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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Integrating Biometric Authentication in India’s Welfare Programs: Lessons from a Decade of Reforms

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India’s biometric unique ID Aadhaar has been at the forefront of the global revolution in digital identification, and India’s most significant investment in state capacity over the past decade. Yet, its application to social protection programs has been controversial. Proponents claim that the use of Aadhaar to identify and authenticate beneficiaries in these programs has led to considerable fiscal savings, while critics claim that it has led to denial of benefits to the marginalized and caused substantial harm. We review research on the use and impact of Aadhaar in social programs in India over the last decade. Our main takeaway from the review is that biometric authentication has reduced leakage in multiple settings, but its impact on beneficiaries depends crucially on the protocols and details of implementation. We conclude with a list of policy suggestions for obtaining the benefits of Aadhaar while minimizing the risk of harm to beneficiaries.

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