The foundation of Aadhaar
In the last few months, a whole set of entitlements and services has been sought to be linked to Aadhaar. Some of them such as the mid-day-meal (MDM) scheme have attracted criticism and rightly so but we have also seen Aadhaar linking being made mandatory for income tax filing, mobile phone connections and senior citizen services. This hurry to link almost all aspects of everyday life with Aadhaar fits well with the stated objective of the government of making it the sole identity proof in the future.
Interestingly, this approach is no longer masked as being voluntary but is now almost mandatory in most cases by government order and in some cases using the legislative route as is the case with the finance bill 2017, which makes it mandatory to have Aadhaar to file income tax returns or to have a Permanent Account Number (PAN) for various financial transactions. The government has boldly claimed that it is making it mandatory and is no longer looking at it as a voluntary option for availing certain benefits.
There is nothing new in what the present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is doing. While the BJP, including the present Prime Minister, may have opposed it tooth and nail when it was in the opposition, it is now all for making it mandatory. Despite the court cases and government announcements, the voluntary nature of Aadhaar was an illusion to begin with. At least, this was the case for a majority of the population of this country, particularly those who are poor and dependent on various government schemes for survival. The process of making it mandatory started with the previous government when most schemes for the poor were made conditional on the beneficiary producing Aadhaar. The implicit assumption was to clean public services of the corruption that plagues these programmes.
And one of the preconditions of Aadhaar being used as a tool for tackling corruption rests on Aadhaar being universal. But despite making it mandatory for various public schemes, it failed to achieve universal coverage. Even today, Aadhaar coverage is only 82% of the population, at 106 crore out of a population of 130 crore. The failure to achieve universal enrolment even after seven years of the project is essentially a failure of the approach of making Aadhaar work as a tool for authentication and therefore an essential element for its fight against corruption. It is now obvious that most of the Aadhaar enrolment has been achieved by forcing individuals to enrol rather than the inherent appeal of the mechanism itself. As I had pointed out earlier, the entire approach of making Aadhaar universal has rested on forcing people to use it for accessing basic services. That’s why it was first linked to those basic services which had the largest coverage. That included the Public Distribution System and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. While it did help Aadhaar to expand its footprint to millions of citizens by force, the success of Aadhaar in reducing corruption remains an open question.
The failure is now well known. It not only includes wrong enrolments, exclusion of poor households, and misuse of biometric data but most importantly failure of biometric authentication for availing essential services which stands approximately at 30% in some of the large schemes. Although the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has failed to release authenticated numbers on this count, there is enough evidence of many households getting excluded from accessing basic services. The second failure of Aadhaar which has led to lower enrolment among the rich and middle classes is fear of unnecessary surveillance and absence of proper safeguards to protect the privacy of individuals.
While the poor had no choice on these matters, the vocal middle class has so far avoided using Aadhaar or even enrolling for it. Although the UIDAI does not provide the number of enrolments by income classes, the fact that only 35,000 (as on 18 March 2017) individuals have Aadhaar enrolment in the New Delhi district is a good indication of how the privileged class has avoided getting themselves enrolled for Aadhaar while advocating Aadhaar for everybody else. Remember, New Delhi district is also the district where most of the central government bureaucrats, ministers, members of Parliament and government officials reside. The recent attempt by the government to link Aadhaar with PAN numbers is an attempt to force these individuals to get into the Aadhaar ecosystem.
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While this will certainly force many of the privileged taxpaying households and individuals to link their financial and income transactions with Aadhaar, it will be another attempt into bullying individuals to become members of the Aadhaar ecosystem. Such an approach not just violates the promises that the government made to Parliament or the Supreme Court of India, but it also raises fundamental questions on the role of Aadhaar. It still relies on the use of force through government orders and legislative action to make it mandatory rather than use the inherent strengths of Aadhaar as the universal mechanism to curb corruption. In a strange way, rather than Aadhaar being the foundation for a corruption-free system, it has used the same public services which it wants to cure of corruption as the foundation for extending its coverage. While it may achieve its objective of universal enrolment through this, it is also a clear evidence of the failure of Aadhaar to emerge as a tool for removing corruption. The fact that there is little voluntary demand for Aadhaar also implies that the basic concerns of privacy, security and exclusion remain even after seven years.
These concerns have only increased over the years with Aadhaar failing to provide any assurance on failure of biometric authentication with millions of poor deprived of their basic entitlements. It has also failed to provide a sense of security and protection against fear of misuse. The recent episode of UIDAI filing cases against three private firms including a bank for misuse of biometric information linked to Aadhaar only adds to the fear of its misuse and violation of privacy. The brazen attempts to force Aadhaar may help the government in achieving universal enrolment but its universal acceptance would require the government to go a long distance in making the system acceptable to the citizens. Unfortunately, while the government has shown urgency in expanding the coverage of Aadhaar, it is yet to take concrete steps to allay the fears of those who are going to use it.
Himanshu is an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.