This is the first part of a series of articles about the Aadhaar Project that will look at the various issues highlighted in this piece in greater depth and detail, by godavar.
“bhukh roti ki ho to paisa kamaayiye
paisa kamaane ke liye bhi paisa chaahiye”
~ Gulzar (Golmaal, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1979)
“hungering for bread? please earn money
to earn money, but, one needs money”
In the course of hearing a clutch of Aadhaar-related petitions in 2018, leading up to 26 September, the government’s advocates pitched the Aadhaar number’s “ability to prevent bank fraud, illegal financial transactions, and the misuse of telecommunication networks by terrorists”. This is touted as the promise of biometric authentication using the unique ID, or UID – also known as the Aadhaar number – apparently evidenced by fantastic savings (or so claimed) realized by seeding the Aadhaar number into various welfare databases. Those justifying the Aadhaar project go all the way back to Rajiv Gandhi’s 1985 statement on leakages in welfare schemes – “of every rupee spent by the government, only 15 paise reached the intended beneficiary”. In the first decade of its existence, the Aadhaar project, to quote Dr. Reetika Khera, has gone from being “a remedy in search of a disease” to a remedy that’s worse than the disease.
The evolution of the Aadhaar number into a truth machine is a curious phenomenon, starting from the 12-digit biometrics-linked number’s originally stated purpose as giving those undocumented a unique identity. This seemingly noble purpose did not survive the project’s implementation – even as late as 2015, 99.97% of those who had enrolled for an Aadhaar number had at least two existing identification documents. Worse, the Supreme Court had to step in, in 2018, demanding to know how homeless people were to enroll for the Aadhaar number if they had no permanent address. This is one illustration of the multifaceted nature of the Aadhaar number and project, which seems to exist in multiple universes depending on whose viewpoint you seek.
For the government, the project is very much a success, has delivered stupendous savings (as apparently envisioned) and – once some tiny legislative complications are sorted, linking the Aadhaar number to all public databases will in one deft stroke cure Indian society, its economy, and its politics of all real or imaginable travails. Possessing an Aadhaar number already appears to have usurped the right to have rights that was hitherto conferred by citizenship. In Assam, for instance, the data collection exercise preceding the preparation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) involved recording of biometric data. Once the NRC was finalized, the Home Ministry notified that those whose names were not included in the NRC would be biometrically profiled to ensure they were neither enrolling for an Aadhaar number nor available welfare benefits in another state.
The resistance against Aadhaar is two-fronted. On the one hand are scholars who have worked on or studied India’s welfare schemes – and even helped formulate legislation such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, and the Food Security Act, 2013. According to them, exclusion from welfare benefits “is largely the result of a weak ‘targeting’ mechanism (identification of the poor) and the imposition of stringent caps on coverage (arising from budgetary constraints)”. Since the Aadhaar number has no correlation with income data (the now mandatory linking with the Income Tax Department’s Permanent Account Numbers notwithstanding), and enrollment for an Aadhaar number has not been restricted to those living below the poverty line alone, the Aadhaar number cannot identify who all are eligible to receive welfare benefits.
Equally, the Aadhaar project has long been criticized for its cavalier attitude to data protection and the privacy of citizen’s personal information. Notwithstanding the December 2011 rejection of the draft National Identity Authority of India (NIDAI) Bill, 2010, by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance, enrollment for Aadhaar numbers continued apace with neither legislative backing nor any addressing of growing concerns for the security of the enormous amount of data being collected. Aadhaar enrollments between 2009 and the passing of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, benefits and services) Act in 2016 were arguably illegal as there was no law in place authorizing such enrollment. Worse, when reports of Aadhaar data leaks and breaches from government websites became rife, the only response from the government and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was denial of such breaches accompanied by filing FIRs against those reporting such breaches.
The Supreme Court’s Constitution Bench, when they finally heard the clutch of Aadhaar matters, set aside all evidence demonstrating the havoc unleashed on welfare schemes through the mandating of (supposedly voluntary) linking the Aadhaar number to one’s ration card, NREGA job card, etc. by simply saying that the facts presented were disputed. The government’s advocate claiming that Aadhaar-related data was safe because the data centres had 13-foot walls was not disputable, apparently, and the UIDAI’s security infrastructure passed muster in the highest court on the basis of nothing more than a PowerPoint presentation. Completely setting aside the fact that the biometric authentication logs submitted by the UIDAI CEO, Dr. Ajay Bhushan Pandey, raised major questions about the authentication technology’s fallibility.
And then, most troubling, there is the dark, ever-looming presence of the private sector. Right from the involvement of Nandan Nilekani in formulating National Information Utilities (wherein data would be collected for public purposes but owned by private entities), to the involvement – politely speaking – of the Indian Software Products Industry Roundtable (iSPIRT), and the ringing endorsement by none other than Mukesh Ambani, the Aadhaar project’s stakes are high for private players who envision untold millions in profit from turning citizens’ data into a tradable commodity. It’s a small detail that the data is ostensibly collected by the government for improving the efficacy of welfare delivery.
The government’s lackey status to private sector entities, at least with respect to Aadhaar-related data, is evidenced twice over – first by the then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s quick assurance that corporates would be given continued access to Aadhaar-based authentication, at a press conference no less, within a day of the Supreme Court’s Aadhaar judgment. Then, when the government introduced the Aadhaar and Other Laws Amendment Bill (now Act) in the Lok Sabha on New Year’s eve, news reports suggested the Bill’s draft had been available to private sector entities for at least a month prior to its introduction in Parliament.
Far from the supposed “black box” providing a Yes or No identity authentication response, the Aadhaar database is now an e-KYC tool to which countless private sector entities – and perhaps even foreign agencies – seem to have uninhibited access. And this does not even account for illegal access to the Aadhaar database and Aadhaar frauds. More than a year has passed since the Supreme Court’s Aadhaar judgment and we still await even the tabling of a Data Protection Bill in Parliament – one of the key government promises on which the Constitution Bench premised its judgment.
The version of the Bill seen by the public – which may well not be the one that eventually makes it to Parliament – appears to enable a digital economy wherein data would be a tradeable commodity, much in line with Nandan Nilekani’s vision of India’s data riches. Whereas the dire necessity is a law that enshrines citizens’ right to informational privacy, and provides a legislative framework for discussing protections against misuse and abuse of personal data collected by any entity. While there have been noises – and certainly demands – about India borrowing a leaf from Europe’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), our crony capitalist reality heralds a far weaker law that will leave citizens running from pillar to post for justice and recompense against yet another human rights violation.
godavar (formally Raghuram S Godavarthi) is a poet-playwright turned digital-in-welfare rights activist. He currently co-chairs Article 21 Trust, which seeks to affirm human rights at the intersection of technology and welfare governance. He is also a member of the Rethink Aadhaar collective which has been working to widen the conversation around the Aadhaar project and its impact on the lives and livelihood of Indians.