grain grants from the United States, under Public Law 480 - India lived from ship to mouth. While, in principle, this was a grant. In the complex world of international relations, particularly during the cold war era, it would have had its unwritten demands.

It was at the time of ship to mouth that there was a debate going on whether India should or should not adopt the high yielding varieties (wheat from Mexico and rice from Philippines) that required investment in seeds, irrigation, fertilisers, research and extension, public procurement through support prices, and distribution of procured grains through fair price shops. The unwritten demands that came with Public Law 480 along with food shortages (particularly, in urban India where decision-makers lived) tilted the balance in favour of input-intensive cultivation or the green revolution. Thus, an emergency like situation that required an immediate solution ended with a permanent solution.

Recourse to green revolution was perhaps the need of the hour then, but it created a structure where the technique associated with input-intensive cultivation came down from scientists to farmers, from lab to farms, from a controlled and certain environment to an open and uncertain environment. This has resulted in monoculture production systems that has led to overuse of inputs (water, fertilisers, pesticides, and credit among others) and dependence on a technique where the rate of increase in costs happens to be higher than the rate of increase in output. This increases net returns when the situation is close to lab-controlled conditions, but added to risks when there is deviation from those conditions. And, thereby, making agriculture unsustainable and credit non-serviceable.

Production or GDP Fetish and Poison-to-Mouth
What is more, it is this overuse and dependence that, unknown to the farmer, has adversely affected soil health and water quality. Along with these, to increase shelf-life and saleability, chemicals are added at the storage and distribution stage. So much so that all these has poisoned the food that one eats. A recent study by National Institute of Nutrition finds that food intake by children in Hyderabad has ten-to-forty times more pesticides than that in Europe or North America. The Central Institute of Fisheries Technology has issued a guidance note to guard against use of formalin in fish. All these are driven by a production or income or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fetish.

As against these, inter-cropping or crop rotation practices that add to soil health and provide micronutrients to the plants from the soil do not add to GDP. Activities that stop the production, sale and use of harmful chemicals and pesticides will not only have adverse implications on GDP but will also have an uphill task against powerful economic interests.

The GDP accounting is such that expenses incurred towards treatment of patient's travelling in the  cancer train from India's green-revolution belt in Bhatinda, Punjab to Bikaner, Rajasthan will add to GDP. At the same time, relatively lower health-related expense because of a better health status among residents of Enabavi, the first organic village of India that also contributes to ecosystems, does not augur well for GDP.

In spite of the importance of ecosystems, a 100 year old tree that has enormous value from the perspective of ecosystem services will have no contribution to GDP. However, if the tree is cut and sold as wood it will add to GDP.

The irony in GDP accounting, the poison on our plates, and the unsustainable agriculture imply that the crisis in India's agriculture today has many facets. Poison to mouth of today seems to point to a greater predicament than the ship to mouth of yore. Hence, any intention to address this requires a commitment to invest. 

Call to Agro-ecology and Knowledge Systems
There is no alternative (TINA) reflects a poverty of reason because if the powers that be will and facilitate appropriate investments in knowledge systems and agro-ecological approaches for location-specific resilience then many alternatives exist (MAE). In other words, MAE makes TINA redundant. Some notable recent initiatives are zero-budget natural farming of Andhra Pradesh and revival of millets in Odisha. The University of Cambridge led consortium to Transform India's Green Revolution by Research and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies (TIGR2ESS) also holds promise.  But, more needs to be done.

ZBNF field, Ramjogi, Dharmavaram, Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh
To do away with poison on our plates and to keep income fetish aside we have to think afresh. India needs to overhaul her agriculture. More of the same cannot be an option. India needs to invest in knowledge systems and agro-ecological approaches that recognises location-specific resilience that nature provides.

[The views expressed are those of the author and not of the organisations that he is associated with.

Srijit Mishra researches and teaches development-related issues. He is Director, Nabakrushna Choudhury Centre for Development Studies (NCDS), an Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) institute in collaboration with Government of Odisha and Professor (on leave), Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR). He is the co-editor of Agrarian Crisis in India (OUP), has recently co-authored A MANUSH or HUMANS Characterisation of the Human Development Index and has been involved in the action research intervention of Odisha Millets Misson (OMM).]

01 July 2018


Snakes conjure up images multiple,
some profound, some mundane.

From the sacred to the profane,
from reverence to fear.

