If all goes to plan, 29 September will mark the coming-out party of Aadhaar, the government’s marquee programme to arm every resident of India with a unique identity. On that day, the first batch of Aadhaar cards will be distributed to all the residents of a village in Nandurbar district, dominated by tribals. This will be done jointly by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress party president and chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Sonia Gandhi.
Also Read Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns
Nandurbar, in north-west Maharashtra, was carved out of Dhule district on 1 July 1998, and, according to the 2001 census, has a population of 1.3 million—overwhelmingly rural, with five in six people living in villages. Among other demographics, the literacy rate is a sorry 55.11% for men and 37.93% for women. The district borders Gujarat.
The event is important for several reasons other than the fact that it marks the launch of one of the most ambitious programmes of the UPA. Firstly, as Mint reported on 20 September, the presence of Singh and Gandhi is a political validation of Aadhaar; it should mute criticism of the project, especially that emerging from within the UPA, as well as the National Advisory Council (NAC), the body headed by Gandhi. (Capital Calculus had referred to the opposition to Aadhaar on 18 July). By participating in the inauguration, Gandhi will be lending support to the project and sending out a strong message.
Secondly, the choice of venue has a lot of political significance. It was one of the key spots that Gandhi chose in her own political coming-out as the Congress leader in 1998. According to news reports, it was where Gandhi addressed one of the largest rallies she held after she decided to join active politics and campaign for the Congress. As a result, Gandhi has a personal soft spot for Nandurbar, and the launch of Aadhaar from this venue is also a subtle reminder of her meteoric rise in the 12 years since.
Thirdly, the location signals a determined effort by the Congress to try and win back its tribal electoral base. It had, due to disastrous political calculations, forfeited this base from the 1980s onwards. However, of late, it has, particularly in the context of the very visible efforts by Rahul Gandhi, Congress party general secretary and widely believed to be Gandhi’s political heir apparent, made a big push to win back this vote base. The launch of Aadhaar in Nandurbar reiterates this intent.
Fourthly, it will also mark the moment from where Aadhaar will cease to be a concept and will be a reality. From now on, its proponents will be tested for their claims—all of which have sounded very good in theory. A key issue is going to be whether it will match the expectations that have been stoked, especially by those that have set it out as some kind of a magic wand that will fix corruption, solve the fiscal deficit and whatever—obviously such a view is based on a poor understanding of India and its structural problems.
Finally, and most importantly, it is a big step forward in addressing the problem of identity among the poor. Aadhaar’s mission objective is to develop and implement the infrastructure that will enable allotment of unique identity numbers to all residents of India (including even non-Indians) that can be verified online. In itself, it is just an ID, but it can be a powerful tool to authenticate the identity of individuals for things varying from opening a bank account and admitting a child in school to issuing a passport.
For those of us privileged to be born with an identity, we really do not grasp the extent of the problem. Imagine if your identity was suddenly taken away from you or you had to relocate to a new city and your existing identity is not portable —you can be assured that it will be nerve-racking, at the least. For the poor, especially those who migrate to the cities for jobs, it is worse. Aadhaar claims it will make this identity portable.
This is explained best (in a recent interview to ET Now) by Nandan Nilekani, the Aadhaar chief: “You just think of it as your mobile identity. Think of it like the mobile phone versus the landline. When we had a landline, you were fixed to a particular location. If I had to reach you, I have to know you are at home or in office. Now when I call you on your mobile, I do not care where you are. Your mobile number goes with you. So this is also a form of mobile identity, it travels with you and wherever you are we can verify about a person’s identity.”
It is clear then that the success of Aadhaar will eventually be measured on how it will provide an identity to the poor and hence assist in potentially transforming the lives of the poor. Anything less would be nothing but an abject failure of the mission objective. But this is something that only time can tell.
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