The govt plans to create a master database of citizens to provide welfare benefits. But concerns of privacy and data security remain
Pratap Vikram Singh | March 25, 2016
Even as the country lacks a legal framework to safeguard individual privacy and data security, the government is planning to integrate Aadhaar database, updated national population register (NPR) and socio-economic caste census to make what can be termed as the country’s, perhaps world’s, largest database of citizens. A highly ambitious programme, proposed by union finance minister Arun Jaitley in his budget speech this year, the national social registry – sort of an extension to the direct benefit transfer (DBT) programme – aims to be a master database to deliver benefits under several social welfare programmes.
For the rest of the world, this is not something new. Social registries were first set up by Latin American countries, such as Brazil and Colombia, to provide conditional and unconditional cash transfer under anti-poverty programmes in the early 2000s. They were later replicated by developing countries like Indonesia and Philippines. Their objective was to identify and capture details of the poor and ‘poorest of the poor’ families, and bring them under the social security cover. The database was revised, reviewed and expanded several times before it was made into a master database. In India, however, it is the other way round – raising more questions than answers.
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Termed as ‘social security platform’, the registry would be built on top of the existing online DBT platform and public finance management system (PFMS), a software application currently used by the government to manage the beneficiary list, Aadhaar linkage and transfer of payments. According to Peeyush Kumar, joint secretary, DBT, it is a “local federated database”, embedded with bank accounts, Aadhaar and mobile numbers (the Jan-Dhan, Aadhaar and mobile, aka JAM trinity).
So how will it be used?
The government aims to use the comprehensive database for effective implementation of cash transfers at district and panchayat levels. Kumar says it will help in better planning and execution of welfare programmes as the government will have a clear view of the number and details of beneficiaries. The government would use the platform to change its existing fund flow system, which is allocation-based or based on expenditure forecast. It would also help in creating a common pool of funds accessible by all departments and ministries for withdrawal of money on need basis in real time.
The master database will be “a single source of truth” about citizens, says Kumar. It will have details of an individual’s identity, caste, income, family, bank account, place of residence and mobile number, among others. Though all these are already with the government, lying in different, unconnected databases, they will now be aggregated at one place. “[That’s why] we are talking about having a uniform standard on which this (information kept in multiple databases) can be compared,” says Kumar. The protocol for integrating these databases will be clearly defined, he adds.
To seek expert comments on this proposed social security platform, the cabinet secretariat organised a ‘consultation’ workshop in February in Delhi. The participants there, however, were mainly from the government and government-supported think tanks. At present, the cabinet secretariat is working on a blue print.
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According to Kumar, officer-in-charge of DBT, the social security platform will not only facilitate DBT but also help the government in providing services proactively. “Suppose you have a database with habitation details of an area. Tomorrow if there is a flood in that area, you can easily see – using the master database – how many people are distressed and accordingly plan relief measures. Take another scenario. When a child is born, he or she has to be provided vaccines, nutritious food and later education facility. In such cases, the government will be able to take pro-active measures in reaching out to the people and not the other way round.”
A new fund flow system
The new platform would help the government phase out the existing system of fund allocation to various ministries and departments. Instead of being prescriptive and allocation-based, the budgeting should be based on demand, says Kumar. Ideally the departments utilising budget in time should not face financial constraints. “A more efficient way is that you give allocation on real time basis and give permission to withdraw on tap basis, when they need to use it, subject to overall resource position and budgetary limit,” says Kumar. Today, the technology makes it possible to draw funds based on requirements on real time basis, he adds.
The Economic Survey 2015-16 says that bringing these reforms will require development of IT systems and strong coordination under the Controller General of Accounts. “But for the government to reach the world frontier in expenditure management, it requires a new strategic agency that is precisely the expenditure analog of the Goods and Services Tax Network – the Expenditure Information Network (EIN) – that must be created to shepherd and manage this process.
“It will not happen immediately. We are talking about five years,” Kumar notes.
