A new book that traces how automation in the American welfare system has led to devastating denials of benefits to and policing of the poor offers frightening similarities with what is happening in India with Aadhaar—the biometrics-linked Unique Identity (UID) number project.
Except that India will pay a much higher cost, if we continue in that direction—given the overwhelming proportion of the poor, and the fact that here technology is combined with biometrics.
Titled Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, the book by Virginia Eubanks, who is associate professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York, has drawn significant attention in the United States.
Eubanks elaborates on the use of “seemingly agnostic—and even well-meaning technologies—that promise to make the U.S. welfare apparatus well-oiled and efficient” that have actually helped eliminate the most vulnerable sections from receiving welfare benefits, while putting them under intense surveillance and compromising their human rights.
Among these devastating uses of technology, she talks about automated systems for gauging eligibility for welfare programmes. She also talks about predictive statistical tools and algorithmic decision-making that end up amplifying discrimination and racial injustice, for example. In short, how technology can be used as a political tool and worsen inequality.
“We manage the poor so that we do not have to eradicate poverty,” writes Eubanks in the book.
But the eeriest parallels with India, at this point in time, are the assumptions underlying the automation of the welfare system — that technology will not only make the processes more efficient, but also help detect “fraud”.
And the massive exclusions, of course, that automation wreaked in the US and Aadhaar has been wreaking here.
In India, so far, this narrative of the fraudulent among welfare beneficiaries has not yet percolated through the public imagination to the extent that it exists in the US, where Ronald Reagan in 1976 introduced the concept of the “welfare queen” who scams the system to collect excessive benefits while enjoying a lazy unemployed life.
However, the Modi-led BJP is doing its best to promote this narrative. Except that the Modi government uses the term “ghosts”.
When the Congress-led UPA-II introduced Aadhaar (the brainchild of technology billionaire Nandan Nilekani), it was on the premise that it will make the delivery of welfare services efficient, transparent and reliable.
With the BJP-led NDA, however, the focus of the welfare argument shifted disproportionately to how Aadhaar would help eliminate “leakages” that are a result of the large-scale corruption plaguing the country’s welfare system — from rations in the targeted Public Distribution System to old-age pensions and what not.
As the NDA kept bulldozing the UID project by making it mandatory for all kinds of schemes, it ramped up talk about how technology and Aadhaar has weeded out, and continues to weed out, “ghost” or fake beneficiaries, and is thus helping save huge amounts for the government exchequer.
Not only have these claims proven to be bogus again and again, it was found that the Aadhaar-issuing Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has been fudging numbers, apparently even those presented before the Supreme Court.
In the US, Eubanks says, automation entered the welfare system in the early 1970s, and as soon as it did, the poor began dropping off the welfare rolls.
“In the 1970s, with the promise of increasing efficiency, you start seeing computerization to detect fraud and tighten eligibility rules,” as Eubanks tells Jacobin.
“That’s when they started culling the rolls — using these technical means. Around 1973, almost 50 percent of people living under the poverty line were receiving some kind of cash assistance. A decade later, it dropped to 30 percent. Now it’s less than ten.”
And then there is her study of the case of Indiana from 2006 onwards, when the welfare eligibility system was automated, for everything from Medicaid to food stamps and cash assistance. The system was also privatised, as Indiana signed a $1.16 billion-worth contract with a number of high-tech companies, including IBM.
As Eubanks tells CityLab, this resulted in “1 million benefit denials in the first three years of the project, which was a 54 percent increase from three years prior to automation.”
The catch-all reason was “failure to cooperate in establishing eligibility”, mostly meaning some mistake while filling out the application form. Eubanks cites the case of a 50-year-old poor African-American woman suffering from cancer, who lost access to Medicaid because she missed a phone appointment for re-certification.
The 2006 Indiana system was also built on similar assumptions, as Eubanks tells Vox:
“One was that most people who were in the public service system didn’t need to be there, and that if they just had a little push, they wouldn’t collect the resources that they were entitled to by law. The second assumption was that all case workers do is process paperwork and collude with folks who are requesting resources in order to defraud the system.
Basically, it was built on the assumption that the welfare system is rife with fraud and most people collecting resources don’t need them. That assumption turned into some very brittle rules that were part of the technological system, like a rule that said, basically, if you made any mistakes at all in your application (which can run anywhere from 35 to 120 pages), then you’ve failed to establish your eligibility and can be denied.”
Back in India, reports continue pouring in regularly about people — those at the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder — being denied their entitlements like ration and pensions and even MNREGA wages over Aadhaar.
People have died — from children (such as the 11-year-old girl in Jharkhand who starved to death) to the old and infirm whose pensions have been denied — for lacking Aadhaar, for not linking it to the scheme in question or due to failure in the biometric authentication at the time of delivery of the entitlement.
Exclusions caused by failures in the Aadhaar-Based Biometric Authentication (ABBA) are devastating the lives of the poorest, even as sections of the mainstream media continue lauding the project for bringing in transparency and exorcising ghosts that haunt welfare schemes, repeating a false figure of savings propagated by the World Bank. .
Mismatch in fingerprints is quite common, for example, but even more so among the elderly and manual labourers. Fingerprint matching is the most common form of ABBA at the point of delivery, as iris scanners are costlier, and even iris-reading is prone to errors, especially among the senior citizens. Then, of course, there are the cases of Point of Sale (POS) machines not working in areas with poor or no internet connectivity, no electricity to charge the machines, etc.
These tragic exclusions have been flagged again and again by activists. In fact, this authentication mechanism is even being misused by the PDS shopkeepers for diverting rations.
Indeed, it is telling that while the government has coerced even the middle classes into Aadhaar by linking it to a slew of financial services, they are NOT required to go through biometric authentication whenever they access these services.
Unlike the poor, who need to authenticate their identity through their body each time they need to access their basic legal entitlements.
Why is it that biometrics technology is not being used to make a bank transaction, but has become mandatory in Fair Price Shops? Given the widely known unreliability of biometric software, does this reveal that the government obviously thinks the stakes are lower with the poor?
This also reveals the underlying assumption that the poor need to be policed, while the middle classes can be trusted.
This also ties in with the notion of the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor that Eubanks talks about. In the US, this bifurcation led to the creation of “a public assistance system that was more of a moral thermometer than a floor that was under everybody protecting their basic human rights”, as Eubanks tells CityLab.
In India, Aadhaar helps eliminate those among the poor who are undeserving of welfare, because they are fraudsters/ghosts and/or simply not needy enough.
One of the ways that this bifurcation of the poor into the “deserving” and the “undeserving” is done in the US is through massive surveillance. In fact, the right to privacy of the poor is invaded to a frightening extent in the US.
Before privacy was declared as a Fundamental Right by a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India, the Modi government had showed the inclination to walk down a similar path as it had contended that privacy was an “elite” issue.
Attorney General K K Venugopal had pitched the Right to Privacy against Right to Food (which the had government claimed could be realised only through Aadhaar, contrary to all on-ground evidence).
In the US, which has a robust surveillance machinery even without an Aadhaar-like biometrics-based database, profiling and criminalisation of the poor with the help of technology is commonplace, as Eubanks’ book details.
The reasons that many first-world countries rejected similar biometrics-linked centralised identity projects were mainly the concerns regarding privacy and surveillance.
In India, the Supreme Court is hearing a bunch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar.
The project has already done irreparable damage to people’s lives, if it is not stopped we could be headed the American way — except that in India, as pointed out above, the impact would be far more shattering.