March 2017 marks two anniversaries — a year since the Aadhaar Act was passed as a Money Bill in the Lok Sabha and three years since Nandan Nilekani stepped down as Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) chief in a bid to contest the Karnataka Lok Sabha elections. From 2009, when Nilekani first began working on the Aadhaar, to now, the system has amassed over 1.12 billion card-holders. Edited excerpts from a phone interview with BLink:
The Aadhaar journey has been tumultuous — from struggling to build allies to getting 1.12 billion people covered. The government claims that plugging leakages through Aadhaar has saved ₹14,000 crore. But the other side of the story is that in States such as Rajasthan, by the government’s own estimates, 15-20 per cent of people whose Aadhaar cards have been seeded (connected) to the PDS, are denied rations because of biometric failure or network issues.
The savings are well established in the government’s statements. When seeding and authentication are done properly, the success rate is over 95 per cent. I don’t want to blame the tool for the way it is being done.
But are these ground realities not being considered enough? Are we living in a post-demonetisation Aadhaar fantasy bubble where we have purged India of corruption and inefficiency?
The use of Aadhaar has been going on continuously for many years. It’s not a post-demonetisation bubble. It has, on the ground, cumulatively saved ₹50,000 crore that was being diverted from genuine beneficiaries. How can you call this a fantasy bubble?
A 2015 PMO minutes said only ₹91 crore was the annual Aadhaar-related savings.
There is a lot of misinformation floating around. I want to see this document. My own sense is that there are substantial savings in every programme because of Aadhaar.
There are several cases of fraudulent Aadhaar. For example, a card for Lord Hanuman. How will the problems in collecting Aadhaar data be fixed?
This whole issue of people having false pictures is almost six years old. People are deliberately raking it up. Some operator was at mischief. Now there is a lot of automated technology, like photo recognition.
But you can’t deny there are legitimate issues with biometric fingerprints and iris scanners with labourers, migrant workers and children.
The reason we chose a combination of fingerprint and iris was precisely because a fingerprint alone isn’t adequate to distinguish a person’s unique identity. That was remarkably ahead of its time. Iris does not depreciate over time. Even people with cataract can get their iris scanned.
So how are these mismatches happening?
There are many reasons for that. Sometimes the seeding is not done properly. I know that it works when done properly. For example, in Andhra Pradesh, it was done flawlessly across 30,000 PDS outlets. Where biometrics doesn’t match, there is OTP as backup. Reliance Jio is using it to verify 100 million SIM cards. Today we’re doing 30-35 million authentications a day. Obviously something is working.
Had you continued as UIDAI chief what would’ve you done differently?
I think they have done an excellent job. There has always been excellent leadership at the operating level — Dr Vijay Madan was the UIDAI CEO when I was chairman. He was succeeded by Ajay Bhushan Pandey. Now there’s a three-member UIDAI Committee under J Satyanarayana, the former IT secretary. The current government has adopted the Aadhaar and moved progressively forward. Not only am I happy with what they have done, I would’ve done the same.
Do you think there are issues that we could have perfected before scaling it to the level we have?
How many systems have a billion people on them? None, except Facebook, WhatsApp and Google. To create a billion-plus user platform in less than seven years; to build a system on an investment of a billion dollars; to have a system which can do millions of authentications a day and can help millions get access to services… This is a system which works perfectly in 95 per cent of cases. Every system has exceptions. And the system design provides for such exceptions by employing methods such as visual check using photo recognition and an OTP verification by linking to the person’s mobile phone.
You had earlier said in an interview that the system’s design is based on optimal ignorance. Which means while you can tell the number of times a bank transaction has taken place, you cannot know the amount withdrawn or deposited. But there are concerns that the Aadhaar could be used in surveys such as the Socio-economic Caste Census (SECC) for racial profiling, or be linked to EVMs to determine voting patterns.
This system is far more conscious of privacy concerns than any other in this country. The SECC or EVM machines have nothing to do with Aadhaar. Why are you confusing these issues? There isn’t one instance of breach of privacy in Aadhaar.
This February, the UIDAI filed a police complaint against Axis Bank Ltd and others, alleging they had attempted unauthorised authentication and impersonation by illegally storing Aadhaar biometrics.
You should appreciate the system is in place. How do you think it was caught? Because people were replaying a biometric. You cannot steal data from the Aadhaar database. The Aadhaar law is very clear that you cannot publish data collected for the same. Let me tell you that Election Commission data is available online — name, gender, date of birth and address.
You had said in a 2013 interview to Forbes: “We felt speed was strategic. If you move very quickly it doesn’t give opposition the time to consolidate.” Wouldn’t a wider legislative consultation then have been the solution to many of today’s issues with Aadhaar?
From 2009, this project has had the widest consultation. I went to every State in India, met every government, had public consultations, met every agency. We have published more documents on the design than any other system I’m aware of. It was discussed in Parliament. Cabinet approved the project. Parliament funded the project. The Bill was passed. Have you bothered to find out how people have benefited?
Please explain how the Aadhaar has benefited an ordinary taxpaying citizen.
Why just the taxpaying? Millions of people without any ID, now have an ID. It has enabled them to migrate from village to cities, get jobs, get a bank account and a SIM card in minutes. In the villages of Andhra Pradesh, a couple — with the husband working in a city and the wife in the village — can independently withdraw their share of the ration because it’s all on the cloud.
Do you think that’s the primary difference between States like Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan — that the systems are in place?
I don’t want to malign any State based on anecdotal stuff. Every State should make sure the Aadhaar seeding is done well and that rules are followed for authentication. And you should have backup.
If there are teething issues you have to work to make it better. This whole demonising of Aadhaar is irresponsible.
Do you agree with the Supreme Court order that nobody should be denied a benefit just because they don’t have an Aadhaar?
I agree with the law. The Aadhaar can be requested of all beneficiaries but you should give adequate time for them to enrol. In the meantime nobody should be denied a benefit.
What was the basis on which India chose to go with the Aadhaar model when several countries like France, Britain and Germany have disbanded such identification projects?
Their purpose was not development, inclusion, saving government money or curbing corruption. How can you compare Aadhaar with the smart card project in some other country? Even I would have disbanded those.