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Exclusion, privacy concerns
The idea of a national electronic database of citizens with details of their social and economic lives is a dream possibly shared by most technocrats, viewing it as a panacea to all problems dogging governance. However, many of them also share concerns related to systemic exclusion, data error, update, privacy and data security which may emanate from the proposed programme.
To start with, there is scepticism about the inclusivity of the database-driven social welfare approach. What about those beneficiaries whose names have not been picked up by the database – will they be denied service, doubt critics. Instead of adopting a gradual approach, as in the case of Brazil, Colombia, and others, the radical shift to social security platform would raise concerns of systemic exclusion.
A leading economist with the World Bank, cites an example of how the social registry – or say single database for running multiple welfare programmes – evolved in Brazil. Over there, a single registry was built to collect data of poor families who could be provided financial aid under ‘Bolsa Familia’ anti-poverty programme. Soon the registry, called Cadastro Unico, was upgraded in 2005, bringing over five million families under its fold. The Brazilian government undertook large scale legislative and normative review between 2006 and 2009. A year later, the government introduced a new online version of the registry and it was only in 2011 that it was used to integrate all programmes targeting extreme poverty. At present, Cadastro Unico covers 26 million families (40 percent of the Brazil’s population) and is used by over 20 social welfare programmes. “This (the use of social registry for executing multiple social welfare programmes) is not something which happened right away in Brazil,” says the economist who spoke on condition of anonymity.
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In Colombia, the system of identification of social programme beneficiaries (SISBEN) was started in 1995. It was expanded and revised in 2005 and 2011. At present, 34 million Colombians (75 percent of the population) are registered under SISBEN and the registry is used for delivering benefits across 16 social welfare programmes.
The unified database for social security programmes (UDB) of Indonesia, which executed conditional cash transfer in late 1990s, was started in 2011 to identify and capture socioeconomic and demographic information of the bottom 40 percent of the population, or 25 million families. At present, the Indonesian government uses UDB in implementation of some major national programmes around health insurance, scholarship, conditional and unconditional cash transfer, and rice subsidy.
Philippines’s conditional cash transfer programme, ‘pantawid pamilya’, started in 2007-08 to cover 3,60,000 families. It now reaches to more than 4.4 million poor families. The social registry, Listahanan, thus emerged is now being updated by the government through a fresh round of household assessment. Other social security programmes using Listahanan revolve around sustainable livelihood and social pension. It is also used by local governments for planning and verification.
“There are over 20 countries that have social registries. Most of these have a legal framework or policies in place. How do you certify and how timely do you certify people’s socio-economic status? How do you update it? These all are pretty well developed in these countries,” cautions the World Bank economist.
The use of a single database for transferring benefits also raises concerns of systemic exclusion. “What about those people whose names and details have not been picked,” says the economist, placing emphasis on the need for a refreshable database, which can be easily updated. The government will have to have a certifying authority to update socio-economic status of the population, given the fact that poverty is dynamic. There is also a concern related to error in data. One can be misrepresented due to lack of accurate information leading to denial of service, he adds.
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Moreover, the government must clearly state how is data going to be used, and for what purposes. Whether its usage will be limited to social welfare or will it also be used for national security purposes, queries the World Bank economist. “How would people know that the database is not being used nefariously to target on the basis of faith, caste or region? It is also important to define and publicly state who all can access data, who all actually own it,” he adds.
Shree Ranjan, former deputy director general, unique identification authority of India (UIDAI), says that since the conceptualisation of the UID project, the authority’s advocacy has always been ‘minimum data and maximum benefit’. “In our affidavit to the apex court, we have clearly stated that by and large we respect the privacy of individuals. We have denied several requests for data from within the government.” An overarching, centralised database, he indicates, raises concerns of privacy and data security.
“It is high time for the Indian government to put safeguards in place,” says the World Bank economist. A draft bill on privacy has been revised thrice by the ministry of personnel, public grievances and pensions, and is yet to be tabled in parliament! That is the closest legal document India has for ensuring safeguards as the government moves towards social security platform.
This article appears in the March 16-31, 2016 issue
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