The fate of Aadhaar
Never a dull moment. Stormwinds are now blowing in the Supreme Court, with four judges writing to the Chief Justice and saying that democracy is at stake. This bolt-from-the-blue developing story will be watched with anxiety and passions, and a cold political calculator, since the court is the final word on so many other anxieties and passions and cold politics. And not least because it will shortly be arbitrating the other enormous continuing story — the fierce tug of war over Aadhaar that threatens to rip the very fabric of time and space, or worse, spill everyone’s wine and cheese.
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) faces a crisis of credibility, with dubious design, hasty implementation, inadequate security, and sometimes zero connect between its words and actions. Indian data and tech experts and economists have amassed a vast body of evidence critical of the UIDAI’s stated aims, methods, and achievements. Experts in other countries are also trolling the daylights out of it.
You get an Aadhaar number on the basis of the very documents that Aadhaar is supposed to be superior to, such as a PAN card or a ration card. If those documents are good enough to create an Aadhaar number, why do we need an Aadhaar number? If they’re not, why are they required? Aadhaar is also supposed to supply an identity to the many poor in India who have no other documents, on the basis of an ‘introduction’. If an introduction is good enough — and it should be — why not verify the details and issue a standard ration card or passport? The Aadhaar holder herself is not verified with a physical visit. As many people have pointed means authentication dilutes The rather that UIDAI’s out, inserting than this haste process lack strengthens to it of cover into actually rigour any the it. entire the patchiness population and has leakiness contributed of the to database, and hardened the authority’s unwillingness to address problems. To speed things up it outsourced Aadhaar enrolment to Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLEs). It’s not at all clear that there is any quality control over them. When VLEs have pointed out a problem to the UIDAI, as have many other wellmeaning people, they have been met with utter unresponsiveness. When faced with instances of corruption, or data insecurity, or exclusion, the UIDAI has embraced contradiction and both denied the problem as well as filed FIRs and prosecuted whistleblowers. The Tribune story about accessing the database for ~500, which shook the country the other week, threw this into sharp relief.
The backlash that the story created caused the UIDAI to belatedly introduce a VID (virtual ID), much like a one-time password, time bound and mutable, to authenticate Aadhaar — again assuming that everyone has access to a phone or laptop to generate this VID, and calling into question the point of shoving an unimpeachable unique ID number down people’s throats if it is not in fact unimpeachable, and needs further authentication. Companies are being allowed to collect Aadhaar specifics, and being trusted with, well, erasing them. It takes a real sweetheart to entrust corporations with an honour system. The Airtel Payments Bank scam confirms that. Public interest is the preserve of the government, but sometimes it is hard to tell where corporations end and governments begin. Researchers have debunked the idea that Aadhaar weeds out fraudulent identities, creates savings, and plugs leakages enough to outweigh its problems. Aadhaar should have been designed carefully and responsively, with the rights and well-being of Indian citizens uppermost in mind. As it stands, it is tragic wrapped in bonkers, making people crawl and through broken glass to
get what they’re entitled to in the first place, whether that is a subsidy, or privacy, or their own money. Why should people die for the UIDAI’s mission? Why should they starve, or ail, or shiver, barred from the ration shop, or the hospital, or the night shelter? Why should they be vulnerable to 360 degree surveillance? What possible good can come of coercively inserting Aadhaar into every sphere of life?
The database should ideally be destroyed. But if Mr Nilekani is right, and Aadhaar is here to stay because so much money and prestige rides on all that data, we must at least acknowledge that it is lousy with problems, and that citizens unjustly bear the brunt. If we keep Aadhaar, it should at least be a) Purely voluntary, b) Limited to just a few services, c) Secure, and d) Just one valid way, not the only valid way, to prove one’s identity.
The UIDAI and the government go first for cheery reassurance without a lick of evidence, and then fall back on calling critics elitists, antinationals, opposition stooges, and/or implying that they’re just awfully negative people who should try being constructive. These are the kinds of things you say when you don’t have a more convincing answer.