Revisiting some myths and realities of Aadhaar
Aadhaar has established itself as the primary form of identity, with more than nine out of 10 respondents using it for this purpose
Over the last one year and more, the country has witnessed a running intellectual battle between the government on the one hand and a motley group of activists, analysts, aspiring politicians and self-appointed privacy warriors on the other over the scaling of the use of Aadhaar as an identity tool. Given that every recent discourse has acquired a binary hue, both within India and abroad, it is not surprising that the debate on Aadhaar has degenerated into a vitriolic shouting match between the two sides.
We will know very soon, when the verdict is announced, whether the Supreme Court too was overwhelmed by the noise or managed to see through it—like it did with its brilliant judgement upholding privacy.
Meanwhile, a new study conducted by IDinsight and funded by the Omidiyar Network seeks to insert the much needed nuance in this debate over Aadhaar. It is based on a survey—the second—conducted in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal. Using empirical data, the survey makes some very compelling observations, which bust some popular myths that have gained ground.
First, it shows that Aadhaar enrolment has reached near saturation level at 90%. More importantly, the survey found no systematic bias, as claimed in some quarters, against the enrolment of the poor or socially less privileged.
Second, Aadhaar has established itself as the primary form of identity, with more than nine out of 10 respondents using it for this purpose.
Third, contrary to what most of us may think, even the economically disenfranchized value privacy. In all three states, almost all the respondents were keen to know as to how the government would use their personal information, biometric data and the Aadhaar number.
Fourth, unlike what has been argued very vehemently before the Supreme Court and on other platforms, there is an overwhelming support—nearly nine out of 10 respondents—for mandatory linking of Aadhaar for using services.
Fifth, in what is food for thought (pun intended), the survey discovered that failure of biometrics associated with Aadhaar was not the primary reason for excluding people from the public distribution system or PDS. The share of people denied access to PDS because of Aadhaar was less than 1% in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal and 2.2% in Rajasthan. Instead, the dominant reason was non-availability of ration food, either due to the shop being shut or insufficient stocks with the vendor.
A related discovery and something that should worry policy planners is that while Aadhaar has been superb in restricting benefits of subsidized services to the target audience, there is an undesirable fallout. The survey found that since the use of Aadhaar made it mandatory for the beneficiary to be present in person, the disabled and old were inconvenienced; may be for them, home delivery of ration food should be an option.
Clearly, the findings of the survey bust some myths being propounded on either side about Aadhaar. At the same time, it also reveals some realities which can’t be ignored.
No doubt the big takeaway from the survey is that the conclusion to a debate is never binary. It is always very nuanced and for a reason—there are always many sides to any issue. This column has said this earlier, but no harm in repeating it: India needs more nuanced debates as it confronts difficult trade-offs (say for example between development and environment captured in the ongoing violent confrontation in Tuticorin) if the global good of the country is to be preserved. Alternatively, the side losing out will view it as a zero-sum game, guaranteeing more future disruptions. A very undesirable outcome given that these trade-offs are going to increase in the future and be contentious too.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org
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