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India launches new system for handling welfare

NEW DELHI — India will send billions of dollars in social welfare money directly to its poor under a program inaugurated Tuesday that’s designed to cut out middlemen blamed for massive fraud that plagues the current system.

Previously, officials handed out cash only after taking a cut — if they didn’t keep all of it for themselves — and were known to enroll fake recipients or register unqualified people. The new program will see welfare money deposited directly into recipients’ bank accounts and require them to prove their identity with biometric data like fingerprints or retina scans.

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Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has described the venture as ‘‘nothing less than magical,’’ but critics accuse the government of hastily pushing through a complex program in a country where millions don’t have access to electricity or paved roads, let alone banks.

The program is loosely based on Brazil’s widely praised Bolsa Familia program, which has helped lift more than 19 million people out of poverty since 2003. It began in 20 of the country’s 640 districts Tuesday, affecting more than 200,000 recipients, and will be progressively rolled out in other areas in coming months. The country has 440 million people living below the poverty line.

‘‘In a huge new experiment like this you should expect some glitches. There may be a problem here and there, but these will be overcome by our people,’’ Chidambaram said. He appealed for patience with the program, which he called ‘‘a game changer for governance.’’

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has accused the ruling Congress party of using the program to gain political mileage.

As a first step, the government plans to begin directly transferring money it would spend on programs such as scholarships and pensions.

Eventually the transfers are expected to help fix much of the rest of India’s welfare spending, though Chidambaram said the government’s massive food, kerosene, and fertilizer distribution networks — blamed for much corruption and lost money — would be exempt.

The program will use data from Aadhar, a government project working to give every Indian identification numbers linked to fingerprints and retina scans. Currently hundreds of millions of Indians have no identity documents.

On Monday, 208 activists and scholars published an open letter expressing concern the government was forcing the poor to enroll in Aadhar without safeguards to protect their privacy.

Others said the government was trying to do too much.

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