Public angst against Aadhaar is not because of the technical effectiveness of the system, but the manner in which it is proposed to be used.
The Aadhaar fever started in 2009, when the UPA government was in office. It encountered turbulent times in 2014 when the government changed. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a technology enthusiast, was persuaded to look beyond the past at the opportunity it gave to reduce official discretion and corruption, whilst targeting and delivering public services.
The results have been impressive on three counts — speed, cost and sustainability.
First, the system was scaled up at breathtaking speed. Around 15 citizens were digitally registered every second, over seven years, assuming a 60-hour week. Registering 1.2 billion residents out of around 1.3 billion, in a country spanning 3.3 million sq km is by itself a “never- before” achievement.
Second, unbelievably, this feat was achieved at a nominal cost of 73, a little more than $1, per person. The norm for biometric identification anywhere else has been at least $10 per person. Clearly, frugal Indian innovation was at its best here.
Third, Nandan Nilekani, the single parent of Aadhaar, moved on in early 2014, serially to politics, social impact ventures and today heads Infosys as its non-executive chairman. But the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which he first headed, continues to flourish, which speaks volumes of its sustainable management systems. Small, effective public institutions — UIDAI had a sanctioned staff of just 115 in 2009 — tend to be helmed by charismatic banyan trees — leaders who allow nothing to grow under their horizontally spread branches.
So, why then the public angst against Aadhaar? Three reasons come to mind — all of them related not to the technical effectiveness of the system itself but the manner in which it is proposed to be used.
Politics. Illegal immigrants from Bangladesh — between three million to 20 million — along with legal immigrants from Nepal, have acquired voter IDs and ration cards. They are difficult to distinguish from their neighbours. But it has also suited the government politically, till now, to not identify such immigrants. Aadhaar can upset political calculations. Targeting Aadhaar at residents — a more inclusive genre — than citizens was a compromise solution. But the threat remains that this powerful data set will feed into culling voter lists of duplicates or ghosts and weeding out passports wrongly issued to people who were never Indian citizens.
The scale of disruption associated with ending corruption. Consider that 14 per cent of Indians, or 180 million, have a driving licence. But one-third are fake and many more are improperly given to ineligible drivers — a key factor in road fatalities. 290 million Indians have a unique number called PAN, required for filing income-tax. But 80 per cent are not authenticated with the Aadhaar database. This illustrates the poor integrity of the tax database.
Managerial ambitions have outrun executive caution in graduating the pushback from those adversely affected. From being a back-office tool, Aadhaar has become a digital shortcut to cull ghosts from the burgeoning food security scheme; weed out manipulations in income-tax submissions; introduce a security check over phone connections or use big data to link bank accounts, phone numbers, vehicles, houses, financial investments with each biometrically identified individual. Aadhaar is the shortcut to dig out our dirty secrets. And no one likes that.
Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act 2016 specifies that Aadhaar shall not be the sole arbiter of identity for accessing public benefits. Section 5 makes it obligatory for UIDAI to get those, who lack identity documents — children, women, the specially-abled, senior citizens, workers in the unorganised sector, nomads are mentioned — covered under Aadhaar by other means. The intention is clear. The state must devise methods to include all residents in the database and ensure, till then, that the flow of public benefits to eligible recipients continues uninterrupted. Similarly, the onus for protecting the privacy of the individual is on the state. The government has no option except to align with the law. Indeed, it seems to have already diluted its hard stance on the timeline for the implementation of Aadhaar.
Two options present themselves for the way forward. First, the government could downsize its ambitions for Aadhaar and allow other modes of identity verification to continue till the availability of Aadhaar becomes universal and, more important, the hardware for authenticating Aadhaar is widely available. This is unlikely, in the short term, till the Bharatnet fibre cables have been laid and are operational in all gram panchayats. Just one-fourth are connected today. But the more real downside here is of a slide into never-ending inertia. This seems alien to the present government’s style.
The second and better option is to deal with the fears of activists who have petitioned the Supreme Court against linking bank accounts and phones with Aadhaar. With respect to privacy, the fact that the state will be able to trace individuals behind phone conversations or bank accounts seems innocuous. On the contrary, both security and tax revenue considerations point to this being desirable, if not essential.
Theoretically, any information, available with the state, can be misused to violate the privacy of an individual. But surely an income-tax officer using the Aadhaar authentication to check if you have included all your bank accounts in your tax return does not fall in that category. What about a duly authorised police officer who traces the owners of phone numbers talking about crime or a threat to public security? Protocols for tapping phones and accessing details of private bank accounts already exist. The Aadhaar link simply makes it easier and faster to catch crooks and criminals.
Governments rely on their credibility to gain the trust of citizens. Safeguards for individual rights do help. But only if with governments that are public-spirited and well-intentioned. Once this is no longer the case, the only recourse is to voice your opinion through your vote, and good luck to you on that.
This commentary originally appeared in The Asian Age.