With three cases against it now pending before a yet-to-be formed constitution bench of the Supreme Court, it is time to look at the real issues around Aadhaar (and there’s no denying the fact that there are some, especially related to privacy and security).
That would mean looking beyond smear campaigns, old and new.
There have been several, including allegations that the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) issued huge contracts to its then chairman Nandan Nilekani’s former company Infosys Ltd, and rumours that IndiaStack, an effort to create building blocks for a digital payments infrastructure spearheaded by volunteers and non-profits, is actually building a closed ecosystem that will benefit its own.
It would mean understanding the stop-and-go way in which the legislative framework for Aadhaar that remains incomplete has been created. For starters, it had no legislative backing as conflicting power centres in the government that sponsored it (this would be the United Progressive Alliance Mark 2) made Aadhaar another point of contention in their ongoing disagreements. Then, when a law eventually came, the government that passed it (the National Democratic Alliance) decided to take the so-called money bill route, to obviate clearance by the upper house of Parliament where it was (and is) in minority. That’s not the best way to get things done in a parliamentary democracy. And, all through, there’s not been much talk of a privacy law, although a rapidly digitizing India needs one.
As a corollary to this, it would also mean understanding what’s been happening at the apex court where several cases including one challenging the very basis for Aadhaar and another on the legality of the law being passed as a money bill are pending. There have been some interim orders as well. The two important points to note are that the government hasn’t ever said that Aadhaar is mandatory in the court. And the court has repeatedly stressed that Aadhaar can’t be mandatory. Yes, I know, that’s messy and I believe the government hasn’t really played its cards well in court.
Then, it would mean seeing things for what they really are. For instance, the frenzy over “Aadhaar leaks” is really about the ineptness of government departments that have displayed the numbers. The rules prohibit this, but the ineptness has given rise to arguments that the government can’t be trusted with data (although, to be fair, none of the biometric data in the Aadhaar database itself has been leaked). There’s also been some misuse by point-of-transaction authenticators which is, again, prohibited by the law.
And finally, it would mean trusting the state, knowing that there is legal recourse available (backed by privacy and data protection laws) in case that trust is broken. The most unfortunate development in recent times has been the reduction of even complex issues into simplistic pro- and anti-Modi arguments. Unfortunately for Aadhaar, its biggest advantage (Prime Minister Narendra Modi adopting an idea from a previous government because he saw merit in it) is also its biggest disadvantage.
So, what are the real issues?
The security of the Aadhaar database is one. Huge reports are being written on how the database isn’t secure. Is it safe, or isn’t it?
The reliability of the Aadhaar database is another. There have been instances of errors in authentication. Such errors could make Aadhaar exclusionary and it is important the government’s larger welfare regime have ways to deal with such instances. Hint: throwing statistics isn’t a desired resolution mechanism.
The lack of a privacy law is a third.
Finally, there’s the larger (and philosophical) debate on whether India and Indians need one number to bind them all, the potential for misuse, and the checks and balances available to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Addressing these issues would be the constructive way forward. If used well (and widely), Aadhaar could simplify life and transactions, and also ensure that the government’s welfare schemes are better-targeted and more efficient. It could be the answer to various problems faced by hundreds of millions of Indians who desperately want to be on the grid—not off it.