The slithering beauty, adorning the neckline,
of the three-eyed Lord, Shiva.

The devoted companion, born again and again,
for thy love, in life and in death.

Nagina, Voldermot's double or horcrux,
epitome of evil, that will devour you in full.

The African saying: kill it,
before it bites.

India - the land of the snake charmer,
in penury, addressing man-animal conflict.

In blindfold, the trunk of an elephant,
spewing water, not venom.

Save the stick, save snake,
save the venom, save life.

24 June 2018

Population of India in a non census year: 2017

A quick look at the world wide web does not give any clarity on population estimates for non-census years for India. Besides, agreeing on a single estimate, subgroup consistent estimates can help in the designing and planning of public policy initiatives for vulnerable communities. The Ministry of Home Affairs (Office of Registrar General), the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation should come together to take this forward.
I was curious to know of India's population in a non-census year, 2017. The need arose, as I wanted to estimate snake bite rates (SBRs) across states by gender for 2017. I will address that in a different note, but for now I would like to comment on my search for an estimate of India's population in 2017.

Technical Group of 2006
My search took me to the Statistical Year Book of India 2017 available through the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI), as also the National Health Profile of India - 2018 (released in June 2018 by the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence, CBHI). Both these documents provides population estimates for 2017 based on a Report of the Technical Group on Population Projections (TGPP) published in 2006. The report used census 2001 as base to estimate population rounded-off to the nearest '000 on  1 March for the years 2001 through 3026. The TGPP estimate for India in 2017 being
  • 1,283,600,000 (or, 1.28 billion), for 1 March 2017.
CSO implied estimate
Recently, on 31 May 2018, a press note was released on provisional estimates of annual national income for 2017-18 and revised estimates for earlier years in 2011-12 prices by Central Statistics Office (CSO). In this, one has data for Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and per capita GDP for financial years (starting 1 April of year 't' to 31 March of year 't+1'). While there are no explanation on the method for computing population and the population estimates, one assumes that the per capita GDP ought to have been calculated by taking into consideration the population on 31 March of year 't+1'. The Handbook of Statistics on Indian Economy (in notes to macroeconomic aggregates) points out that for 2011-12 series population figures are derived from census 2011. For 2016-17, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at 121,96,006 crore and per capita GDP at 93,888 by CSO indicates a population of
  • 1,298,995,186 (or, 1.30 billion), perhaps for 31 March 2017.
UIDAI estimate
In addition to the above two estimates, the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI), have also provided a projection of population for 2017 in an analysis of Aadhaar saturation. The note also indicates that  data for nine states/union territories (Andhra Pradesh, Chandigarh, Daman and Diu, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh) were provided by the respective states/union territories. It is not clear whether the independence to states was in estimating of population or for saturation analysis. In any case, the note does not delineate the method of estimating population, but as this is meant for an analysis of Aadhaar saturation in 2017, one expects that the estimate of population is likely to be for 31 December 2017. The UIDAI estimate for 2017 is
  • 1,316,632,920 (or, 1.32 billion), perhaps for 31 December 2017.
UN estimate
Independent of the above three estimates, the United Nations led exercise of  World Population Prospects 2017 (also available at worldometers) estimates population for all countries from 1950 to 2100 with the reference date being the middle of the year, 1 July of each year. The UN estimate for 2017 for India is
  • 1,339,180,127 (or, 1.34 billion), for 1 July 2017. 
Comparing four estimates
A cursory glance may suggest that the difference in population estimates may be because the reference dates are likely to be different. To address this, we take the estimates for 2017 and 2018 provided by the four different entities in Table 1 and one observes that the range of the estimates for two consecutive years by any entity (TGPP, GDP, UIDAI, and UN) does not overlap with the others.

Table 1: Population estimates for India in 2017 and 2018 through Different Entities
Notes and Sources: TGPP-Technical Group on Population Projections 2006, CSO-Central Statistics Office (press note 2018, also see Handbook of Statistics on Indian Economy), UIDAI-Unique Identity Authority of India (projections for 2017 and 2018), and UN-United Nations (World Population Prospects 2017).
Policy pointers
Prima facie, one cannot reject the scientifically grounded UN estimates, unless substantive arguments are put forth. Besides, UN estimates, as is the practice, would have been developed with active engagement of officials and academia from all countries, including India. If there were any substantive differences then that ought to have been provided at that stage. If after that differences remain then they ought to be put up in the public domain.

