Alternatives to Aadhaar-based Biometrics in the Public Distribution System

The Indian public distribution system (PDS) has witnessed several technology-driven performance improvement initiatives over the last decade. The main motivation behind these initiatives is twofold—reduce leakage of grains into the open market, currently estimated at roughly 42% of total grains disbursed through PDS (Drèze and Khera 2015) and ensure better availability of grains to genuine beneficiaries. One such performance improvement initiative adopted by several states is using digital identities to authenticate beneficiaries. With the advent of Aadhaar (India’s unique biometric identity project), states are increasingly adopting Aadhaar-based biometrics to authenticate beneficiaries. This adoption has faced severe criticism from both researchers and activists, on the grounds of the method’s cost-efficiency and performance (Khera 2011b, 2017; Drèze 2017; Press Trust of India 2017; Dang 2017; Ramaswami and Kotwal 2018).

Therefore, it is important to note that there exist other methods that can achieve similar outcomes. In fact, these other methods have been adopted by states such as Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Karnataka at different points in time. In this article, we analyse these other methods to identify possible alternatives to Aadhaar-based biometric authentication. We present a conceptual framework to classify the different methods along three dimensions—(i) mode of authentication, biometric or non-biometric, (ii) source of authentication, central database-connected through internet or locally stored data in the point of sale (ePoS) device, and (iii) frequency of authentication, at every transaction or once for a predefined number of transactions. These methods are qualitatively evaluated for their efficacy in decreasing grain leakages and ensuring better availability of grains. The evaluation is done separately for two steps involved in the process of beneficiaries receiving their entitlements—first, the registration step where the beneficiary is enrolled into the PDS and second, the transaction step where the benefi ciary claims their monthly entitlement from a Fair Price Shop (FPS).