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The shortcomings of ‘Aadhaar’

January 18, 2012

In the article titled ‘An identity for Akkamma’, I had written about the hurdles faced by Akkamma, an elderly Jenukuruba tribal lady, in getting an official identity for herself. As one ponders on the plight of Akkamma and other similar persons, the Government seems to have a ready-made answer today. The Government is now going around proclaiming that Aadhaar, its unique identification scheme will do exactly that. As per the Government, Aadhaar will help provide an identity for all its citizenry. The recent controversies surrounding this process have indeed exposed the chinks in the logic and reasoning of the Government. Is Aadhaar truly what it is claimed to be? Will it genuinely help people like Akkamma in establishing her identity and making her rightful claims over the myriad Government schemes?

At its core is the pretense that giving a unique 12-digit number to each underprivileged citizen will achieve what hundreds of welfare schemes and numerous efforts to control corruption have failed to accomplish: pilferage-free delivery of services to the poor. Aadhaar (meaning support, foundation or sustenance) is being projected as a magic wand, just what the poor need from a benevolent State.

Aadhaar‘s legitimacy is pinned on benefiting the underprivileged. But as with all magic wands, this could prove illusory. This is to be achieved by collecting basic information (name, address, parents’ names, date of birth, etc) and biometric data (photographs, all ten fingerprints, iris scans) for each resident. This will be used to generate a Unique Identification number (UID) that can be used to conduct all manner of transactions – from buying rations on BPL cards, to NREGA enrollment, to opening a bank account. It’s claimed that the UID will ensure non-duplication and hence eliminate leakage. As we see below, this claim is excessive, if not false.

Aadhaar‘s origin and real purpose are rooted in ‘national security’, including surveillance, profiling and tracking of citizens. The UIDs will be fed into a database and shared with Natgrid (National Intelligence Grid), which includes 11 security and intelligence agencies (Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing, CBI, Central Boards of Excise and Direct Taxes, etc). Natgrid, to be created by next May, will provide real-time access into 21 databases – including bank account details, credit card transactions, driving licences, and travel records.

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) starts with the premise that ‘in many areas NREGA wages continue to be paid in cash’ and there is massive duplication of job cards. This is factually wrong. Three ways of siphoning off money remain – extortion, collusion and fraud. Extortion means that when ‘inflated’ wages are withdrawn by labourers from their account, the middleman turns extortionist and takes a share. Collusion occurs when the labourer and the middleman agree to share the inflated wages. Fraud means that middlemen open and operate accounts on behalf of labourers. UID can at best help prevent fraud, not collusion or extortion, which are far more common. A great deal of corruption is not wage-related, but materials-related. Aadhaar cannot tackle this. Only transparent accounting and supervision and verification can.

Similarly, the UIDAI attributes PDS leakages only to duplicate ration cards. But duplication has dropped significantly after computerization of records and hologrammed cards. Unike Karnataka, it is only two percent in Tamil Nadu and eight percent in Chhattisgarh. There are two major sources of leakage within the PDS. One, diversion of grain en route to the village ration shop. Dealers then appear helpless saying that they have been issued less. Two, dealers undersell (for example, only 25 kg out of the 35 kg entitlement) and yet make people testify on official records that they got their full quota.

Neither leakage can be tackled by Aadhaar. In fact, by making Aadhaar a condition for delivering services, the Government will exclude those who don’t have it. This is perverse and contradictory. On one hand, UIDAI officials claim Aadhaar will accurately target the poor and break the barriers that prevent them from accessing services. On the other, UIDAI openly says that it is in the identity business. The responsibility of tracking beneficiaries and service delivery will continue to remain with the respective agencies. The UID number will only guarantee identity, not rights, benefits or entitlements.

This project also has grave civil liberty implications. It will enable the Government to profile citizens and track their movements and transactions. There is no guarantee that intimately personal details won’t be shared with other agencies.

Excessive reliance on technology, especially to tackle special problems like corruption, can be disastrous. Technologies can fail. Biometric readings can go wrong if power supply fails – as happens virtually daily in most of India. People with low-quality fingerprints (construction workers) and with cataract/corneal problems can pose problems for fingerprints and iris scans. Between 10 and 60 million people could be excluded from UID due to such errors. Aadhaar poses serious data security problems. ID card schemes, says a London School of Economics study, are too complex, technically unproven and unsafe. All kinds of supposedly secure databases/websites, including those of India’s defense ministry and the Pentagon, have been hacked. Data theft and transfer to intelligence agencies or corporations have potentially horrendous consequences. This and the high cost are the reasons why many countries including the UK, US and Australia have abandoned National ID cards.

According to reports, UID’s per person cost is estimated to have jumped from Rs 31 to between Rs 450 and 500. Aadhaar will therefore probably cost something like Rs 150,000 crore. Yet, the project is being pushed through without a legal basis, and without public or parliamentary debate. Only recently, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance has raised strong objections to continuing Aadhaar in its present form. What people like Akkamma need is not some expensive and questionable system but a more responsive public service delivery system which is efficient and corruption free to make her life as an Indian citizen fulfilling and meaningful.


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