It would help in provisioning of public policy if there is a common understanding to a basic matter like the total population of the country. This starting point will take us a long way in identifying sub-group consistent population estimates for different categories of vulnerable population and their geographical concentration or spread.

There should be serious efforts to provide population estimates for non-census years by taking into account the census of 2011. In today's age and computing advantages, even without the involvement and technological advantage of UIDAI, all this should be easily possible.

Way forward
The Office of the Registrar General under Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (including the Central Statistics Office) and all other entities should come together at the earliest to provide us with a subgroup consistent population estimates for non-census years. Till that happens, the UN estimates could be a starting point, the shares of population across states may be used from UIDAI or CSO estimates, and within states the sex ratio of TGPP estimates may be used to arrive at a gender-specific population estimate.

06 May 2018

Exclusion errors, Inclusion errors and Aadhaar

This post discusses exclusion and inclusion errors in the context of Aadhaar. From a welfare perspective, reduction of exclusion errors need greater attention. The two errors are either inversely related or are positively related. The Aadhaar architecture is designed to address inclusion errors, and hence, it could either add to exclusion errors or require independent efforts to reduce them. Further, identification being independent, Aadhaar cannot address these errors at that stage. Besides, no one can be held accountable for exclusion errors.   

Introduction: Day 36
On day 36 of Aadhaar hearing in the Supreme Court of India, an implicit reference was made to exclusion and inclusion errors in the delivery of entitlement. I have already discussed about exclusion and inclusion errors in the context of Aadhaar in my earlier posts on proportionalityright to physical existence, and nir-aadhaar among others. Nevertheless, the deliberations on day 36 of the hearing urge me to further elaborate on these.

The two errors
  • Exclusion error occurs when a person deserving an entitlement is excluded (we identify entitlement with receiving of benefits, subsidy, and services in Aadhaar Act). 
  • Inclusion error occurs when a person not-deserving an entitlement is included. 

In comparing the two errors, there are two broad perspectives.

First, from a welfare perspective, exclusion errors are considered the greater evil and to ensure that this is reduced the system can be lenient to inclusion errors. Under this, the two errors are inversely related. In this, efforts to reduce the exclusion errors, will lead to an increase in inclusion errors. Similarly, efforts to reduce the inclusion errors will lead to an increase in exclusion errors.

Second, under certain situations when targets are fixed, the two errors can be positively related. The lower the exclusion errors, the lower will be the inclusion errors. As a corollary, the greater the inclusion errors, the greater will be the exclusion errors. If targets remain unaltered, then a reduction in inclusion errors will also imply a reduction in exclusion errors. Otherwise, reduction in inclusion errors cannot automatically transfer to a reduction in exclusion errors. There ought to be independent efforts to address reductions in exclusion errors. 

In fact, as targets ought to be independently assigned from macro aggregates (say, poverty ratio) then any reduction in inclusion errors leading to savings in budget implies that there are greater exclusion errors.  Or, we are no more in the realm of positive relationship between the two errors. We have moved to the realm of inverse relationship. A reduction in inclusion errors imply an increase in exclusion errors. The authentication failures or absence of Aadhaar that add to the exclusion errors will all fall under this. The savings to the state from these would be like a regressive tax.

Additional concerns
The Aadhaar architecture based on biometric authentication to receive entitlement is designed to reduce inclusion errors (reduce ghosts and duplication among others). However, it is possible that it could also add to inclusion errors. There is nothing in the architecture to prevent inclusion errors that happen after authentication. There can be either denial or reduction of entitlement (like less or no ration) after authentication. However, as the amount will be accounted for it automatically changes hands leading to inclusion errors. This is a continuation of denials when authentication was not done biometrically. Such exclusion-cum-inclusion errors, in the past, have been effectively addressed through social audits and that should continue to be be an effective method, as Aadhaar cannot address it.

A recipient of entitlement ought to be identified independently. It is only after identification that the recipient's information can be integrated with Aadhaar for biometric authentication to facilitate delivery of entitlement. This means that that inclusion and exclusion errors at the stage of identification will remain outside the purview of Aadhaar.

Entitlement denial, with or without authentication, exempts accountability from state. Under Aadhaar Act, any future claims on denial of entitlement may not stand the scrutiny of courts in the sense that the implementing entity cannot be penalised. This is so because authentication will be proof for having received the entitlement and authentication failure cannot be held against them. No one can be held accountable for denial of entitlements.

