Last week, two good ideas with potentially enormous consequences for India were facing rejection.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), the long neglected multilateral body for this region, was, just ahead of its 16th summit meeting in Thimpu, Bhutan, being passed off as “dead at birth” and hence only fit to be buried.
Similarly, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), or Aadhaar (its brand name), faced its first serious challenge after a group of non-profit organizations came together and warned that they would make out a legal case to spike it as they perceived it to be a threat to individual privacy.
Saarc is an idea which, if successfully implemented, could provide the means through which India could, without international help (most of which is in any case designed to disrupt while ostensibly claiming to assist), peacefully resolve tensions prevailing in South Asia for the last six decades and more; the stress lines have only worsened as other countries have sought to meddle in the politics of the region.
Aadhaar is barely a year old. Its role is to develop and implement the requisite infrastructure that will enable UIDAI to allocate unique identity numbers to Indian residents—it’s very important to understand that it is not just meant for citizens. The idea is that UID can be verified online. The first number would be issued sometime after August and by the end of 2015, 600 million residents of India would have a UID.
Anyone who is not privileged enough to have a permanent address will easily comprehend the challenges that can be avoided with a UID, to possess either something as basic as a telephone connection or more complex as a passport. Imagine what it will do for the economically disenfranchised —who don’t even possess birth certificates to enrol their children in a school.
The obvious question then is that if these ideas are indeed so good then why should they be rejected? The answer, unlike the challenge, is nuanced— which is precisely why it is very easy to assume an extreme position in the debate and yet sound credible.
Take Saarc for example. It has been a victim of two opposite points of view. One articulated by the “Wagah candlelight brigade”, who cling to their rather romantic notions of an erstwhile united India, and the other by proponents of the hawkish argument that rejects anything that includes Pakistan. As always, the truth is somewhere in between.
From a policy viewpoint, the idea of Saarc was stillborn because it was proposed in the late 1970s by the then leadership of Bangladesh as a counterweight to India’s overwhelming presence in the region; as a result, India was a reluctant partner.
It got further complicated because Saarc began to be viewed through the prism of the deteriorating relations between India and Pakistan—a country which has unofficially adopted terrorism as a means to stay relevant in the region and the world.
But at a time when the rest of the world is so focused on South Asia, seeing it as the next growth frontier, Saarc, whatever its shortcomings, offers the ideal platform to take this engagement to a multilateral level.
Why else would China, the US, the European Union, Japan and Australia be among the nine countries that are invited as observers—they are privy to a ringside view of the proceedings. In fact observers outnumber the?eight member countries.
The politics should be managed by focusing on economic linkages within Saarc and its own association with the observer countries. For the observers, it is an enormous opportunity to build bridges with Saarc—one deal would include eight countries. So far, the progress on this has been negligible, missing the logic that “money talks”.
It is obvious that the dynamics have changed dramatically since Saarc was established under an agreement signed in December 1985—on India’s behalf by Rajiv Gandhi. South Asia was a non-entity in the world then and is a global player now. Unfortunately, the debate continues to be formulated within the old contours, ensuring a conclusion that the idea of Saarc has outlived its utility.
Similar rejection, for an entirely different set of reasons, now threatens Aadhaar. The non-profits believe that the kind of information being sought would compromise privacy of the people and leave it open for misuse—racial profiling being an obvious threat. This is a legitimate fear, but the solution is absolutely not.
As Rahul Matthan, a Bangalore-based lawyer, argued in a commentary in The Indian Express on 1 May, the solution is to urgently enact a privacy law. Forget Aadhaar, a host of our personal information is already in the public domain and there are no guarantees that they are not prone to misuse.
The railways makes your basic personal details public every time you travel by train; colleges post the results of candidates online, accessible to anyone; online social interaction sites such as Facebook and Twitter are prone to hacking. Legislation will guarantee legal action, which should be a deterrent.
The danger of the challenges to both ideas, Saarc and Aadhaar, is the cleverness of the logic. Who can argue against the populist rhetoric of not rewarding bad behaviour by Pakistan and on the need to prevent breach of privacy? The political challenge is to pose equally compelling arguments. Alternatively, it will be tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org