Just a few weeks back it seemed like the end of the road for the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and Aadhaar. Politics appeared to have the upper hand and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seemed poised to let all the time and resources spent in creating the world’s largest biometric ID system go down the tubes. There was speculation that even the name Aadhaar may be purged as it may be viewed as a legacy of the United Progressive Alliance. The media rushed to sing the requiem for India’s most audacious technology application.

All that has now changed dramatically. Faced with the daunting task of reining in India’s ballooning subsidy regime—a cross that the BJP did not have to bear while in opposition—the government appears to have put pragmatism over politics, at least for now, and Aadhaar lives to see another day. We are told that UIDAI will not only continue with its mission, but also accelerate plans to complete over 900 million enrolments by the end of the year.

More importantly, unlike the conflicting signals of the previous government, this government is seen as speaking with one voice, after decisively sorting out internal differences. Reports suggest that it may even re-approach the Supreme Court to pave the way to mandate Aadhaar for all subsidies, something that one wishes the UPA government had done from the get go.

There was never any doubt about the vital need in the Indian context for a biometric-based unique ID such as Aadhaar to curb rampant ghost and duplicate beneficiaries in welfare and subsidy schemes, and to provide an irrefutable ID proof to those millions who do not have any.

Notwithstanding that, the UPA government may have unduly rushed it, the demonstrative value of the Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) pilot for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and the BJP government’s vote of confidence in it clearly vindicate the first part of that mission. And the fact that the administration has acknowledged the distinctly different objectives of Aadhaar (managing subsidies) vs. National Population Register or NPR (identifying citizens) gives one the confidence that the second part of the mission too will be fulfilled, without subjecting the poor to an elusive test for citizenship (see The Aadhaar-NPR Conundrum, Livemint, Dec 13, 2011). The remaining major challenge then is to persuade the banking sector to widely accept Aadhaar as adequate proof to open “no-frills" accounts, without which DBT and other Aadhaar-enabled services can’t be implemented universally.

The plan to resurrect the UID bill in Parliament, which would give statutory backing to UIDAI, should certainly help in building the confidence of financial institutions that Aadhaar is here to stay. That bill did not make it beyond a standing committee in its earlier journey and one hopes that the revised bill will include more meaningful data privacy protections, a major concern flagged by the committee. Assuming that the bill will explicitly give the power to mandate Aadhaar for all welfare schemes and subsidies, one way to address privacy objections for now is to also explicitly allow individuals an “opt-out of Aadhaar" option, as long they clearly understand that they are also opting out of subsidies and other Aadhaar-enabled services. This, I think, would be a reasonable position to take at least until such a time as the nation has a more comprehensive data privacy law, at which time universally mandating Aadhaar may be more appropriate.

As for the NPR’s mission of creating a National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC), it is clearly a much more daunting task. Unfortunately, the home ministry’s shifting position on how exactly it plans to distinguish between citizens and illegal immigrants raises some serious concerns—the latest plan appears to involve a replay of the door-to-door household survey, this time seeking documentary proof of birth, residency, schooling, etc. before an individual is included in NRIC.

Yes, providing a proof of citizenship to every Indian is a laudable national goal, but the reality is that any effort to exclude illegals will inevitably also result in the exclusion of millions of bona fide Indian citizens who may be unable to produce such documentary evidence, and may be at the mercy of enumerators who sit in judgment of their status. Designing a non-discriminatory way to walk this tightrope will be a major challenge and will, in my view, clearly take some time. So it’s only appropriate that the government has decided that the more immediate mission of Aadhaar will proceed apace, presumably independent of NPR’s progress.

Let us hope that renewed energy within UIDAI will allow it to move forward with better clarity of purpose and that it can undo some of the damage done to the credibility of Aadhaar, partly resulting from the UPA’s lack of unified support for the project.

The writer is a former civil society outreach volunteer with UIDAI

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