To sum up, between exclusion and inclusion errors the former is a greater evil. The relationship between exclusion and inclusion errors can either be inversely related or positively related. Aadhaar is designed to address inclusion errors, and hence, it could either increase exclusion errors or need additional independent efforts to reduce exclusion errors. It may weed out some ghosts, but not all inclusion errors. The architecture and design of Aadhar not only does not address exclusion errors, but it could also add to exclusion errors. Further, as identification ought to be independent of Aadhaar, the errors at  the identification stage cannot be addressed by Aadhaar. Besides, under an Aadhaar architecture, the implementing entities cannot be penalised for exclusion errors. 

Earlier blog posts on Aadhaar by the author

[The views expressed are that of the author and not that of the institutions/organisations that the author is associated with. Some of the arguments that are not elaborated here may be found in the earlier related blog posts or in tweets by the author. The author comes from a non-legal background and the final outcome of the Aadhaar hearing would depend upon the arguments put forth by the petitioners and the respondents and their considered interpretation by the honourable judges. Comments are welcome.]

07 April 2018

On Aadhaar Proportionality

This note examines Aadhaar through the lens of proportionality and observes that it fails on all four counts.  Aadhaar's interference with rights is not justified by goals because it is just a medium and cannot be the basis to address a motley of goals. The logical connect is weak because it does not address exclusion errors for individuals, is silent on inclusion errors for non-individuals, and the links to fraudulent financial dealings and terrorism is far-fetched. Even if one is restricted to addressing inclusion errors of individuals, a number without biometric information would be the least intrusive and with relatively less exclusion errors. More importantly, the architecture of Aadhaar does away with executive accountability and puts the burden on those whose rights are compromised. 
The Aadhaar hearing in the Supreme Court of India has completed 25 days. The petitioners opposing Aadhaar put forth their arguments for the first 19 days and the respondents (particularly, the Attorney General including a presentation by Chief Executive Officer of Unique Identity Authority of India) have now put forth their arguments for six days and this will continue for some more days. At this stage, it seems that the judgement could largely depend on Aadhaar's test of proportionality. 

Four aspects of Proportionality
In constitutional jurisprudence, a test of proportionality looks into four aspects. In the context of Aadhaar, they raise the following four questions.
  • Is Aadhaar's interference of certain rights (that inter alia includes right to not be excluded from welfare entitlements, right to life with dignity, and right to privacy) justified by its legitimate goals (this not only includes targeted delivery of subsidies, benefits and services, but also to curb money laundering, prevent bank frauds, do away with income tax evasion, eliminate poverty, reduce income disparity, and bring down terrorism, among others)?
  • Is there a logical connect between Aadhaar and the legitimate goals?
  • Are there other methods of addressing the legitimate goals that would be less intrusive of the rights?
  • And, more importantly, does Aadhaar impose an excessive burden on those whose rights are being compromised?
Is Interference of rights justified by goals?
In criminal jurisprudence, a settled matter is that no innocent should be punished and in ensuring that it is fine if some perpetrators go unpunished. In the same vein, in matters of welfare entitlement,  no deserving person should be excluded and in ensuring that it is fine if some undeserving persons get included. It follows that right to life with dignity is also compromised for those who are excluded. As an afterthought one may also add that providing benefits to the non-deserving (say, entitlements for the poor to someone who is just a wee-bit above the poverty line) would have greater acceptance than the possibility of allowing the perpetrator of a rarest-of-rare  crime go unpunished  because of some benefit of doubt on account of poor evidence-gathering by the prosecution.

The right to privacy was always enshrined in the Consitution of India; but, unfortunately, was oblivious to the executive until a nine-judge bench clarified this to be the case subject to reasonable restrictions in the interest of the state.  The reasonable restrictions fail the exclusion errors when it comes to targeted delivery of subsidies, benefits and services. In fact, it is a double whammy because one does not receive the entitlement due even after compromising with privacy concerns. Further, Aadhaar is also touted to curb money laundering, prevent bank frauds, do away with income tax evasion, eliminate poverty, reduce income disparity, and bring down terrorism, among others.  This brings in a motley of goals, as if Aadhaar is a panacea for all ills, which it is not.  

