Aadhar, touted by its supporters as the ultimate tech solution to India’s development problems, failed to bring the UPA back to power. Despite having trashed it from the Opposition benches, the BJP government is now rolling it out at an accelerated pace despite strong opposition from civil society groups and continuing concern about the technology and its social and ethical implications. This paper examines the of cial justi cations for Aadhar from the perspective of those whose interests it claims to serve.
Experience on the ground suggests that the real attraction of Aadhar for this government lies in its potential as a tool for the promotion of the interlinked agendas of neoliberal globalisation and militarised nationalism. Disguised as “development”, Aadhar is facilitating India’s transition into a society where critics and dissenters are seen as enemies rather than as essential actors in democracy.The author argues that
India has changed in this last one year – for better or for worse, depending on one’s position on the political map. Old laws are being overhauled, old programmes are being junked, old institutions are being given the coup de grace, old icons are being cleared away from their pedestals and replaced with new idols, the rusty iron frame of the bureaucracy is being pulled apart, holiday lists and restaurant menus are being revised – everything, it seems, is being refurbished and repurposed in the pursuit of one man’s all-consuming vision of development. But the more some things change, the more one thing stays the same. Aadhaar, the magic number that was peddled by the previous government as a wide-spectrum remedy for corruption, exclusion and poverty, is still with us. True, its self-proclaimed creator and his ambitions have disappeared into oblivion, starry airs and high-pro le election campaign notwithstanding. But that seems inconsequential now, when the Modi Sarkar itself, with far less publicity and far more determination, is pushing through his incomplete agenda of converting every single Indian into a number in the world’s largest biometric database.
As a matter of fact, the idea of Aadhaar is rooted in something far weightier than Nilekani’s rosy vision of an IT-enabled India. The proposal for a national identity card was rst oated in 1999 by the Kargil Review Committee, set up to study national security in the aftermath of the Kargil war. The committee recommended issuing of special identity cards to Indian citizens living in border areas in order to distinguish them from illegal in ltrators. In May 2001, a Group of Ministers headed by the then Home Minister L. K. Advani, accepted and expanded this recommendation, suggesting that a “multi-purpose national identity card” be issued to every citizen. In December 2003, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2003 was introduced in the Lok Sabha by the Home Minister, with a clause empowering the central government to “compulsorily register every citizen of India and issue national identity card to him [sic].”
However, this history was more or less buried by the time Aadhaar was nally launched in 2009 by the Congress-led UPA government. The UPA’s publicity pitch presented it as a “game-changer,” a magical techno-fix whereby the hitherto excluded could claim their fair share of the fruits of development. Rumblings to the contrary – concerns around security, privacy, profiling, data-creep, targeting – were dismissed as the carping of professional nay-sayers with little concern for the needs and priorities of the poor.
The modus operandi is very different now. Gone are the days when grandiose announcements of Aadhaar-enabled service delivery by the powers-that-were were stymied and undermined by sceptical judges, lethargic bureaucrats and venal party cadres. Instead, what we have now is a steadily growing list of government services and functions that have been successfully coupled to Aadhaar in various parts of the country. Cooking gas subsidies, house allotments, school scholarships, admission into remand homes and welfare homes, passports, “e-lockers” for archiving documents, bank accounts under the Jan Dhan Yojana, provident fund accounts, pensions, driving licences,insurance policies, loan waivers and even entry passes for the Kerala Chief Minister’s mass contact programme - all these can be claimed by flashing an Aadhaar card.
One does not know whether the ethical, technical and operational glitches that blocked the UPA from implementing Aadhaar have been addressed and resolved. There doesn’t seem to be much conversation about them anymore. As far as we know, the concerns set out in the first leaflet circulated by the “Say No to UID” Campaign in 200918 still stand.
The Campaign had pointed out that the UIDAI – set up through an executive order as a project of the Planning Commission – did not have a legal mandate for collection of personal data and biometrics. This is still the situation: the National Identification Authority of India Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 2010, but was rejected in 2011 by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance chaired by Yashwant Sinha of BJP with a recommendation of “back to the drawing board”.
The Campaign had also raised questions regarding privacy and data protection. Apart from the technical issues involved in safeguarding a database of a billion plus, the Campaign also alerted the public to the on-going dilution of existing safeguards. For instance, the UIDAI is allowed to provide personal data in cases where “national security” is invoked. Earlier, such a disclosure required an order from the Union Home Secretary or a State Home Secretary. Now, all it needs is advice from any officer above the rank of Joint Secretary. Moreover, there is no provision to penalise misuse of data obtained under this provision.
Even at that early stage, the Campaign warned that the use of biometric identifiers like ngerprints and iris scans could lead to invalid data and “false positives” for millions of Indians – those whose hands and fingers are worn out from a lifetime of hard labour, or those whose corneas have been scarred by glaucoma, injuries or infections. Activists also demonstrated how ngerprint scanners and iris scanners can be deceived and “spoofed” – false figerprints can be created using latex and adhesives and coloured contact lenses can blur and obscure iris patterns.
Most alarming of all was the fact that the proposed Bill did not contain any mechanisms for credible and independent oversight of the UIDAI. The Campaign pointed out that this would increase the risk of “functionality creep” – the government would be able to add features and additional data to the Aadhaar database without informing or taking the consent of citizens and without re-evaluating the effects on privacy in each instance. The Campaign pointed to the manner in which “national security” was being repeatedly and successfully invoked to defend “encounter killings” and other extra-constitutional actions by the police and armed forces, and warned that this had created an enabling environment for abuse of the UID database to serve undemocratic, illegal and unethical purposes.
Despite the fact that all these concerns remain as valid as when they were first raised – no convincing answers having been offered either by the UPA government or the Modi Sarkar – the government seems determined to go ahead with its grand plans for Aadhar. As this article goes to press, a pilot project has been launched in Bengaluru to give the district police access to databases of the National Population Register, Aadhaar and the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System (CCTNS) to enable online verification of identity, address and criminal record of those applying for passports.