Sometime in mid-2015, I was assigned by my previous employer to cover Aadhaar for the newspaper. Though I was aware about the unique identity project and its processes—thanks to a presentation by Nandan Nilekani a few years ago in the newspaper’s office—I thought of first meeting Ram Sewak Sharma, then information technology secretary, who was one of the chief architects of the project during its inception.
Luckily, I got an appointment instantly—I am sure it was because of Sharma’s affinity with his pet project. However, my first question put him off. “I want to know everything about Aadhaar,” I had asked. He replied that there is enough literature available to understand Aadhaar and I should research the issue first and then come back to him to discuss the project.
I did so, and it involved a painstaking process of going through numerous papers and articles. A few days later, I met Sharma again, and this time we talked for at least an hour.
However, if today anyone is in the same situation I was in during my first meeting with Sharma, or even otherwise wants to know about the genesis and history of Aadhaar, Shankkar Aiyar’s Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution is the go-to book.
The 228-page read traces the origin of the idea—discussed over a dinner between Nilekani and KP Krishnan, then a joint secretary in the finance ministry—the ups and downs it witnessed, the political backlashes it withstood and the evolution process it underwent to finally emerge as what is the world’s largest pool of biometric and biographic data of a country’s citizens.
The book essentially talks about the politics, economics, technology and dichotomies faced by the unique identification project—topics which may not be of interest to many—but Aiyar has kept the format and pace of the book steady, resulting in a gripping and breezy read.
The author has spoken to every stakeholder right from the beginning of the project, including not only bigwigs such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pranab Mukherjee, Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, apart from Nilekani and Sharma, but also the actual foot soldiers of the project who combined their skills to put together every piece of the project right from scratch. This meant that each and every minute detail of what, who, when, why and how has been answered in the book.
Nevertheless, though the author mentions the opposing camp’s view—mainly social activists and lawyers—of the project, their views are not reflected at length compared with people who are in favour of the project. However, the book does a critical analysis of the shortcomings of the project, and also enumerates instances wherein the Aadhaar process has been misused.
The book comes at a time when India is riding on the technological highway created by Aadhaar to deliver governance and services to the remotest corners of the country. The project’s technological richness was the main reason that despite stiff opposition from various corners, including the Opposition party and the ruling party at different points in time during its journey almost a decade ago, it survived and is thriving today with more than 1.5 billion enrollments. As the author puts it, “The quest of this book, and the reason it is being written now, is to push the envelope of debate from what is not to what it must not be and what it must.”