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India: Urgent letter to Food Minister regarding danger of inappropriate technologies in PDS

16 September 2016

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15 September 2016

Shri. Ram Vilas Paswan
Minister,
Ministry of Food and Public Distribution
Government of India

Dear Mr. Paswan,

Danger of Inappropriate Technologies for the PDS

We are alarmed after seeing the programme of the National Level Conference on End-to-End Computerization of TPDS operations & Other PDS Reforms to be held in Delhi on 16-17 September.

This conference seems all set to intensify the push for Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA) in the PDS, which has proved disastrous in several states, including Jharkhand and Rajasthan where some of us work. This damage has been documented in a series of recent analyses and media reports, but there appears to be no space for any of this feedback on the programme, or for any speaker who might present a critical perspective on inappropriate technologies in the PDS. Instead, most of the space is given to speakers or institutions that have a vested interest in presenting a rosy account of ABBA and other inappropriate technologies.

We are entirely in favour of constructive use of technology to reform the PDS, provided that the technology is reliable, appropriate and people-friendly. None of this applies to ABBA. In Rajasthan as well as in Ranchi District (the pilot district in Jharkhand), imposition of ABBA has deprived large numbers of people of their PDS entitlements and also, quite likely, led to a revival of corruption. Further material on these sobering experiences is attached.

We urge you to ensure that the conference, and future PDS policy, abide by some basic principles:

1. No technology should be imposed on any PDS cardholder unless that technology is well-tested for the concerned person.

2. Offline technologies should be preferred to online options, which have proved wholly inappropriate in Rajasthan and Jharkhand.

3. “Pilot experiments” with new technologies should not be extended beyond the pilot areas unless and until there is reliable, independent evidence of the success of these technologies. Further, the criteria of success should be predefined and made public.

4. Full compliance with Supreme Court orders, including orders that prohibit Aadhaar being made compulsory for any service to which people are otherwise entitled.

As things stand, all these basic principles are being violated in the relentless push for ABBA. Course correction is urgently required.

Yours sincerely,

Anjali Bhardwaj Nikhil Dey Jean Drèze Reetika Khera

ANNEXURE:

* Delhi & Rajasthan: Proportion of NFSA cardholders who were able to buy their PDS rations through the PoS system. Jharkhand: Proportion of PDS allotment successfully distributed through PoS system.

** In Delhi, the pilot has been running in approximately 35 shops out of a total of more than 2000, but PoS data are not available for all shops.

Sources: Calculated from official data available at http://nfs.delhi.gov.in/ for Delhi, aahar.jharkhand.gov.in for Jharkhand, and http://food.raj.nic.in (Successful POS transactions, Total cards) for Rajasthan.

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