When India introduced the Aadhaar biometric identification system, the government touted it as a cutting-edge innovation in digital governance that would make it easier and faster to distribute state services.
But the system has proved controversial, with a chorus of critics saying it infringes on privacy and equality rights. The government’s move to require citizens to sign up to the Aadhaar system to access a growing number of services – including access to social welfare benefits and opening a bank account or mobile phone account – has gone all the way to the Supreme Court, which in January will rule on the legality of making enrollment mandatory.
As the debate over Aadhaar rages, an offshoot of the system in the northern state of Rajasthan is quietly working to help women take the lead on family finances.
The Bhamashah program, which launched in 2014, aims to streamline the delivery of government benefits and access to banking services. Running alongside the Aadhaar system, it requires citizens to have an Aadhaar number to register. But the system is based on family I.D. numbers, not just personal numbers. And its main goal is to put financial decision-making into the hands of women.
In order to get a household I.D. card, the Bhamashah program requires families to designate a head of household as the named cardholder. That person must be a woman, if there is a woman over the age of 21 living in the house, and she is required to open a bank account if she doesn’t already have one. Her account needs to be linked with a mobile phone number to which she has access. And only she can carry out certain transactions on the account, such as taking out money.
Anit Mukherjee, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development – where he focuses on fiscal policy, public expenditure management and service delivery – studied the Bhamashah program for a new report.
As of October this year, 14.7 million families had enrolled. The CGD report found that 99 percent of households surveyed have a female designated as the head of household on the Bhamashah card. Of those, 66 percent of female household heads did not have a bank account prior to the scheme.
Women & Girls spoke with him about the scheme’s successes and ongoing challenges.
Women & Girls: Based on your assessment of the program, what would you say are its most notable success?
Anit Mukherjee: Two-thirds of women who were registered as the head of the household did not have a bank account before registering for this program. When you went to register, if you didn’t have an account, they opened one on the spot. It was a huge push toward more financial inclusion.
Our sample was pretty balanced, so we had a median age of about 45. But as we went deep into the field, we realized that a lot of the families were migrants. All the young people have moved away, so among the rest who stayed back, the woman head of the household was elderly. Even with existing financial inclusion programs, they were the ones who were being left behind.
So this [program] is a way of targeting those particular sections who were left behind.
Women & Girls: Your study shows that while women were designated heads of households for the program, the men of the family are still in charge of home finances. Can you explain this dynamic?
Mukherjee: Men are still regarded as the nominal head of the household. So even if the woman is designated by this program, when you ask the respondents, “Who is the head of the household?”, about 90 percent said it’s the man.
These are age-old traditional societies; you can’t just destroy these norms overnight. When you link the mobile number to the Bhamashah program, that mobile is essentially controlled by the man, right? [But] he cannot transact on the mobile phone, for example, take out money which has come in the woman’s name. So the woman still has to go and authenticate. You are still keeping some amount of agency with the woman.
What we found is that women, especially younger women, are going to banks more.
When I was in the field, the surveyor was asking questions to a woman whose husband was present. She was asked, “Do you go to the bank?” She said, “Yes.” And then the next question was, “Do you go by yourself, or do you go with somebody else?” And she hesitated, and then looked away and started smiling. I said, “So, did you go to the bank by yourself ever?” And she said, “Well, not really.” The husband looked a bit puzzled. And then we all realized that she had gone with a neighbor to the bank, not telling her husband. They’d said, “Oh, we’re going to the market,” and then they went to the bank together.
It was very poignant, that they’re breaking a boundary, or breaking a norm, by banding together, two women. They said, “Well, we have an account. Let’s see how it works.” This is just one instance, but a lot of women told us, “We feel the bank is not a threatening place anymore, which we used to, before we had an account.”
Women & Girls: There are obstacles to the success of programs like this, including low literacy rates and a lack of digital literacy.
Mukherjee: We found that among the Bhamashah heads of households, which is essentially all women, only about 20 percent can make calls and read or write SMS messages. So 80 percent cannot do anything which is related to mobile literacy, which means reading texts, responding to texts or writing messages.
How can women break those barriers? Digital literacy has to be a core part of this exercise.
Women & Girls: What can other countries, or states in India, who are implementing similar I.D. systems learn from the Bhamashah scheme?
Mukherjee: Sometimes we think that these architectures are neutral. They’re not. Technology is neutral – it doesn’t matter that my mom or my dad has the same mobile phone. But the way they interact with the technology would depend a lot on the business process and rules, and how you make it easier for them to interact with the technology. That’s a big issue everywhere in the world.
The issue of moving toward an integrated service-delivery system, where you have a financial inclusion mechanism running on top of an I.D. system that is enabled by a mobile platform, is a worldwide phenomenon. [And] we see this integration happening very rapidly.
The challenge is to wrap our heads around the different ways technology is already changing the ecosystem, and how it can make it better.
And in terms of financial inclusion, I think the debate about women and gender and technology is a much broader debate than the one we are having right now.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.