'Inaccurate': Govt slams magazine article claiming digital divide in India
A recent article pointed out that while Aadhaar has propelled conveniences as digital payments, millions are still left out of the tech-based government benefits because of India’s size and poverty and challenges in areas of electricity supply and data connectivity.
Reacting to a recent story on India's tech-based governance in a renowned magazine and the digital divide that is highlighted, the government on Wednesday claimed that the article is “inaccurate and biased", "betrays a severe lack of journalistic diligence" and “contradicts even the past reports” in that publication.
Taking cognisance of an article published in The Economist on October 16, titled, ‘India’s high-tech governance risks leaving behind its poorest citizens’, which highlighted that while India's administrative infrastructure such as Aadhaar has propelled conveniences as digital payments, internet shopping and online schooling, millions are still left out of the tech-based government benefits because of India’s size and poverty and challenges in areas of electricity supply and mobile and internet connectivity.
An excerpt from The Economist story read, “Given India’s immense scale and complexity, and with its deep pool of highly skilled workers, its governments have increasingly turned to high-tech solutions for all sorts of problems. Generally these have eased burdens on both rulers and the governed, despite some expected glitches. Administrative infrastructure such as Aadhaar has propelled such conveniences as digital payments, internet shopping and online schooling. Yet precisely because of India’s size and poverty, tens of millions still are left out—because they are poor, illiterate, disabled, lack electricity, do not possess a smartphone or cannot connect to a mobile or Wi-Fi network.”
Calling the claim factually wrong, the government said that the total number of Aadhaar card holders above the age of 18 has reached 129.48 crore as of June 21, 2021. “As per UIDAI data in the last one year, the UIDAI has issued around 36 crore new Aadhaar cards to the adult population. In this period the highest number of Aadhaar cards was issued in January 2021 when 53.4 lakh (5.34 million) new Aadhaar card holders were added to the list of Indian population having a digital identity,” the government said in a rejoinder issued in response to The Economist article.
The government also quoted excerpts from another article published in The Economist on September 5, 2020, titled, ‘Time for proof’, to claim that the recent story contradicts past reports in the publication.
"Creating a digital ID system is hard and expensive. Yet India, a gigantic and largely poor country, has managed it. Its "Aadhaar" biometric system has created digital identities for 1.3bn people….it has streamlined government services and massively reduced fraud. If rural Indians can prove who they are online, it is scandalous that many Brits and Americans cannot," the rejoinder quoted an excerpt from the September 2020 article in The Economist.
In the recent article, the author narrated the story of one Reena Devi, a mother of two from Bihar, who reportedly didn't receive widow pension benefit after she misplaced her Aadhaar card.
“With no phone, no registered postal address and no record of her birth date, Ms Devi was unable to retrieve her unique number," an excerpt from the article read, underscoring the concern that while Devi was lucky to get help, “In a few tragic cases those who have lost access to subsidised food because they cannot link their old ration cards to new Aadhaar cards, or because fingerprint readers in remote towns do not work properly, have starved to death.”
The government, in the rejoinder, called out the “wrong observations” to say that in such cases, the resident can easily retrieve their Aadhaar card by visiting the nearest Aadhaar enrolment centre. “The resident may be provided with an Aadhaar number after furnishing his/her demographic details and authenticating the biometrics. In case, if demographic details like address, date of birth, phone number etc. are also not available, then, the resident can visit the nearest Aadhaar Seva Kendra or concerned UIDAI, Regional Office,” the government said in its response.
It also slammed the article for commenting that India's vaccination programme against Covid-19, launched in January, faced hurdles of digital and literacy divide and largely left out poor and illiterate people initially because slots for the vaccine shots could only be booked on the Co-WIN portal - in English - until June when the Centre allowed walk-ins at and spot bookings at inoculation centres.
Calling it incorrect, the government said apart from English and Hindi, 10 regional languages options are available on the Co-WIN platform, including Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Odia, Punjabi, Tamil, and Telugu.
The government further said that “online registration and prior booking of appointment is not mandatory to avail vaccination services.” It also highlighted that apart from online registration and appointments, Co-WIN offers several modes for registration and vaccination of beneficiaries, including assisted registration through Common Service Centers, assisted registration through 1075 helpline, on-site or walk-in registration and vaccination for people belonging to facilitated cohorts such as people who don’t have access to the internet or smartphones.
“The vaccinators who operate the vaccination session do the on-site registrations. The beneficiary is not required to use the Co-WIN digital interface in such cases,” the government said in the rejoinder.
Highlighting India's pace of vaccination against Covid-19, the government said that the country has administered the highest number of Covid-19 vaccine doses in the world. “As of October 19 morning, India has administered more than 99 crore doses of Covid vaccine and is likely to touch the 100 crore or one billion doses shortly,” the rejoinder read.
“As per the data available on Our World in Data, the US follows India with over 40 crore (400 million) Covid vaccination, and Brazil has administered 25.6 crore (256 million) Covid vaccine doses,” it further read.
The government said in the average pace of daily Covid-19 vaccination, India again leads the table with over 4-6 million daily doses (rolling 7-days average). “Countries like the US, France, the UK, Brazil and Russia are all under 1-2 million daily doses (rolling 7-days average),” the rejoinder claimed.
The Economist article attributed to surveys by Lokniti-CSDS, a polling group, to show that four-fifths of Indian families use public food supply schemes, of which 28% say they have been denied rations at some point owing to problems with Aadhaar. “The biometric ID has helped curb theft and corruption, but less so than non-tech reforms to the food system,” an excerpt from the story read.
The article misses some important facts about food security and the role of technology in ensuring the rightful targeting of beneficiaries in India under the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), the rejoinder claimed in response.
“As part of the technology-driven TPDS reforms, significant progress has been made at the national level during the past 6-7 years. These reforms inter-alia include digitisation of all ration cards data (100% achieved in all states/Union territories), Aadhaar seeding (>90% at the national level), installation of electronic Point of Sale (ePoS) devices at the FPSs for transparent distribution (~93% at the national level), portability of ration cards under One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) plan (enabled in 34 states/Union territories), etc,” the government wrote in the rejoinder.
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