Too fast, too soon?

Last Updated: Mon, Dec 31, 2012 19:14 hrs

In the first few months of 2012, the Nandan Nilekani-led Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) looked like it had run out of steam. Its mandate to provide Aadhaar, a 12-digit unique identification number, to 200 million people was complete and the organisation remained seemingly stalled, waiting for a green light from the government.

In the interim, the UIDAI’s skirmishes with the National Population Registry (NPR) under the home ministry, then headed by P Chidambaram, were growing worse, and eventually needed the intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to settle things.

About nine months later, it was Chidambaram, now finance minister, who today finally laid out the contours of the direct cash transfer programme, now known as Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT), to be rolled out in 20 districts for seven schemes across the country starting tommorow. The transition from idling to frenetic activity for the UIDAI and Aadhaar has been quick.

It is a hugely curtailed launch, however, given that the initial shortlist consisted of 51 districts (later 43) and 34 schemes. Yet, even scaled-down, the government might be rushing through with this too fast, too soon.

Senior officials of the UIDAI attest there may be a lack of preparation on the ground as the scheme takes off. That might be why the number of districts where the scheme will debut have been reduced.

A senior official from the PMO said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had told those involved in implementation of DBT that the initial phase of the launch should be completed with minimum glitches.

Despite that, the penetration of Aadhaar (the desired level is about 80 per cent) is lacking in many of the short-listed districts. Officials explained that the seeding of Aadhaar into government databases is also likely to be significantly difficult. That is because a number of these databases are not digitised, apart from being differently organised. As a result, manual-matching of beneficiary details and Aadhaar will have to be carried out, officials said.

At the same time, much of rural India remains unbanked, although the finance ministry is pushing for greater coverage using ATMs, banking correspondents and common service centres. More, the country’s post offices, where a large number of rural workers have accounts, are still out of the purview of the Aadhaar Payments Bridge, the gateway that will drive transactions. Connectivity, too, is an issue, for both mobile telephony and broadband access, government officials claim.

Everything taken together, the April 1 date given by the PMO to expand the direct cash transfer scheme to 18 states looks tough. Maybe that is why the statement put out by the government after Chidambaram’s announcement says the scheme’s expansion beyond 43 districts will only happen “after a careful assessment of readiness.”

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