Aadhaar, a unique identification number to every citizen, was an idea born in 2009. Was it an idea ahead of its time? A lot of people thought so, especially people working at the ground level among the poor and the neglected sections of the people. Aadhaar was not a revolutionary idea. It is the foundation on which identity cards are issued in dozens of countries. Aadhaar was also not a novel idea. In India, other instruments have been issued—and are in use—which also serve as proof of identity for certain purposes. The best known are passports, driving licences, PAN and ration cards.
What led to the idea of Aadhaar? Government transfers a number of benefits to different sections of the people. Among them are scholarships, old age pensions, subsidies, etc. In a vast country with a very large population, the delivery of benefits to the right persons poses a formidable challenge. Impersonation, falsification, duplication, pilferage, diversion and rent-seeking are the bane of any system of delivering benefits. Aadhaar was intended to get rid of the known evils of the system.
BJP led the Opposition
Yet, when the idea of Aadhaar was mooted, it ran into fierce opposition. Nowhere was the opposition expressed more vehemently than in the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance presented to both Houses of Parliament on December 13, 2011. Mr Yashwant Sinha, as chairman of the Committee, led the charge against Aadhaar. From the pronouncements of prominent BJP leaders at that time (Mr Narendra Modi, Mr Prakash Javadekar and Mr Ananth Kumar) it was evident that Mr Sinha had the support of a powerful section of his party. Today, if he reads some of the conclusions of the committee, he will be embarrassed!
The Yashwant Sinha-led committee slammed almost every aspect of Aadhaar and the Bill to establish the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). It questioned the wisdom of collecting biometric information; it warned of ID fraud; it pointed out that the estimate of failure of biometrics was as high as 15%; it highlighted issues of privacy and data security; it cautioned against the involvement of private agencies, etc. The committee’s most serious objection was to the possible exclusion of genuine beneficiaries and it observed:
“Although the scheme claims that obtaining Aadhaar number is voluntary, an apprehension is found to have developed in the minds of people that, in future, services/benefits including food entitlements would be denied in case they do not have Aadhaar number.”
UPA moved cautiously
Nevertheless, the UPA government moved forward cautiously, using its executive powers, a non-statutory UIDAI, and the impressive talent assembled by Mr Nandan Nilekani. Before the UPA demitted office, 600 million Aadhaar cards had been issued (now one billion) and some Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) schemes had been linked to Aadhaar.
Studies have indicated that the DBT works: transfer of old age pensions through DBT has reduced the incidence of poverty. Cash transfers, instead of transfer in kind, have not adversely impacted food consumption; on the contrary they have increased consumption of eggs, pulses, fish and meat. On the other hand, cash transfer instead of kerosene has increased the demand for fuel wood.
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However, sections of civil society continued to challenge Aadhaar, mainly on the ground that it may have the unintended consequence of excluding deserving beneficiaries. The Supreme Court stepped in and, in 2013, by an interim order, directed that Aadhaar could not be made mandatory to receive benefits. In 2015, the Court agreed to examine issues relating to privacy and referred the case to a larger bench of the Court. Aadhaar was permitted only for Direct Benefit Transfer schemes such as scholarships, social security payments, subsidised LPG and MGNREGA wages.
On assuming office, the NDA/BJP government did a U-turn. Mr Arun Jaitley admitted as much when he said that, following a presentation by the UIDAI and satisfactory answers to their questions, the government was convinced about the merit of the Aadhaar project!
While the change of heart was welcome, what one did not expect was that the government would throw all caution to the winds and extend Aadhaar, indiscriminately, to welfare as well as non-welfare programmes. The government has made the possession of Aadhaar practically mandatory to receive benefits or to comply with regulatory laws, thus brazenly disregarding the limits set by the Supreme Court. Aadhaar is now required to file an income-tax return, to get a mobile telephone connection, to receive a university degree and so on. Soon, it is feared, Aadhaar will be mandatory to get a driving licence or an air ticket or even a rail ticket. Will it then be extended to taking health insurance or becoming a member of a library or paying one’s club bills?
The privacy issue
That would be a gross and unconstitutional invasion of privacy. While a unique identity mark is necessary, it cannot become a potential device to spy on people’s lives or gather private information that has no relevance to good governance. We must remember we do not yet have a comprehensive law on data protection or privacy.
Implementing an idea as far reaching as Aadhaar requires careful design, pilot projects, testing and validation, and robust security features. Absent these limiting factors, yet implementing Aadhaar on a mandatory basis, will give the government the instrument and the power to build a mass surveillance system and take one step toward an Orwellian state. Don’t say you were not warned.
Website: pchidambaram.in @Pchidambaram_IN