To Aadhaar or Not to Aadhaar?

‘To Aadhaar or not to Aadhaar?’, is no longer a question. Government after passing the Aadhaar Act of 2016 as a money bill sent out a strong statement that Aadhaar is here to stay. Despite repeated orders from Supreme Court that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for welfare schemes, Government has gone ahead notifying Aadhaar as requirement for several things, including appearing for IIT-JEE! The government has vaguely assured or not assured privacy in the bills it has passed so far. For ‘national security’ reasons, Aadhaar details can be accessed by the bureaucrats. Now how do we define ‘national security’ here? Is slogan-raising Kanhaiya from JNU also a threat to a nuclear nation called India? Or MS Dhoni whose details were out on Twitter, also a threat to national security despite being a member of Territorial Army? Well, I agree, that we do need to start somewhere and the safeguards would be put up in place in the meantime.

The debate for privacy, as per some, in itself is elitist. What India needs right now is development, and Aadhaar is the key to that development. It has the potential to stop leakages (as in LPG subsidy), the benefits will directly reach the bank accounts, and more people would benefit from the system rather than a handful few. Imagine a poor village boy getting 1000 Rs. scholarship per month and getting the whole money without any hassle. The long term objective it seems is to make Unique Identification Number a repository of report cards, degrees, mobile numbers, bank transactions, jobs, travel journeys, etc. Anyone who can access the information will know probably know it all. Oh wait! How is this a privacy concern? Isn’t this uncannily similar to you accepting friend request of someone you have met once or twice? The newly added person now can know it all, all your posts, your photos, your good friends, your political beliefs, etc. Except, we do have a choice here. We have a choice to not use Facebook, or WhatsApp. We have a choice to not use Google, or Android phones. Privacy, they say, is a myth in twenty first century. Probably, yes. But then do we surrender it all? What choices are in front of us, at this juncture? With Aadhaar, for now, there is none. If we want to usher new era of development in India, Aadhaar is the way to go, at least that’s what Government is trying to say.

There are more than 1.1 Billion Aadhaar card holders in India now. In a matter of 6-7 years, we have created and successfully implemented a platform that if monetized can challenge the likes of Google and Facebook, writes, R Jagannathan of Swarajya. Though there’s no way to substantiate this claim, but it is still a valid argument. The data Aadhaar has is huge, and Jio and other telecom operators have banked on it successfully with e-KYC. But the argument that this data can be monetized, in itself, should be a valid concern. Do I have a choice, if I do not wish my data to be monetized. No. Aadhaar, though, has immense potential for data-driven governance to be implemented in a right manner. If the data is collected and segregated properly, the government will have a good idea of how much money is it spending and in which areas. Which areas should be targeted better, what can be done to improve facilities, etc. For proper implementation of Aadhaar-based services, proper technology and infrastructure needs to be put up in place. That itself is a big challenge. What if a farmer in Odisha goes to ration shop, only to realize his biometric authentication is not matching. This is not fiction, this has happened, and the UIDAI has admitted that it constantly monitors such happenings. The only hope is things will get better in coming years.

With government, having the authority to see all its citizens in their nakedness, the question arises, is the Government now the ultimate authority in a democracy? Replies to RTIs are being denied, uncomfortable questions are increasingly being seen as a threat to ‘positive’ nation-building exercise, whatever that means.  More and more media channels have become more like a mouthpiece of the Government, and the few those who do question are labelled as ‘presstitutes’ and ‘anti-nationals’. Now, if the State is all-powerful in a democracy, and citizens are denied a basic right to question, the question indeed is, whether the Big Brother is winning?

On the question of privacy:

This article in Scroll argues, that Aadhaar is being turned into world’s biggest surveillance system.

This article from The Wire takes on the privacy debate, with declaring that privacy is dead with Aadhaar.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in The Indian Express, eerily suggests that the Big Brother is winning.

This article on mashable.com, also argues that Aadhaar is a privacy nightmare.

Other related links:

A recent paper, by Vrinda Bhandari and Renuka Sane, puts up the question whether Aadhaar is grounded in adequate law and regulations. Find the article from Swarajya here.

Sunil Abraham, in Hindu Businessline, questions the security of Aadhaar. Find the article here.

Farhan Shaikh, in Swarajya, argues that we need Aadhaar to bank on India’s demographic challenges.

Some other issues that need UIDAI’s attention.

Scroll.in has run a series on Aadhaar, since last couple of years, named The Identity Project.

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