(Note: This is one of the Chapters from ‘Citizens’ Report on 4 Years of NDA Government’ – a Civil Society Initiative Coordinated by Wada Na Todo Abhiyan.)
The Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) was established on 28 January 2009 to create a “multi-purpose National Identity Card” for every citizen of India; commonly known as the Aadhar card. On 23 June 2009, Mr. Nandan Nilekani was appointed Chairman of UIDAI to lead the process. As the registration of citizens for Aadhar card was being put in place, the UPA Government began to use it for various On 7 February 2012, the UIDAI launched an online verification system for Aadhar numbers, where banks, telecom companies, and government departments were able to verify whether a person is a resid
ent of India. In November 2012, the former Prime Minister, Shri Manmohan Singh, launched an Aadhar-linked direct benefit transfer scheme, which could directly transfer money to the bank account of the recipient throughout the country. On 9 October 2013, an Aadhar-based remittance system was introduced, where funds could be transferred to any Aadhar-linked bank account. All these were done, even though the National Identification Authority of India Bill 2010 was not passed by the Parliament and hence the Aadhar project had no legislative backing. Besides, on 23 September 2013, the Supreme Court issued an interim order saying that the Aadhar card was voluntary and the Government could not deny a service to anyone who did not possess an Aadhar card. By the end of the term of the UPA Government, 44 crore Aadhar cards had been issued to citizens.
The BJP manifesto doesn’t mention Aadhar card
The election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was released on 7th April 2014, and, interestingly, there was no mention of the Aadhar card in the election manifesto. They had opposed the Aadhar initiative of the UPA government. The BJP Prime Ministerial candidate, Shri Narendra Modi, tweeted that Aadhar posed a ‘security threat’ and was only a ‘political gimmick’. During the campaign trail, he questioned the wisdom of spending crores of tax-payers money on the Aadhar project. During the election campaign, several BJP leaders opposed the Aadhar project. The BJP spokesperson, Meenakshi Lekhi termed the Aadhar project a ‘fraud perpetrated on the people of the country and a dangerous programme that will regularize illegal migrants in the country’. She claimed that Aadhar posed a security risk to the nation as the illegal stay of three crore Bangladeshi immigrants spread across the country would get regularised as they would get Aadhar cards. After the NDA Government assumed office, on 10 June 2014, they disbanded the cabinet committee on Aadhar. It appeared that the Aadhar project would be scrapped!
The U-Turn of NDA Government on Aadhar
On 1 July 2014, Mr. Nandan Nilekani met the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister to convince them about the benefits of Aadhaar. On 5 July the Prime Minister announced that the NDA Government would retain the project. The budgetary allocation for Aadhar was increased to over 2000 crore in the 2014-15 budget. On 10 September, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs gave approval for the next phase of the UIDAI project and allocated another Rs. 1,200 crore in order to reach a target of enrolling 100 crore citizens. The Government developed a vision for governance which was called JAM – Jan Dhan-Aadhar-Mobile, where Aadhar played an indispensable role. Seeing the benefits of Aadhar in the direct benefit schemes, the Prime Minister urged officials to accelerate the delivery of benefits and expand the applications of the Aadhar platform.
Aadhar bill as the money bill
The NDA Government decided to provide the long-awaited legislative support for the Aadhar project. On 3 March 2016, the Aadhar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, benefits and Services) Bill 2016 was introduced in the parliament as money bill by the Finance Minister drawing widespread protests from opposition parties. The government did not have the majority in the Rajya Sabha and hence the decision to introduce the money bill. The opposition accused the government of trying to bypass debate in the Rajya Sabha and the danger of using the project for mass surveillance. There was concern about forceful linking of personal information into the sophisticated form of civil registration (Rajagopal, 02 May 2018). Others pointed out the possible use of immensely rich demographic data as raw material for research, policy-making and planning (Ramanathan, 30 April 2017). It is interesting that these and various other implications of the Aadhar is being argued in the Supreme Court and the project still does not have the legal mandate. Time and again the mandatory aspect of enrolment is challenged by the Supreme Court.
Aadhar linked hunger death and exclusion
Despite the lack of the legal mandate, Aadhar is being linked to and demanded for accessing the rations under the Public Distribution System (PDS), employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), pensions under the Social Security provisions and even the Mid- Day Meal (MDM) (Gosh, 5 January 2018; Jha, 2016). This has resulted in amplifying the exclusion errors; school children are denied mid-day meals in Uttar Pradesh, sick people denied medicines and food in Jharkhand because the computers did not verify their identities (Bhatnagar, 2 January 2018; Roy, 16 October 2017; Singh, 22 October 2017; Mayberry, 16 November 2017). The state justifies its arbitrary actions in the name of curbing of identity fraud and households accessing undue benefits in the name of another (Reetika, 2017p. 62). According to Jean Dreze et al. (2017) many ration shop owners sold their surplus grains in the black market in states like Jharkhand.
