The Namesake: Human Costs of Digital Identities

This article presents a case study from Jharkhand documenting a particularly distressing case of two women of the same name who have a bank account in the same branch. 

“My fingers are the same. Your machine is the same. How am I supposed to know that my Aadhaar got linked to somebody else’s bank account?” said an exasperated Sarita Devi (name changed). Sarita Devi, a daily wage labourer, is a resident of Simdega district in Jharkhand, India. This is the same district that assumed notoriety for the starvation death of 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari who was denied rations (Johari 2017) owing to Aadhaar [1]-related problems.

In Sarita Devi’s case, her customer identification (ID) at the bank branch got merged with the customer ID of another person of the same name in the same district. Her Aadhaar number got linked to the latter’s bank account, and the local bank officials refused to acknowledge their error. As we describe below, this is yet another tale outlining the frailties of those on the margins engendered by a heady cocktail of an opaque power apparatus, and a governance system intoxicated by technological fetishes.

Jharkhand was one of the early adopters of Aadhaar-based payments, particularly for direct benefit transfer of cash subsidy payments.[2] For successful payments, Aadhaar numbers had to be accurately mapped to the bank accounts of individuals. Banks and local officials were set stiff targets by the government to complete this exercise. Such an approach resulted in immense pressure on the bank staff leading to numerous errors (Munjuluri et al 2019) in mapping. Around the same time, a number of small banking kiosks, known as Customer Service Points (CSPs), mushroomed in Jharkhand. The CSPs signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with designated banks of the area to extend basic banking services to citizens, such as deposits and withdrawals upto a certain limit. Any transaction at the CSP requires the customer to undergo Aadhaar-based biometric authentication. This authentication enables the customer to access their bank account through the CSP.

Banks in rural Jharkhand tend to get very crowded (Figure 1). Consequently, many residents have expressed that CSPs are a convenient alternative. However, this convenience comes with some costs. First, customers cannot update their bank passbooks at the CSPs thereby leaving no robust trail of their transactions. Second, while the CSPs are meant to provide banking services for free, it is, however, a far cry in practice. A recent survey, by Sabhikhi et al (2019), of Customer Service Centres in Jharkhand revealed that, on an average, customers pay about Rs 35 to withdraw Rs 1,000. Third, the CSPs are supposed to provide free bank statements for transactions. This is, again, seldom done. These point to the lack of any citizen-centric accountability framework. In addition to a dysfunctional grievance redressal mechanism in rural banks and CSPs, this has meant that rural citizens become easy targets for deceit and exploitation. These are not always deliberately oppressive actions by officials. But, the structures of power, mediated by unaudited and haphazardly implemented technological platforms, can become exploitative by their very design.


Figure 1: Bank of India, Bano Branch

The absence of a money trail and lack of any accountability have led to severe harassment of two daily wage labourers, both called Sarita Devi. For simplicity, lets call them Devi1 and Devi2. Both have bank accounts at Bank of India’s Bano branch in Simdega district.

Devi1 started visiting the CSP in Bano for her banking transactions, and she had a total personal savings of around Rs 54,000 in her bank account when she checked in early February 2018.

Devi2 was a beneficiary of a central government housing scheme called Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY). As per the rules of this scheme in 2017–18, financial payments were to be made to PMAY beneficiaries in five instalments at different stages of completing the construction of the house. The PMAY website indicates that Devi2 received all the instalments by November 2017 (Figure 2), which she withdrew.

 


Figure 2: Devi2 PMAY instalments (official data)

Owing to the convergence of PMAY with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) [3], about 90 person-days of MGNREGA work can be utilised for the construction of the house under PMAY. The beneficiary can use their own labour, or other labour can be hired as per the provisions of MGNREGA to complete the construction of the house. The daily wage under MGNREGA in Jharkhand at the time was Rs 168.  The PMAY instalments that Devi2 received were not sufficient to cover the labour wages and the cost of materials for her house. She ended up paying at least Rs 200 per day per labourer for construction work and Rs 400 per day for masonry. She paid for these upfront, and was told by a local official that these amounts would be reimbursed to her by a direct transfer to her account by the government. She had also borrowed money to cover her material costs for the house construction. Devi2 remained in the dark about any technical procedures, her rights and her entitlements. The only information she had was the assurance by the local official that all the money would be reimbursed eventually. To add to the misery, another local official also took Rs. 5000 from Devi2 under the pretext of a platform construction in the village. While the local official was later suspended on  other corruption charges, the money was never returned to Devi2.

