AADHAAR A necessity or an obligation?

By Ritika Bisht
In Aadhar
April 4, 2016

Recently, Aadhaar Bill was passed in the lower house as a Money Bill which will ensure the targeted delivery of subsidies. No matter how good intentioned this Bill could be, the issues and questions surrounding UID scheme refuse to die as government fails to eliminate the glitches in the large scale implementation of country’s most ambitious social project.

aadhar-obligationNinety seven per cent of adult population and 67 per cent of children have now been enrolled for Aadhaar with five to seven lakh people being added to the system every day; Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley announced while stating the importance of having an Aadhaar.

To start with, seven years back nobody would have thought that Aadhaar, introduced by UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India), will assume such massive popularity among Indian population. The objective behind Aadhaar was to collect biometric and demographic data of residents, store them in a centralized database and issue a unique identity number to each resident. Many questioned its necessity in the presence of number of identity cards available with citizens as they did not see any point in having another one. This is when government came up with Jan Dhan Yojana and subsequent process of linking unique ID with various social welfare schemes to distribute the benefits. The plan worked and over the time Aadhaar proved to be potentially useful for reducing leakages in a large number of government programs.

If it were not for Supreme Court order, Aadhaar could have passed as a mandatory requirement. In March 2014, Supreme Court had ruled that “no person shall be deprived of any service for want of Aadhaar number in case he/ she is otherwise eligible/ entitled”.

Why abandon such a scheme that helps the government and people to ensure that welfare money reaches the concerned beneficiary on a timely basis?

Every system comes with flaws and same goes with the Aadhaar scheme. No doubt that some government programs benefit through the integration with Aadhaar, but Government certainly overstated advantages of this scheme in its bid to make Aadhaar authentication compulsory.

Over the years critics have questioned its necessity as Aadhaar’s power to plug leakages is limited to select social welfare schemes. In some places Aadhaar has even proved to be the foremost issue in cases of delays in providing the benefit to the beneficiary. But most importantly, the collection of biometric data opens door to mass surveillance and in the absence of safeguards, it may even be potentially misused.

Although the Lok Sabha has passed the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016 as a Money Bill which would give statutory backing to collection, preservation and use of biometric data of individuals under the Aadhaar scheme, till the time government plugs certain obvious chinks in its system Aadhaar’s importance would not be convincing to critics as well as the people.

How beneficial?

It all started with UIDAI providing unique identification number to all the citizens which would eliminate duplicate and fake identities and can be verified in a cost-effective manner. The document (‘UIDAI Strategy Overview’) stating the advantages of UID number mentioned that the mechanism would help reducing the transaction costs for the poor as identity has to be proven only once. The UID would change the way government exercise social welfare programs by including communities who are deprived of subsidies due to lack of identification. This practice would help government to shift from indirect to direct benefits and verify whether intended beneficiaries are receiving the subsidies.

Arun Jaitley has recently mentioned that targeted subsidies of LPG consumers through Aadhaar cards had resulted in over Rs 15,000 crore of savings at the Centre. Furthering the UID necessity he added that four states, which had started PDS delivery by a similar exercise on a pilot basis, had saved more than Rs 2,300 crore.

Single proof of identity has proved to be useful in seeking benefits from across different government’s development schemes. However, with the benefits being said and seen, it is time for government to move forward to drawbacks and provide an explanation and solutions.

Answering critics and security issues

The biggest issue with Aadhaar is the unreliability of biometrics and possible breaches of confidentiality. Biometric information is made up of unique physical traits of a person. Globally, concerns have been raised on protection of privacy and civil liberties with great deal of security measures being taken to prevent its misuse.

Tathagata Satpathy, a lawmaker from Odisha, says, “It has been showcased as a tool exclusively meant for disbursement of subsidies and we do not realize that it can also be used for mass surveillance.” Raman Jit Singh Chima, global policy director at Access, said the proposed Indian law lacked the transparency and oversight safeguards found in Europe or the United States, which last year reformed its bulk telephone surveillance program.

UID seems to act as a bridge between the silos of information, facilitating the convergence of databases. There is a possibility that the information will become vulnerable to access by not only the state but also private players, thus leading to breach of privacy. This is indeed an issue of concern.

There are other critics who have question the whole procedure of undertaking biometrics information. “All emphasis is on enrolment, not on how it’ll be used. Besides the duplication, the whole biometric thing is so illegal,” said legal expert Usha Ramanathan.

Other than security, issues of delays, authentication failures, connectivity problems especially in rural and remote areas have been recorded where most of the targeted beneficiaries live. The purpose of Aadhaar, for which it was initiated, fails at these places as they are least prepared for this kind of technology.

According to a national daily quoting Economist Jean Drèze, “I have seen some of this damage at close range in Jharkhand, where Aadhaar was supposed to prove its mettle. Aadhaar applications (in the PDS, MGNREGS, and even the banking system) have had poor results in Jharkhand, and caused much disruption. For instance, MGNREGS functionaries have cancelled job cards on a large scale for the sake of achieving “100 per cent Aadhaar seeding” of the job-cards database. MGNREGS workers have been offloaded by rural banks on Aadhaar-enabled “business correspondents” who proved unable to pay them due to poor connectivity. And the proposed imposition of biometric authentication at ration shops threatens to disrupt recent progress with PDS reforms in Jharkhand.”

“The purpose of the bill is not for collateral purpose but to ensure that benefit of public revenue reaches the targeted beneficiary,” said Arun Jaitley. If this is really the primary aim then government needs to start undertaking serious evaluations of the services provided at different areas and implement necessary solutions instead of just bragging about number of Aadhaar enrolments.

Lessons to be learnt

A key public policy initiative such as UID scheme concerns a billion plus population and thus it needs to go through a well debated policy evaluation in context of claims laid by UIDAI. If Government is bent upon making Aadhaar a one-stop solution for distributing and tracking the social welfare schemes, than reviewing global experiences of identity projects could be one of the initial steps in preventing the violations of civilian rights and liberties. International experiences on technological efficiency, centralized database, preventing breach of privacy can help government to provide answers to critics and citizens who have been skeptical about the usage of data.

With its flaws and advantages, the crucial question would now be how long Aadhaar will survive the ire of critics in its present form and when will it be able to answer the long query list, considering the case that 97 per cent of the population has already enrolled in the system.