In 2012, I co-authored a column arguing that the debate over the UID (it wasn’t yet called Aadhaar back then) was a nonsensical one. While the debate was nowhere as frenzied as it is now, and those backing UID certainly had not thought of using online trolls to slay their opponents, it was a reasonably tough fight. Those days, the then Home Minister, P Chidambaram was pushing back against the Finance Ministry’s (then headed by Pranab Mukherjee) push for UID citing security concerns. Contradictions like these was probably why the UPA government did not achieve near-universal UID enrolment, a problem that the current government does not have to face.
The position I took back then can be characterised as cautiously pro-UID. Relevant to the current debate, the column made two key points – first, the application of Aadhaar (UID) had the potential to enhance delivery of social services; and second, the use of Aadhaar need not in itself, lead to fears that a move to cash transfers is underway. I assumed that the efficiencies that one could realise through the application of technology (UID) were worth testing out. Further, I felt a trade-off between privacy concerns, and welfare gains would be a justifiable one.
Six years down the line, the debate over Aadhaar and its application has become a raucous one, where it increasingly appears that the government’s interest is more in building up an all-encompassing database for tracking and surveillance, rather than any of the welfare goals that were originally stated. The shifting goalposts are a bit like what we saw with demonetisation, but in a long-drawn out game of chess, rather than a surgical strike in the cover of darkness.
As we wait for the Supreme Court to pass its judgment on seeding Aadhaar in their PAN, bank accounts, mobile numbers, etc, the government has continued to push ahead. Most bank branches display posters requiring that people link their Aadhaar to their bank accounts; and telecom operators have been assigned the task of harassing customers to link Aadhaar to their mobile numbers – all of this aimed basically at making the upcoming Supreme Court judgement irrelevant.
On improving ease of delivery through authentication
Authentication errors have mounted, according to the government’s own reports. For instance, the State of Aadhaar report says “From April 2015 to March 2017, the pension programme in Andhra Pradesh reported fingerprint authentication failure for 17.4 percent individuals, despite three attempts”. Biometrics are not infallible and even a small percentage of authentication failures could have implications for millions of people. Aadhaar claims that there is a provision for manual override in cases of authentication errors in order to avoid unfair exclusions, but all that does is to raise further questions over the claims being made that Aadhaar is a water-tight authentication system.
On Aadhaar enabling cash transfers, leading to savings
Today, Aadhaar is near-universal, and small cash pilots have taken place, which seem to be largely unsuccessful. For example, this column from late 2015 points out that the familiar challenges of lack of bank branches, difficulties in carrying out financial transactions, and concerns regarding inflation remain obstacles. A more recent assessment showed massive inclusion and exclusion errors even after more than a year of the pilot. Quoting a J-Pal South Asia study in Puducherry, columnist Nitin Sethi reported that “50% of the people were receiving either nothing or less cash than they were entitled in lieu of the subsidised grains”; and “households on average (spent) Rs 103-207 per month more on average from their earnings…to buy as much grain from market as they got through ration shops earlier”.
Elsewhere, government’s claims of savings made through the use of direct cash transfers in place of the LPG subsidy have been proven false. Nandan Nilekani has talked repeatedly about a $9 billion savings to the exchequer – a figure that seems to have little basis in reality, and has been debunked thoroughly here. A major thrust of our argument back then was the need for repeated experimentation and learning through small pilots – if the savings realised are insignificant, it would make sense to not insist on Aadhaar linkage. Direct transfers to bank accounts (Direct Benefit Tranfers), such as NREGA wages and pension payments had started even without Aadhaar – so the savings on account of the application of Aadhaar are at best, marginal.
On coercion and consent
Here is the thing about coercion. It is not you and I who are the first affected by it. It is those people who do not have alternatives – like the young girl in Jharkhand who died because her family was denied their ration for not linking Aadhaar. A pro-poor policy design would have started by applying Aadhaar on government services that are disproportionately consumed by the not-so-poor. As the 2016 Economic Survey noted, subsidies in LPG, rail travel, energy, aviation turbine fuel, gold, and (arguably) kerosene benefit the non-poor a lot more than the poor. On these products, Aadhaar may be able to plug leakages by avoiding duplicates using biometrics. Any such savings should be quantified and presented transparently to withstand scrutiny. But introducing Aadhaar as a requirement for school admissions, mid-day meals, monthly PDS, etc, is plan overreach, and reveal a tendency to primarily extend the arms of the state, without considering the death and devastation the ‘exclusions’ arising from its causes.
Naturally, coercion and consent cannot co-exist. The government has argued in the Supreme Court that citizens have “no right absolute to their body”, although Finance Minister Arun Jaitley subsequently sought to dismiss that as courtroom banter. The scope-creep of Aadhaar from delivery of welfare services to being embedded in phone numbers and income tax returns can make even a casual observer nervous. The fears around privacy and what a malicious government can do with Aadhaar are real, and the battle for safeguards in privacy laws is an invaluable one. But Aadhaar has continued its march unabated, often in blatant violation of the judiciary.
It’s all about state capacity
Aadhaar is a tool in the hands of the government – it should be judged for the benefits it would bring to citizens, and by extension, to the nation. That state capacity in India is thin, is a well-acknowledged fact. Aadhaar as a technology may have potential, but it also suffers from the constraints imposed by weak implementation capacity. A limited application of technology to facilitate (and enhance) state capacity is one thing – but using Aadhaar to bypass the state, leaving citizens at the mercy of an erroneous (but evolving) technology is fraught with risk. The ‘exclusions’ caused by Aadhaar have real human costs, however statistically insignificant they may seem in a nation of 130 crore people.
In short, most of my starting assumptions about Aadhaar have been belied. Having started off optimistically about Aadhaar, I find the manner of its scale-up and application unacceptable. I am not a Luddite who believes technology has no place in development. With Aadhaar, the sincere hope was that governments would test, learn and decide on scaling up, rather than using it as the hammer that is on its own, looking for nail heads to knock. And even as those asking questions of Aadhaar have remained steadfast, the government has steadily expanded its remit, accepting no evidence of its failures. Ultimately, it is now up to the courts to rein the government in, which in itself is disappointing.
Aadhaar has increasingly started resembling a vanity project. If Aadhaar fails to deliver, it should be destroyed. We won’t be the first country to have done so.