Books

Lost identity

Venky Vembu | Updated on January 10, 2018

Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-digit Revolution Shankkar Aiyar (Westland, ₹175   -  )

Of Aadhaar as an instrument of exclusion

The Aesop’s fable about the mountain that went into labour only to give birth to a mouse serves as an apt metaphor for most reform processes in India. Much is promised at the outset, to the accompaniment of thunderous auditory effects suggestive of enormous exertions, but the final outcome invariably falls well short of promises.

The experience of Aadhaar, the mechanism to give 1.3 billion Indians a biometric identity, has, however, been vastly different. That’s not surprising, considering that the first chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI, the nodal agency tasked with implementing the project), was Nandan Nilekani, the co-founder of a software company that has over the years made a virtue of under-promising and over-delivering. In the case of Aadhaar, however, this ‘over-delivery’ may have come at a price.

Shankkar Aiyar’s book opens by offering a peep into the bureaucratic backrooms in the days and months that led up to the birth of Aadhaar in 2009. Nilekani had been invited by the UPA-II government of Manmohan Singh to oversee the ambitious Aadhaar enterprise, and in particular to harness the transformative power of technology for public good. It was one of the rare instances of private-public partnerships when an eminently successful corporate executive was giving up (for the moment, at least) his seat in the boardroom to indulge his “messiah complex”.

When it was conceived, Aadhaar, the 12-digit unique identification number, was intended as a simple instrument of financial inclusion, directed primarily at the socially and economically disadvantaged communities, the better to target subsidies at them. Yet, for all its noble intention, the Aadhaar project was buffeted by political and bureaucratic headwinds. In a country where politicians have profited from playing identity politics, reckons Aiyar, a validator of identities — which is what Aadhaar claimed to be — became the object of intense suspicion and political-bureaucratic turf battles. It needed all of Nilekani’s personal goodwill, and the political cover that then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee provided, to overcome the odds.

From its simple origin, however, Aadhaar has morphed in many directions, with successive governments seeing it as a ‘silver bullet’ to address everything that afflicts governance, from inadequate financial inclusion to failure of last-mile delivery of welfare services to poor tax compliance to black money — and even to terrorism.

The recent report that Aadhaar details would be required even to procure a death certificate triggered widespread indignation only because it epitomised the cradle-to-grave overreach of an establishment that has discovered a new toy, and is obsessively delighting in it, unmindful of concerns about privacy and data security. Somewhere along the way, Aadhaar appears to have gone from being a facilitator of inclusion to an instrument of exclusion; where once it inspired hope, it today summons up fears of a surveillance state.

Aiyar provides a fascinating back-story to the Aadhaar project, and although some ground has already shifted since its publication (with the recent SC ruling on privacy as a fundamental right), the author points the way forward by addressing some of the concerns that the enterprise must address at an institutional level for it to regain the goodwill.

Published on September 10, 2017

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