Upon scrutiny, we found that, as per official records on the MGNREGA website, only six working days were registered as work done toward constructing the PMAY house by Devi2’s household. Barring these six days of work, all the labour work is unrecorded and hence unpaid to Devi2.

In February 2018, Devi2 went to the same CSP as Devi1. Upon biometric authentication at the CSP, she was told by the CSP operator that there is more than Rs 50,000 in her bank account.  Assuming that these were the reimbursements for the masonry, materials costs incurred, and MGNREGA labour wages paid by her, she withdrew the entire amount. However, for reasons unknown to her and the CSP operator, Devi2’s Aadhaar number had been incorrectly mapped to Devi1’s bank account. The upshot: Devi2 had inadvertently emptied out all of Devi1’s savings. In May 2018, at the same CSP, Devi1 discovered that she only had around Rs 600 left in her account.  She did not know what had happened to her hard-earned savings, amounting to Rs 54,000. After several frantic visits to the bank branch in Bano, she learned about Devi2’s Aadhaar number getting mapped with her savings account and about Devi2 withdrawing the money.

Upon examination, we found that the customer IDs of Devi1 and Devi2 had been merged at the bank (Table 1). This mistake perhaps happened sometime around February 2018 as bank transactions for Devi1 and Devi 2 were fine before that. This paved the way for Devi2’s Aadhaar number being connected to Devi1’s bank account.

 

Bank Details

Sarita Devi 1 (Devi1)

Sarita Devi 2 (Devi2)

Bank Account Number

*********1674

************1202

Aadhaar Number

********1563

***********9240

Customer ID

******659

******659

 

When complaints by Devi1 surfaced, the bank officials at the Bano branch accused Devi2 of theft and pressured her to return the money to Devi1. In a few months, Devi2 has managed to return Rs. 24,000 with great difficulty and has Rs 30,000 more to repay. Devi2’s husband is also a daily wage labourer and is, at present, working as a migrant labourer in Maharashtra. A technological error at the bank, among other things, has created this chaos resulting in the continued suffering and humiliation of two families. 

However, officials at the bank branch have absolved themselves of any accountability. In fact, the staff at the Bano branch—far from being helpful—told Devi1 and Devi2 to “Go and complain anywhere you want. We can’t do anything about it.”  The bank officials would not even register their legitimate grievance. About nine months after the occurrence of the incident, in December 2018, they finally accepted a written complaint. There has been no further response, even from the banking Ombudsperson (an appellate authority) despite repeated calls to the number displayed at the bank branch.

On Escalating the Complaint

We took the case to the Bank of India’s zonal office in Ranchi and filed another official complaint. While the officers at the zonal office were helpful, they were wary of getting the bank's reputation muddled in the mess. They admitted verbally that this was a technical glitch, and had happened because of the immense pressure under which they were to meet Aadhaar-mapping targets. They also admitted that not only were they short-staffed, staff at rural bank branches often did not receive the requisite training to cope with frequent changes in norms.

The zonal officials said that they were ready to cooperate, but if the matter were escalated, they would file a case against Devi2 for theft. It has been over 11 months since the official complaint was filed with the Bano branch of Bank of India; there has been no tangible response on their part, let alone the initiation of an inquiry.

This is yet another harsh reminder of the web of sufferings in which many innocent people are getting trapped because of a target-oriented technological overdrive. While technology can be an enabler in many contexts, overzealous focus on “techno-solutionism” is subverting basic rights and democratic values. In this case, one woman lost all her savings while the other woman has been subject to repeated humiliation, and arguably, misplaced charges of theft causing much harm to her dignity and life. This, along with several other case studies from various corners of the country, is a resounding testimony to the fact that the people managing systems of governance from behind a computer screen can get away with almost anything without a shred of accountability. The Sarita Devis of the world have their dignity and trust mutilated repeatedly by powerful local officials, a tragedy only exacerbated by poorly designed technology. Additionally, Aadhaar has been touted to be a unique financial address, superseding all other IDs at various banks. But, the purpose of this unique ID is questionable, as in the case of the two Devis.

In this entire travail, the continued solidarity between the two Devis, hitherto strangers, stands out. Despite the loss of all her life’s savings, one cannot stop admiring Devi1’s support for and empathy towards Devi2.  Despite barely making ends meet, Devi2’s dignity and resolve to ensure that Devi1 gets her life savings back is commendable. Can we hope and expect that seemingly inscrutable institutional structures acknowledge this crisis and respond humanely?

 

The authors would like to thank Raghu Godavar and Deepti Goel for their valuable suggestions.

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