Gist of EPW March Week 4, 2019

The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) is an important source of study material for IAS, especially for the current affairs segment. In this section, we give you the gist of the EPW magazine every week. The important topics covered in the weekly are analysed and explained in a simple language, all from a UPSC perspective.

1. Alternatives to Aadhaar-based Biometrics in the Public Distribution System


  • States across the country are taking steps towards providing digital identities to beneficiaries of their public distribution systems.
  • In doing so, the use of Aadhaar-based biometrics seems to be the preferred choice of method. However, several other methods exist for the same and have been adopted by different states at different points in time.
  • States currently embarking on the journey of providing digital identities to their beneficiaries might benefit from evaluating all available alternatives before adopting a suitable method.

Classification of Methods

  • The biometric mode of authentication captures beneficiary fingerprint images and iris scans during registration, and uses them to identify a beneficiary during transaction.
  • In contrast, a non-biometric mode of authentication identifies beneficiaries using information such as name, father’s name, age, address and occupation. This information along with the ration card number, number of family members and their individual details, is loaded onto a plastic card with an embedded electronic chip (SRC) and is provided to the beneficiaries as a mode of authentication at the time of registration.
    • During transaction, identification is done by capturing this information by swiping the card on an ePoS machine, like a debit/credit card transaction

Intent behind technological upgradation

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
  • Ensure better availability of grains to genuine 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.
  • The biometric authentication failures have disrupted reasonably successful systems in states that were already using some method of digital identification.
  • Transaction failures due to technical reasons, such as poor internet connectivity and ePoS machine malfunctioning

To overcome there are possible alternatives to Aadhaar-based biometric authentication.

Initiatives that are implemented  in states

  • Tamil Nadu
    • installation of global positioning system devices on trucks carrying food grains
  • Chhattisgarh
    • The beneficiaries are authenticated by swiping an electronic chip-based card, also called a smart ration card (SRC), on an ePoS device linked to a central ration card database.
    • Intimation of the grain arrival status to beneficiaries through SMS
  • Gujarat
    • They used a coupon system where beneficiaries were provided coupons that could be exchanged for grains at an Fair Price Shop (FPS), post biometric verification at e-governance centres


  • States are increasingly adopting Aadhaar-based biometrics for providing digital identities to PDS beneficiaries. However, this is not the only available method to provide digital identities.
  • Despite other alternatives being available, the biometric mode of authentication seems to be more effective in the registration process.
  • Consequently, the ongoing exercise of seeding Aadhaar numbers with ration cards is a promising step towards strengthening the states’ RCMS. However, at the time of transaction, beneficiary biometrics need not be used.
  • However, more studies are needed to quantitatively assess the costs and benefits of each of the choices available.
  • Such studies can significantly help states such as West Bengal, Assam and Maharashtra, that are considering the use of digital identities in PDS, make an informed choice on the method best suited for their needs.

For more EPW articles, read “Gist of EPW”.

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