Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Aadhaar: Fact and fiction

Last week, the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016, finally got Parliament’s approval after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government employed unorthodox methods—introducing it as a money bill to deny the Rajya Sabha its now-customary veto. But wait a minute. This is not the big takeaway.

Indeed, while purists may baulk at the manner in which the NDA obtained parliamentary approval, what was revealing is the abysmal ignorance about Aadhaar, or the unique identification number held by 992,641,185 residents of India, among so-called experts, activists and even some legislators. More appalling was the fact that this ignorance was being spread across television channels with a certitude, similar to what former US president George Bush employed in arguing that Iraq had a stash of dangerous chemical weapons to justify an invasion.

One activist claimed in a TV discussion that because of Aadhaar, she would be under surveillance while travelling from Jaipur to Delhi by road—when crossing tolls, she claimed, the government would monitor her and invade her privacy. This is plain fiction and smacks of a complete lack of understanding of Aadhaar and the process of authentication.

Yes, Aadhaar is a repository of detailed personal information—which if it lands in wrong hands could be put to immense misuse—but not accessible to other government departments as activists would like us to believe.

And no, it is not equivalent to GPS coordinates (which, by the way, is what Google accesses on your phone when you use its maps facility to plan your road trip; wonder what happens to privacy concerns then).

All that the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which commands this database, will do, when a request is made to verify the Aadhaar number of someone, is to authenticate the claim. No other information is exchanged nor can it be sought; and now with Aadhaar enjoying statutory backing, it will be illegal to do so.

Similarly, it is fiction that possessing Aadhaar will imply citizenship. The 12-digit unique identification number is issued to all residents and the UIDAI does not verify if the person is a citizen; all they see is that the person is resident in India—so yes, even foreigners can have an Aadhaar, but this does not make them citizens. (During the discussion in Parliament, I recall an opposition member claiming that the passage of the Aadhaar bill will bestow illegal Bangladeshi migrants with Indian citizenship as they can now enrol for an Aadhaar number.)

Yes, it is a fait accompli. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is remiss in not exhibiting the same urgency and realpolitik as the NDA to push for the statutory backing of Aadhaar. Instead, it used the power of an executive order to empower the UIDAI to capture the biometric data of nearly one billion Indians. So, giving it legal backing was a foregone conclusion.

Yes, there are concerns about privacy. But then, they are considerably reduced with the passage of the Aadhaar legislation.

I would go with what a genuine expert such as Rahul Matthan, partner in the Technology, Media and Telecom (TMT) group at Trilegal, has to say on the subject.

In a piece published on 7 March in Mint (http://bit.ly/1Rt8Dkf) he said, “The Aadhaar Bill, if it passes in its current form, will impose some of the strongest fetters on government over-reach, of any legislation in the country."

According to Matthan, the NDA government has sufficiently ring-fenced the biometric data, though it has squeezed in exceptions (like threat to national security) where it can access personal data, but with the clearance of an oversight committee.

Ideally, this debate can only be satisfactorily concluded once the NDA brings forward the legislation on privacy, which the UPA drafted but conveniently consigned to the byzantine world of the Indian bureaucracy.

Presumably, this puts an end to the countless rumours that have been taking root, ever since Nandan Nilekani was brought in from the private sector to pilot Aadhaar by the UPA. Now, it is time for all concerned to deliver on the promise.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com

His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus

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