Book review: The Aadhaar Effect by NS Ramnath, Charles Assisi

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New Delhi | Updated: Oct 28, 2018 2:11 AM

An evaluation of the unique identity scheme that falls just short of critically examining the necessity of the exercise.

The authors treat the implementation of Aadhaar as a game consisting of Lego blocks being put together.

It is quite appropriate for a book on Aadhaar to come out at a time when the courts also have taken a view on its authenticity with the accompanying caveats. What started off as giving an identity to every individual has now become an integral part of policy formulation and implementation at various levels, which, in turn, has also raised security issues, as well as concerns on violation of privacy.

NS Ramnath and Charles Assisi, in their book The Aadhaar Effect, have done a fairly good job in giving us a glimpse of the history of the concept, from how it all started to where it is today. In fact, the original idea was to have a smart card that finally got diluted to a strip of glazed paper. There were several people involved in bringing this scheme to fruition, and while the name associated with it is Nandan Nilekani, the success was due to a team effort. The authors take us through the thought processes behind this scheme and how the two governments supported the concept with the usual hiccups. The conflicts between the home ministry and Planning Commission, followed by Niti Aayog, are quite interesting.

Aadhaar has been a clear case of PPP, where governments have supported the concept being driven essentially by private enterprise. The team, set up by Nilekani, had elements of both the sectors and, hence, the characteristics were a blend of advantages and disadvantages that come with such a combo. Evidently, the authors have had detailed discussions with several of those involved in this enterprise, which created this winning combination.

The project had its critics from the day of inception and which had to be addressed by Nilekani and company. In the process, Nilekani may have gotten carried away, as he changed track depending on the audience. It, hence, was made to look like a cure for everything, which was not the case. Giving an identity to every citizen is one thing, which is similar to a passport, ration card or voter card—there could be no argument against such identification—but the use of Aadhaar was projected as a policy panacea, which attracted its share of naysayers. If one looks at an Aadhaar card, it just tells the person of his or her existence and does not reveal anything more. There is no mention of background or income and, hence, from a policy perspective, can’t go beyond identification. As Aadhaar has gotten linked to bank accounts, it does serve the purpose of better targeting of benefits in the form of cash transfers. But it does not solve the problem of whether the person deserves the benefit, especially when a distinction has to be made between the poor and not-so-poor.

Here, the authors also present the story of how well it has worked in terms of the schemes that were linked with Aadhaar. The reader can’t be blamed if she feels that the book is sponsored by the creators of the concept, as it reads like positive propaganda. However, towards the end, they have separate sections on the critiques of the concept spread over various dimensions. This, sort of, balances the presentation, which otherwise reads too one-sided.

The authors treat the implementation of Aadhaar as a game consisting of Lego blocks being put together. These include UPI, eSign, eKYC, DigiLocker, etc, together with the other infrastructure that the country has built, especially GSTN, which, the authors feel, has far-reaching effects. Therefore, in their opinion, one should view the story as the creation of a new superstructure that will put the blocks together to improve interconnectivity between different economic programmes, government expenditure and income, thus leading to a superior solution.

While the larger part of the presentation is in praise of Aadhaar, let us look at the opposite view, which is also presented. There have been cases of fraud (which has come in terms of incorrect identities), as well as manipulation of the biometrics. Once given and linked to government programmes, Aadhaar has meant exclusion of the millions who do not have this identification. Also, the fact that delivery of services is linked to this number means that in the absence of biometric matching or absence of electricity or internet connection, benefits are not received. Creating a superstructure without infrastructure in place is a valid criticism, which, however, does not diminish the power of using this system for delivery of benefits. Another criticism is that the government claims to have saved a lot of money, which is not substantiated. But again, this can’t be made out as a case against Aadhaar.

Aadhaar was supposed to also identify fake PAN cards and duplicates by presenting a unique identity to everyone. However, it was found that the proportion of fake PAN cards taken out of the system was just 0.47%. Further, duplicates removed from the system were even more minuscule than the fake ones. This then begs the question of whether the exercise was worth the cost given the existence of several alternative identity documents in the system. The question of security is probably more serious, and the fact that there has been no breach so far is not assurance that it will not happen in the future.

On the whole, it is a fair presentation of the scheme with a tilt towards eulogising it. As the book gets into details of the building of the team and creating a structure, there are several names involved and their views presented. This could be a drag when reading, as is the case with any biography of a concept, where only those in the job would identify with the characters. The book could have been better knit by reducing the noise on personalities and focusing on the issues, as this results in some bit of meandering that can distract the reader.

-The author is chief economist, CARE Ratings

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