Is there a logical connect with goals?
Aadhaar by design is a technology to 'uniquely' identify and authenticate. Hence, by design it is structured to reduce inclusion errors in the case of persons. This is neither designed nor does it automatically lead to reduction of exclusion errors. Rather, failures to identify and authenticate can add to the exclusion errors. This can be particularly so for individual recipients of entitlements who are manual workers, old and sick among others and thereby questioning their right to life with dignity.

It needs to be mentioned that a substantial amount of benefits, subsidies and services may not be provided to individuals (for instance, incidence of burgeoning fertiliser subsidies, loan write-off to reduce non-performing assets of banks that emanate from non-individual entities, and tax waiver to corporate entities, see more on this at ground reality). They are provided to firms or corporate entities. And, all these would not come under the purview of identification and authentication through Aadhaar. Thus, in these instances, making Aadhaar incapable of addressing inclusion errors also.

Aadhaar's difficulty in addressing exclusion for the recipient of welfare entitlements and inclusion of non-deserving non-individual entities also raises questions on its ability to curb money laundering, prevent bank frauds, do away with income tax evasion, eliminate poverty, reduce income disparity, and bring down terrorism, among others. All these make its logical connect with goals weak.

Are there other less intrusive methods to attain the goals?
For the motley of goals Aadhaar is a means, a via media. In particular, it is designed to facilitate identification and authentication of not only intended recipient of entitlement but also of wrong doers involved in money laundering, bank fraud, and terrorism among others. Aadhaar's ability to identify and authenticate lies through its special feature that it is a 12 digit random number ensuring uniqueness through biometric information (fingerprints and iris of eye) and by not reissuing a number.

Aadhaar is considered to be better than a smartcard, as the smartcard may have a technical life and there could be a fear of misuse due to loss of a smartcard. Limits to a technical life could add to the cost, but the Aadhaar card, a copy of which is required by many service providers, will also have a limited technical life. Besides, an Aadhaar card will also require updating of address or biometric information and in all these instances the cost is on the individual. Besides, a possible misuse of smartcard because of loss could also be addressed technical (for instance, through usage of pin or one time password).

Aadhaar is considered better than a unique number without biometric information because it can do away with a particular individual having multiple such numbers. A case in point is the Permanent Account Number (or PAN) card. While there should be efforts to weed out duplicate PAN cards by any single entity to reduce possible inclusion errors, but its advantage lies in the fact that non-individual entities also have a PAN card and it would be easier to trace transactions, as legally appropriate, through the PAN cards and, if required, one could supplement and complement it with the recently introduced Goods and Services Tax Identification Number (GSTIN). In any case, PAN serves a different purpose, as it is not meant to regulate delivery of benefits, subsidies and services. Either one could use the PAN number or a similar number because it is the least intrusive. This is so because it does not require a digital identification and authentication each and every time one is entitled to receive benefits, subsidies and services. Besides, this system of identification will have less exclusion errors.

Is there excessive burden on those whose rights are compromised?
A common problem of the three systems of identification numbers (Aadhaar, Smartcard, or PAN like number) if they are used to address delivery of benefits, subsidies and services is that they are designed to reduce inclusion errors and are centralised systems and top-down. Further, Aadhaar has been designed to address the executive's inability to address inclusion errors through a technological system (machine readability of identification and authentication), This may not reduce the inclusion errors, but will shift the burden of errors (particularly inclusion, but also exclusion) to the technology. This would mean that no individual would be held accountable for any errors or for omission and commission as the checks have been carried out through Aadhaar identification and authentication. This will be a serious burden on the recipients of entitlement.

It needs to be reiterated that the problem of exclusion errors is local because of absence of last mile connectivity and leakages. The solutions for these should not only be decentralised, but also bottom-up. This requires giving the responsibility to local authorities and also by holding them accountable for deliberate wrong doings. There should be appropriate and effective checks and balances, which among others, should also include social audits.

To wit, in the mid-day-meal scheme it should be the school teacher or any other authority in the school who is the best suited to identify. The possibility of teacher or any other authority misusing the power should be dealt independently and it definitely is not effective to allow each and every student authenticate their presence every day electronically if they have to partake in the mid-day-meal scheme. This will add to the time and cost requirement. Moreover, the Aadhaar-based identification and authentication is not likely to reduce leakages or misuse. For instance, if after identification and authentication through Aadhaar the authorities provide less, or discriminate in provisioning, or refuse mid-day meal to the children.

