The role of Aadhaar in reducing corruption in the PDS has been highly controversial. In a recent I4I article, Muralidharan et al. summarised the insights of their study of Aadhaar-based biometric authentication in Jharkhand. The study found that compulsory biometric authentication on its own had caused ‘pain without gain’, confirming similar findings of an earlier study by Drèze et al. However, the authors also argued that biometric authentication in conjunction with a follow-up reform, known as reconciliation, had reduced PDS leakages albeit with greater pain. In their rejoinder in I4I, Drèze et al argued that the authors’ summary of their findings is a little misleading, and that the short-lived reconciliation episode does not significantly alter the diagnosis of pain without gain. In a subsequent post, Muralidharan et al. defended their interpretation of the findings and presented their response to the questions raised by Drèze et al. In this post, Drèze et al. comment briefly on that response and share some concluding thoughts on this lively debate.
In an earlier contribution to Ideas for India, we argued that Muralidharan, Niehaus and Sukhtankar (hereafter MNS) had presented misleading accounts, in various public forums, of their recent work on biometric authentication and the public distribution system (PDS) in Jharkhand. We read their response with interest. A detailed reply does not seem warranted. Indeed, we do not see the need to retract anything we wrote earlier in the light of MNS’ response. The debate could certainly continue but this seems like a good time to call off the ping-pong.
We must, however, draw attention to an important misunderstanding that pervades MNS’ response. The authors give the impression that our main concern is the lack of experimental evidence of a reduction in leakages after Aadhaar1-based biometric authentication (ABBA) was imposed on the PDS in Jharkhand. That is not, in fact, our main concern. We did point out that some of MNS’ mass-communication messages gave an unfortunate impression that experimental evidence had emerged when there was none. But more importantly, we questioned whether the study produced any convincing evidence (experimental or other) of a sustained reduction in leakages post-ABBA. Yes, there was a fleeting reduction in leakages after ‘reconciliation’2 was introduced, but if this reform collapsed like a pack of cards within a few weeks (and not just because corrupt elements opposed it), is it really an achievement? In the presentations that we took issue with (including MNS’ initial article in I4I), this question is swept under the carpet.
A good portion of MNS’ response is based on this misreading of our main concern and loses its way in tangential arguments. We did not need to be reminded, for instance, that non-experimental evidence can be as valuable as experimental evidence. Nor does it matter much to us whether the reconciliation episode qualifies as a ‘natural experiment’ (we are sceptical, but open to persuasion).
Nothing in MNS’ response disputes our observation that the imposition of ABBA on the PDS in Jharkhand led to serial disaster, at least so far. The authors persist in arguing that ABBA could help to improve the PDS. We see the argument, but very little evidence – experimental or other.
It is hard to avoid the feeling that the authors keep skating on thin ice in their enthusiasm for ABBA. In their initial pre-analysis plan, the focus was squarely on ABBA per se, without any reference to reconciliation. When ABBA caused ‘pain without gain’, reconciliation was invoked as the follow-up reform that would unleash its power. When reconciliation led to another disaster, the authors told us that it could have been otherwise. And now they promise further benefits from ABBA with new applications, such as portability and ‘choice’.
For our part, we read their findings as a critical warning that similar problems are likely to arise with these proposed applications. National portability, for one, is a very complex reform that could easily lead to the sort of chaos that happened in Jharkhand, on a larger scale (Khera 2020). Indeed, the Government of India has already sought nationwide enforcement of some of the measures that caused much damage in Jharkhand, such as the use of the ‘ultimatum method’ to achieve 100% seeding of ration cards. Caution is of the essence.
What is particularly puzzling is how MNS achieve this cheerful confidence without a clear solution to the exclusion problems that have repeatedly emerged in our respective studies. Their 4,000-word response has little to say on that, beyond a vague appeal for greater attention to ‘beneficiary experience’ in Jharkhand.
MNS submit that their findings lend themselves to multiple interpretations. One could add that the preferred interpretation might depend on where one situates oneself (Drèze 2018). A government advisor may be happy to recommend further applications of ABBA to the Jharkhand government subject to greater attention to ‘beneficiary experience’ in the future. Someone who advises the beneficiaries themselves, however, may prefer to warn them against these applications, bearing in mind that the Jharkhand government is very unlikely to be more sensitive to their experience in the near future. MNS have brought valuable evidence to bear on PDS reforms in Jharkhand, what we do with it is another ballgame.
- Aadhaar or Unique Identification (UID) number is a 12-digit identification number linked to an individual’s biometrics (fingerprints, iris, and photographs), issued to Indian residents by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) on behalf of the Government of India.
- Reconciliation here refers to the process of using authenticated transaction data to bring grain disbursements to ration shops in line with recorded distribution.
- Drèze, J (2018), ‘Evidence, Policy and Politics’, Ideas for India, 3 August.
- Drèze, J, R Khera and A Somanchi (2020), ‘Balancing corruption and exclusion: A rejoinder’, Ideas for India, 28 September.
- Khera, Reetika (2020), ‘Modi government's ‘One Nation, One Ration’ is an attempt to deflect attention from actual solutions’, Scroll, 17 June.
- Muralidharan, K, P Niehaus and S Sukhtankar (2020), ‘Balancing Corruption and Exclusion: Incorporating Aadhaar into PDS’, Ideas for India, 17 April.
- Muralidharan, K, P Niehaus and S Sukhtankar (2020), ‘Balancing corruption and exclusion: A response’, Ideas for India, 21 October.