January 26, 2024
SINGAPORE – An algorithm rolled out by the government in an Indian state to verify welfare claimants has been “killing off” its citizens.
Now, those erroneously declared dead by the system are going to extraordinary lengths to prove that they are still alive.
A report that ran in the news network Al Jazeera took up the story of 102-year-old Dhuli Chand, who had to put together a mock wedding procession just to prove to officials in his town in the north Indian state of Haryana that he was, in fact, not dead yet.
During his wedding procession, he sat on a chariot holding a placard declaring, in the local dialect, “thara foofa zinda hai”, or “your uncle is still alive”.
He had to organise this elaborate display after he suddenly stopped receiving his monthly pension of about 2,750 rupees (S$44) six months earlier because he was declared “dead” in government records.
The bureaucratic snafu happened after Haryana began using the Family Identity Data Repository or the Parivar Pehchan Patra (PPP) database to determine the eligibility of welfare claimants.
The PPP is an exclusive eight-digit identifier assigned to each family within the state.
It contains vital information such as birth and death records, marriage details, employment history, property ownership and income tax data.
It is meant to verify eligibility for welfare programmes.
But PPP wrongly marked Mr Chand as dead, and officials refused to rectify the error even after he met them repeatedly.
“We went to the district offices at least 10 times, out of which five times he (Chand) also accompanied us,” Mr Chand’s grandson Naresh told Al Jazeera.
“Even after several attempts to get this anomaly corrected at the government offices, and after filing a grievance complaint on the chief minister’s portal, nothing happened,” he said.
It took a wedding procession before the state’s officials finally conceded to release Mr Chand’s pension.
Al Jazeera said Mr Chand’s case is not an isolated one.
Some 277,115 elderly citizens and 52,479 widows were declared dead and lost their pensions since the PPP was rolled out in Haryana in 2020, according to data obtained by Al Jazeera.
But several thousands were actually still alive, and they had to navigate a maze of red tape before they could have their information corrected.
‘Single source of truth’
State officials insist the programme remains an effective tool in processing welfare claims.
“PPP was easing and improving the delivery of services to the right beneficiaries and preventing leakages through the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning. The interlinking of different databases was done to get an integrated database which was the ‘single source of truth’,” Ms Sofia Dahiya, secretary of the Citizen Resources Information Department that handles the functioning of PPP, told Al Jazeera.
After Mr Chand’s “wedding procession” hit the headlines, thousands thronged the district offices of Haryana’s social welfare department.
In response, the government opened grievance redressal camps across Haryana to review PPP data.
Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has revealed that out of the total 63,353 beneficiaries whose old-age pensions were halted based on PPP data, 44,050 were later found to be eligible.
Mr Khattar said the government has since corrected most of the erroneous records.
But media reports suggest that errors still persist.