AACQUISITION OF A DRIVER permit in Delhi, the capital of India, requires a single 20-minute visit, a computerized exam, and a quick and efficient practice exam. The applicant’s phone rings when she leaves the center: “Congratulations! The license will arrive by post within 24 hours. At 8:30 am the next morning, a courier delivers the new smart smart card.
Such cutting-edge government service can also be found in other poor countries, but only by paying a bribe. The secret in Delhi is a national biometric identification system called Aadhaar. Deployed over the past decade, it now covers everything but a small fraction of India’s 1.4 billion people. Each person who has received a unique 12-digit number, backed by fingerprint and retina scans, receives instant proof of identity and residence. No more need for stained birth certificates, crumpled utility bills or rental contracts.
Given India’s immense scale and complexity, and its large pool of highly skilled workers, its governments have increasingly turned to high-tech solutions for all kinds of problems. In general, these have eased the burden on the rulers and the governed, despite some expected problems. Administrative infrastructure such as Aadhaar has propelled such amenities as digital payments, internet shopping, and online education. Yet precisely because of India’s size and poverty, tens of millions of people are still excluded – because they are poor, illiterate, disabled, lack electricity, do not own smartphones, or do not have a smartphone. cannot connect to a mobile or Wi-Fi network.
Take the example of Reena Devi, a mother of two young children in Bihar, India’s poorest state. After the death of her husband last year, she should have been entitled to a widow’s pension and employment programs, among others. But when Vyom Anil, a researcher, and Jean Dreze, an economist, bumped into Ms Devi, they found that since she misplaced her Aadhaar card, she had also lost all access to benefits. Without a telephone, without a registered mailing address and without a registration of her date of birth, Ms. Devi could not retrieve her unique number. The two academics spent a frustrating four months trying to get Ms. Devi re-enrolled. Finally, a kind official went the extra mile, found her file, and produced a new card.
Ms. Devi was lucky enough to get help. In a few tragic cases, those who have lost access to subsidized food because they cannot link their old ration cards to the new Aadhaar cards, or because fingerprint readers in remote towns do not work. correctly, starved to death. More often than not, the poor simply get by without help. Recent investigations by Lokniti-CSDS, a survey group, shows that four-fifths of Indian families use public food supply programs, with 28% saying they were denied rations at some point due to issues with Aadhaar. Biometrics username has helped curb theft and corruption, but less so than non-technological reforms of the food system.
There are also gaping holes in other government programs. India’s covid-19 vaccination campaign, launched in January, quickly subsided, and not just because the government did not order enough doses. The slots for the shots could only be booked through CoWin, an online service. This has proven to be easy for digitally literate people with at least some English. Most of those without such talent – the vast majority of Indians – had to wait until June, when the government quietly began to admit dates. India is now set to give its billionth jab – a notable achievement – but only a quarter of those over 11 are fully immunized.
A social program deemed to be among the most successful in India, a decades-old network of about 1.35 million free one-room preschools that also provide meals, known as angwadis, has also suffered disruption of high technology. In March, its employees, nearly all women paid less than $ 150 per month, were instructed to use a new government-provided smartphone app. Failure to download class data could result in the suspension of wages and food supplies, threatening a vital source of nutrition for India’s poorest children.
Workers say the app is difficult to use. It’s only in English, which most don’t understand, and takes up so much memory that it crashes their cheap smartphones. Many do not even have a telephone, electricity or mobile reception in their villages. What was wrong with the old written records that they have carefully kept for years, they ask? The change is that the government now wants more control and oversight.
“Scheme after scheme, we see that the digital switchover has become a goal in itself,” says Dreze, the economist. Like many critics of the government’s tech push, Dreze says he’s not opposed to the principle. He points to a popular program in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, phased out after Aadhaar, which simply replaced old ration cards with smart cards. People liked them because they were straightforward and transferable.
The problem arises when the tech wizards in Bangalore forget that they live in what is still partly a very poor country. This detachment is then compounded by politicians looking for quick and sexy fixes, who rush projects into action without proper study. The simpler approaches are ignored.
A recent randomized controlled trial conducted by researchers at the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research, for example, examined how angwadis could be improved by employing an additional part-time worker in generally one-teacher operations. The results have been dramatic. Teachers spent more than twice as much time on children’s education and health, as well as administration. Learning scores have skyrocketed. In angwadis with additional help, severe stunting fell by 42%. Yet while the government’s operating budget for angwadis– that is, food and wages – has remained stable, its spending on technology has skyrocketed. In its race to become a modern digital economy, India is leaving behind those who could benefit the most.■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “View as a State”