As already conveyed, Aadhaar's ability to curb money laundering, prevent bank frauds, do away with income tax evasion, eliminate poverty, reduce income disparity, and bring down terrorism, among others is weak. In fact, one does not see much additional advantage over what PAN and GSTIN can achieve to address some of these goals.  Imposing Aadhaar identification and authentication on all such activities would rather add to the burden and can even compromise national security.

While Aadhaar has come through a Money Bill (an Act passed through the lower house), it has been designed to do away with executive accountability. This would mean that the burden of not to be excluded or the burden to live a life with dignity or the burden to not compromise with ones privacy would lie with the recipient. The legal costs can further add to the burden. 

Examining proportionality to Aadhaar, one is of the opinion that Aadhaar fails on all four aspects. First, Aadhaar's interference with rights (right to not be excluded from welfare entitlements, right to  life with dignity, and right to privacy) does not justify the goals because it is just a medium and cannot be the basis to address a motley of goals. It cannot be the be a panacea for all ills. Second, the logical connect to goals is weak. For instance, it does not address exclusion errors for individuals and is silent with regard to inclusion errors on account of non-individual entities. The links to fraudulent financial dealings and terrorism is also far-fetched. Third, even if one restricts to addressing inclusion errors, a number without biometric information would be the least intrusive and will have relatively less exclusion errors.  Fourth, the architecture of Aadhaar removes the accountability of any lapses from the executive and puts the burden on those whose rights are compromised.

Earlier blog posts on Aadhaar by the author

Right to Physical Existence Matters

[The views expressed are that of the author and not that of the institutions/organisations that the author is associated with. Some of the arguments that are not elaborated here may be found in the earlier related blog posts. The author comes from a non-legal background and the final outcome of the Aadhaar hearing would depend upon the arguments put forth by the petitioners and the respondents and their considered interpretation by the honourable judges. Comments are welcome.]

23 March 2018

Right to Physical Existence Matters

On day 20 of the Aadhaar hearing by a five-judge bench in the Supreme Court of India, the Attorney General made a submission. There is a case that calls for analytical separation  between exclusion and inclusion errors. Once this is done, the contrast between the Right to Physical Existence and Right to Privacy disappears.

The submission cites the Rangarajan Poverty report  (paragraph 1, footnote 3) to state that 30 per cent of the Indian population is still poor. Does this mean that the Union of India has accepted the Rangarajan report? As an aside, I may mention that this method of calculating poverty has concerns, which I have raised earlier in my reading between the poverty lines

The submission referred to Type I (exclusion) and Type II (inclusion) errors (paragraph 15 b ii). In jurisprudence terms the errors are similar to punishing an innocent (Type I) and letting the perpetrator go unpunished (Type II). I had also shared earlier on exclusion and inclusion errors in Aadhaar. Of course, any system (governance or otherwise) would like to minimise both the errors. However, as the two seem to be intertwined in such a manner that, more often than not, reducing one may increase the other. Hence, the preferred mode is to try and reduce Type I errors and in the process they may increase the Type II errors.

All said and done, Aadhaar (at least the way it has been designed and is being articulated) is meant to address inclusion errors. The Attorney General's submission referring to various leakages and how they could be reduced was also evidence for reducing inclusion errors, but were  used interchangeably to buttress an argument in favour of exclusion errors. This not only questions the reasonableness of the premise that analytically distinguishes between the exclusion and inclusion errors, but is also a serious affront on democratic polity, as elaborated in an earlier discussion.

While reducing inclusion errors are important, but that is not likely to reduce exclusion errors. What is more, the argument to that effect was seemingly paternalistic - the sarkar is mai-baap. Rather, any and every effort on reducing leakages (inclusion errors) needs greater concern, understanding and sensitivity to a possible increase in exclusion errors.  In fact, Aadhaar itself can be a basis for exclusion, as has been cited by petitioners.

The Attorney General contrasts Right to Physical Existence (or, Right to Life) with Right to Privacy and points out that the former is more important than the latter. This position follows from the premise that reducing inclusion errors will also reduce exclusion errors. Once one accepts the analytical separation of the two errors then the conflict between Right to Physical Existence and Right to Privacy does not hold. This is so because the people whose Right to Physical Existence is violated will also have their Right to Privacy violated. 

Yes, your honour, Right to Physical Existence matters. And, Right to Physical Existence should not be held hostage to Biometric authentication.

Earlier blog posts on Aadhaar

[The views expressed are that of the author and not that of the institutions/organisations that the author is associated with. Comments are welcome.]