Recently, the government announced that it plans to transfer benefits under various schemes directly into the bank accounts of individual beneficiaries. Benefits can be the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) wages, scholarships, pensions and health benefits. Beneficiaries shall be identified through the Aadhaar number (Aadhaar is an individual identification number linked to a person’s demographic and biometric information). The direct cash transfer (DCT) system is going to be rolled out in 51 districts, starting January 1, 2013. It will later be extended to 18 states by April 1, 2013 and the rest by April 1, 2014 (or earlier). Presently, 34 schemes have been identified in 43 districts to implement the DCT programme. Currently, the government subsidises certain products (food grains, fertilizers, water, electricity) and services (education, healthcare) by providing them at a lower than market price to the beneficiaries. This has led to problems such as high fiscal deficit, waste of scarce resources and operational inefficiencies. The government is considering replacing this with an Aadhaar enabled DCT system. It has claimed that the new system would ensure timely payment directly to intended beneficiaries, reduce transaction costs and leakages. However, many experts have criticised both the concept of cash transfer as well as Aadhaar (see here, here, here and here). In this blog, we provide some background information about cash transfer, explain the concept of Aadhaar and examine the pros and cons of an Aadhaar enabled direct cash transfer system. Background on cash transfer Under the direct cash transfer (DCT) scheme, government subsidies will be given directly to the beneficiaries in the form of cash rather than goods. DCTs can either be unconditional or conditional. Under unconditional schemes, cash is directly transferred to eligible households with no conditions. For example, pension schemes. Conditional cash transfers provide cash directly to poor households in response to the fulfillment of certain conditions such as minimum attendance of children in schools. DCTs provide poor families the choice of using the cash as they wish. Having access to cash also relieves some of their financial constraints. Also, DCTs are simpler in design than other subsidy schemes. Even though cash transfer schemes have a high fixed cost of administration when the programme is set up, running costs are far lower (see here, here and here). Presently, the government operates a number of DCT schemes. For example, Janani Suraksha Yojana, Indira Awas Yojana and Dhanalaksmi scheme. In his 2011-12 Budget speech, the then Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, had stated that the government plans to move towards direct transfer of cash subsidy for kerosene, Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG), and fertilizers. A task force headed by Nandan Nilekani was set up to work out the modalities of operationalising DCT for these items. This task force submitted its report in February 2012. The National Food Security Bill, 2011, pending in Parliament, includes cash transfer and food coupons as possible alternative mechanisms to the Public Distribution System. Key features of Aadhaar The office of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was set up in 2009 within the Planning Commission. In 2010, the government later introduced the National Identification Authority of India Bill in Parliament to give statutory status to this office.
For a PRS analysis of the Bill, see here. Aadhaar enabled direct cash transfers Advantages Identification through Aadhaar number: Currently, the recipient has to establish his identity and eligibility many times by producing multiple documents for verification. The verification of such documents is done by multiple authorities. An Aadhaar enabled bank account can be used by the beneficiary to receive multiple welfare payments as opposed to the one scheme, one bank approach, followed by a number of state governments. Elimination of middlemen: The scheme reduces chances of rent-seeking by middlemen who siphon off part of the subsidy. In the new system, the cash shall be transferred directly to individual bank accounts and the beneficiaries shall be identified through Aadhaar. Reduction in duplicate and ghost beneficiaries: The Aadhaar number is likely to help eliminate duplicate cards and cards for non-existent persons or ghost beneficiaries in schemes such as the PDS and MNREGS. Disadvantages Lack of clarity on whether Aadhaar is mandatory: According to UIDAI, it is not mandatory for individuals to get an Aadhaar number. However, it does not prevent any service provider from prescribing Aadhaar as a mandatory requirement for availing services. Therefore, beneficiaries may be denied a service if he does not have the Aadhaar number. It is noteworthy that the new direct cash transfer policy requires beneficiaries to have an Aadhaar number and a bank account. However, many beneficiaries do not yet have either. (Presently, there are 229 million Aadhaar number holders and 147 million bank accounts). Targeting and identification of beneficiaries: According to the government, one of the key reasons for changing to DCT system is to ensure better targeting of subsidies. However, the success of Aadhaar in weeding out ‘ghost’ beneficiaries depends on mandatory enrollment. If enrollment is not mandatory, both authentication systems (identity card based and Aadhaar based) must coexist. In such a scenario, ‘ghost’ beneficiaries and people with multiple cards will choose to opt out of the Aadhaar system. Furthermore, key schemes such as PDS suffer from large inclusion and exclusion errors. However, Aadhaar cannot address errors in targeting of BPL families. Also, it cannot address problems of MNREGS such as incorrect measurement of work and payment delays. Safeguard for maintaining privacy: Information collected when issuing Aadhaar may be misused if safeguards to maintain privacy are inadequate. Though the Supreme Court has included privacy as part of the Right to Life, India does not have a specific law governing issues related to privacy. Also, the authority is required to maintain details of every request for authentication and the response provided. However, maximum duration for which such data has to be stored is not specified. Authentication data provides insights into usage patterns of an Aadhaar number holder. Data that has been recorded over a long duration of time may be misused for activities such as profiling an individual’s behaviour.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.