Dudu, Jaipur : Two year ago, when Ranjana Kadashiv Sonawane, a tribal from the village of Tembhli, Maharashtra, was allotted the first Aadhaar number – 782474317884 — by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, the emphasis was on arming every Indian with a unique identity.
On Saturday, when card number 627904401529 was handed over to Vali Bai in the village of Dudu near Jaipur in Rajasthan, the focus was more on what could be done with the unique ID, especially when it comes to the government’s goal of moving toward direct cash transfers of subsidies.
With Vali Bai’s letter, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has handed out 210 million Aadhaar letters, more than a third of the 600 million that it’s mandated to enrol by 2014. About 230 million residents have enrolled for an Aadhaar number.
At the time the first letter was given, Sonawane didn’t even own a mobile phone, but Vali Bai does. She even has a bank account and gets benefits under a handful of government schemes such as a widow’s pension and subsidised food under the public distribution system (PDS). But the idea of getting cash instead of subsidies excites her.
“Maybe it will help me save better for my daughter’s wedding,” she said. She has two teenage daughters and one son and runs her household by selling toys at a nearby temple.
Birda Ram, a resident of Jaigi village near Dudu could withdraw Rs 22,500 from his Aadhaar-linked bank account, allotted to him under the chief minister’s BPL Awaas Yojana after authenticating his biometrics on the micro-ATM at the event, which featured several leaders of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), including finance minister P. Chidambaram and UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani.
“Government-sponsored scholarships for students, pensions for elderly and health benefits can be directly transferred to the bank accounts of people through Aadhaar,” said Prime Minister Singh at the function to mark the second anniversary of Aadhaar. He added that by transferring cash subsidies into the back accounts of people, corruption could be reduced in the system as middlemen would be eliminated. Birda Ram agrees.
Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot recalled the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi saying that out of every rupee spent by the government, only 15 paise reaches the poor. Congress party president Sonia Gandhi added that it was the dream of her late husband Rajiv Gandhi to use the power of technology for the benefit of the common man.
“The Aadhaar programme is the next step of this dream,” Gandhi said, dressed in the colours of the card—yellow and red.
Over the last one month, the government has been taking steps to move toward the transfer of cash subsidies directly to recipients of its welfare programmes in order to ensure that the benefits of such schemes reach the intended targets. Last month, the government had set up a ministerial committee headed by Singh to steer the effort that aims to prune leakages in its delivery of subsidies.
Subsidy payments and benefits under different schemes amount to nearly Rs 3 trillion, roughly 3.5% of the gross domestic product, according to government estimates.
At a press conference in New Delhi on Friday, Nilekani had said that by next year, 400 million or one out of every three Indians will have a unique identification number.
Also present at the event were C.P. Joshi, minister for railways and road transport and highways, Mukul Wasnik, minister for social justice and empowerment, and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, among others. The event also saw the formal launch of the Aadhaar-enabled service delivery in the country.
Singh said that the unique identity numbers will help 15 million students to get scholarships, 20 million elderly to get old-age pensions, 30 million to avail of health insurance and 50 million people to get the benefits of the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act).
There is some way to go before direct cash transfers can become possible or even widely acceptable to a population that’s not used to it. Even though Vali Bai would like some extra cash in her bank account every month, she’s not all that sure if she would prefer that over subsidized food. Getting Vali Bai and the the entire country on board to this new way of life may be just one of the challenges ahead of the government, which seems determined to move toward a regime of cash transfer of subsidies.