Personal is political: data leaks
Amidst speculations on the sale of data, newspapers reported leakages from Jharkhand State’s website, after Jean Dreze, a researcher along with an NGO, ‘Right to food’ demanded action against the crime (27 April 2017 Telegraph). This raises ethical issues (Dreze, 24 March 2017) as the gamut of information on people can be hacked, or even sold for various data research companies to manipulate society as happened in the controversy around Cambridge Analytica which manipulated voters using Facebook during the USA’s presidential campaign in 2016.
“India is biometric State” (Breckenridge, 2014, p.18). Voice samples collected from mobile communication firms and photographs and names gathered from Facebook are available to the state as written documents in the broader bureaucratic process. In the past, the biometric identification system based on the measurement of fingerprints was part of the broader misuse of technology to control the mobility of the poor, racial minorities, and lawbreakers as introduced by the British in 1900 in India, and later in South Africa (Brekendridge, 2014, p.2). Its current avatar, Aadhaar card is falsely projected as an example of frugal innovation (jugaad) (Radjou et al. 2015) laid out for the benefit of the people with blessings from otherwise globally competitive private firms in the IT sector of India, for reducing the tasks hitherto performed by bureaucracy.
People’s blind faith in the benevolence of authority, poor performance of welfare schemes due to corruption, and paranoia around high incidence of crime in society have facilitated the introduction of Aadhar card, a complex assemblage that enable State surveillance par excellence, amidst economic reforms such as Goods and Services Tax (GST), and the introduction of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). The Aadhar card nullifies more creative experiments in poverty alleviation such as smart cards given under the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY). The question arises whether Aadhar card should be the priority for the Indian democracy given the colossal challenges in education, healthcare, even basic drinking water and more complex issues of infrastructure, environmental pollution, and corruption that the country is faced with.
The review draws attention to the lack of political honesty manifested as India is trying out an ambitious programme for creating a cloud containing all the security-related and welfare programme oriented information in a biometric system. The onus of ensuring the relevance and security of the technology and its use lies with the government. All good intentions of a biometric registration programme for ending corruption, enhancing efficiency, ensuring welfare measures can lead to the greater exclusion of the vulnerable and exploitation of personal freedom and privacy. It is of concern that the government is taking the route of the biometric system for addressing these problems than taking the route of improving governance and state accountability to citizens. There are serious concerns of the biometric being used for criminal profiling, religious or ethnic witch-hunting, communal violence, anti-migrant mobilizations and ghettoization in India.
A stay order by the Supreme Court has currently extended the date for linking Aadhar to bank accounts, Permanent Account Numbers (PAN), and mobile connections to July 2018 (Gaur, 8 May 9, 2018).
Bhatnagar, GauravVivek. (2 January 2018). Aadhaar and Hunger: Second Jharkhand woman starves to death after being refused rations. Retrieved from https://thewire.in/food/aadhaar-hunger-jharkhand-starvation-death-rations
Breckenridge, Kieth. (2014). Biometric State: The global politics of identification and
surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Election manifesto.(2014), BharatiyaJanata Party.
Dreze, Jean. (24 March 2017). Hello Aadhar, goodbye privacy! Retrieved from https://thewire.in/featured/hello-aadhaar-goodbye-privacy.
————- (24 October 2017). Why linking Aadhaar to PDS threatens to disrupt food security: Jean Drèzehttps://www.dailyo.in/politics/pds-biometric-aadhaar-card-public-distribution-system-bpl-apl/story/1/20208.html
Dreze, Jean, Nazar Khalid, ReetikaKhera, AnmolSomanchi. (2017). Aadhaar and food security in Jharkhand: Pain without gain? Economic and Political Weekly, LII (50), pp.50-59.
Indian Express, (9 April 2014). In Karnataka, NarendraModi targets UPA’s Aadhaar, RTI; In Kerala, slams Antony,http://indianexpress.com/article/india/politics/in-karnataka-modi-targets-upas-aadhaar-rti/
Gaur, Vijay, (8 May 2018). SC’s stay order on Aadhaar doesn’t deter ‘coercive’ linking. Retrived from https://www.theweek.in/news/biz-tech/2018/05/08/sc-aadhaar-stay-order-companies-coercive-linking.html
Khera, Reetika. (2017). Impact of Aadhar on welfare programmes.Economic and Political Weekly, LII (50), ,61—70.
Radjou, Navi, &JaideepPrabhu. (2015). Frugal innovation: How to do more with less, ondon: Profile books.
Ramanathan, Usha. (3 March 2016). The law needs to catch up with aadhaar, but not in the way Jaitley is promising. Retrieved fromWirehttps://thewire.in/rights/the-law-needs-to-catch-up-with-aadhaar-but-not-in-the-way-jaitley-is-promising.