24 April 2017


'India’s Aadhaar scheme and the promise of inclusive social protection' by Amiya Bhatia and Jacqueline Bhabha in (2017) 45(1) Oxford Development Studies 64-79 examines
the promise of inclusive social protection central to India’s Aadhaar scheme, a national initiative using biometric information to allocate unique identification numbers to Indian residents. Aadhaar has reached over one billion people and promises to expand access to basic identification, improve enrolment in social protection and financial inclusion schemes, curb leakages, reduce corruption and address other gaps in India’s social protection architecture. However, the establishment of a national identification scheme does not of itself guarantee social protection. This paper assesses Aadhaar’s aims to achieve inclusive social protection through personal, civic, functional and entrepreneurial inclusion, and explores whether Aadhaar indeed fulfils these goals. Although it is too early conclusively to evaluate Aadhaar as a transformative contributor to social protection in India, there is much to be learned for transnational social protection from the scheme’s efforts to create a more inclusive system and to address the critical questions of privacy and state surveillance at stake.
The authors conclude
It is too early conclusively to evaluate the inclusiveness of Aadhaar as a transformative contributor to social protection in India. Certainly, the scale of initial voluntary enrolment is impressive, the range of functions brought within the scheme is expanding (with central government support and backup), and so far, despite some public statements to the contrary, Aadhaar eligibility has not been limited to citizens or even to legal residents of India. More quantitative and qualitative research is needed in order to understand how Aadhaar is being used in a range of contexts, and to what extent it delivers on the early promises of inclusion. And further work is needed to ensure Aadhaar does not compromise India’s birth registration system. If Aadhaar is not paired with improvements to social welfare programmes in India, there is a risk that biometric technology may become a data collection device, instead of facilitating social protection programmes aimed at reducing the economic and social vulnerability of poor and marginalized groups.
Aadhaar offers the benefits of technology to India’s social protection system – efficiency, scalability, a mitigation of corruption and leakages, improved data systems, and a portable system with national-level commitment and financial support. Evidence presented in this paper, however, suggests some early warning signs. Geographic enrolment remains uneven, mirroring national patterns of inequality and under-provision with the least well-served populations, regions and states also the least enrolled. Some reports highlight the disproportionate rate of Aadhaar registration among convicted populations in tribal areas against a backdrop of extremely low tribal enrolment overall. One study raises serious questions about the inclusiveness of Aadhaar for urban homeless populations lacking a permanent abode or intact ngerprints. Aadhaar addresses many delivery challenges, yet the questions of how social protection is designed, whether it is targeted, and how a beneficiary is defined require changes which lie outside the realm of improved technology and authentication. Aadhaar’s technology has also created the largest biometric database in the world without a corresponding codification of data protection provisions.
Serious concerns exist about the scope for surveillance and control generated by the massive expansion of potential government access to personal data without the necessary legal or accountability framework. Lyon (2009) describes the ‘social sorting’ that ID card systems enable and opportunities for surveillance which come from having access to searchable and interconnected databases and to data mining techniques. A nine-country study of public perceptions of ID systems highlights the tension between public support for an efficient ID card system and anxiety about potential data misuse. In Canada, USA, France, Spain, Mexico and Hungary, there were acute public concerns about risk of misuse of data in relation to ID cards, when ID cards were associated with national registry databases containing additional data (Lyon, 2009). In the UK, public dissent defeated proposals for an integrated ID card as concerns were raised based about ‘data creep’ and potential privacy risks stemming from the possibility of integrating di erent databases (Beynon-Davies, 2006; Davies, 2005). In Greece, information about religion, profession and residence was initially included on ID cards and later removed by the national regulator (Davies, 2005). Although many countries have ID cards, only a few publicly disclose information about costs, implications, effects on civil liberties and the penalties of non-compliance (Davies, 2005). No such information is available for India, where at present. Enthusiasm for the inclusion potential of Aadhaar seems to far outstrip any concerns about surveillance or threats to personal privacy. Whether such concerns will grow as the system becomes entrenched and in the absence of a robust oversight and appeals mechanism remains to be seen.
Many have argued that Aadhaar is changing the logic of India’s social welfare system, and that biometric identity and the possibility of interoperability – one authentication system which can be used by many di erent institutions – signal a shift  in governmental rationality in India (Sarkar, 2014): ‘computerised biometrics, like its paper-based predecessors, is driven by the fantasy of administrative panopticism – the urgent desire to complete and centralize the state’s knowledge of its citizens’ (Sarkar, 2014, p. 518 quoting Breckenridge, 2005, p. 271). is search for the perfect enumeration or ‘legibility’ of a population can be connected to eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century ideas that subjects represent wealth and good governance requires measuring and counting (Merry, 2011). However ‘seeing better’ must be linked with ‘serving better’ for population knowledge to improve the delivery of social protection: "the premodern state was, in many crucial respects, blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth ... their very identity". (Scott, 1998, p. 2)
India’s operationalization of state welfare schemes is predicated on a newly transparent relationship between the state and its citizens. Biometric data and enrolment and enumeration efforts have created new hierarchies and allowed a series of interconnected actors to act as gatekeepers and stewards of India’s social protection system, and for bene ciaries or consumers to be governed by the use of biometric identification. These changes are influencing how social welfare is delivered and have triggered a shift  towards cash transfers and the creation of a welfare market, with multiple state and non-state actors providing, regulating and transferring welfare benefits (Khera, 2011; Sarkar, 2014). Although it is unlikely that Aadhaar alone will address the structural weaknesses in India’s social protection systems, universal identification can enable greater efficiency and transparency, helping schemes to reach their intended beneficiaries, and influencing the ease and delivery of these state-to-citizen welfare transfers. The changes Aadhaar catalyzes also have the potential to give banks and financial providers a much larger role in the delivery of education, health and employment services or subsidies as these providers become the distributers of cash. The state may shift  from being the direct supplier of social welfare schemes to disbursing funds or coupons (Sarkar, 2014) through a larger network of actors from both the public and private sectors, each of which brings their own agendas to the provision of social welfare.
It is possible that the current struggles to maintain the voluntary nature of Aadhaar enrolment will be unsuccessful, and obligatory Aadhaar registration may well follow. Future administrations may also insist on restricting Aadhaar eligibility to citizens or legal residents, a move which would signi cantly dent the programme’s universal and inclusive impact. For positive social protection objectives to be achieved in tandem with growing Aadhaar registration, the package of social protection schemes linked to the programme must be carefully designed and robustly implemented to bene t from Aadhaar. Transformative social protection can be a ordable while contributing to the fundamental policy goals of pro-poor economic growth and improved social equity (Devereux & Sabates-Wheeler, 2004). To have a sustained and decisive impact on prevailing inequities, underlying vulnerabilities need to be examined and resources reliably transferred through social protection programmes (Devereux, Mcgregor, & Sabates-Wheeler, 2011). For a comprehensive effect on the most vulnerable populations, these measures must proceed in tandem with a comprehensive strengthening of public services and programmes in order to address broader inequalities – efforts which Aadhaar, if appropriately utilized, could powerfully enhance.