Aadhaar and the right to life

It is imperative that we stop the Aadhaar juggernaut before it infringes on the very right to life itself

Twice this week, these pages have carried articles emphasizing the importance of trust in a capitalist society. Noah Smith put it eloquently, writing that when you drive over a bridge, you trust that the engineer who designed it based it on sound principles. Or, we may add, the materials that were used were not adulterated. Smith wrote that there are a million ways in which we trust the unseen expertise of unseen people we have never met. This trust is the bedrock of a functioning economy. In the fast-emerging, social media-fed “post-facts” world, the biggest casualty is trust. Even scientists today are not immune from suspicion.

Adding their voice, Mint’s editorial reminded us that with rising inequality there is increasing suspicion (and hence breakdown of trust) that capitalist progress is rigged in favour of the elites. In the developed world, the growth rates of national incomes are decent, but median family incomes have stagnated for decades. The top 1% or 0.1% corner all the gains. The trust in the principle that “hard work alone gets you to the top” is fast eroding. The election and continuing popularity of President Donald Trump or outcomes like Brexit are a tip-of-the-iceberg manifestation of the cracks to the trust edifice.

Trust building in society is a hard, slow and painful process. It is aided by the personal integrity and credibility of our leaders. Uniform application of the rule of law helps. So does transparency and accountability in policymaking as well as decisions. Take the case of Aadhaar, India’s biometric-based unique identity for a billion people. Its genesis probably lies in the oft-quoted comment of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi that for every rupee spent by the government on anti-poverty programmes, only 15 paise reach the intended beneficiary. There was great exasperation about immense leakages in the public distribution system (PDS), the fuel and fertilizer subsidy, and various other entitlement schemes. Much of this was due to corruption and a system susceptible to rigging.

How then do we devise a foolproof system which would deliver with minimum leakages? How to identify a genuine beneficiary? Enter Nandan Nilekani, one of the founders of the iconic software services company Infosys Ltd. That company’s motto had always been, not just to be the most profitable company, but to be the most respected one. In its meteoric rise to becoming one of the 20 most valuable companies in the world in the late 1990s, it also became synonymous with transparent corporate governance, earning the respect of peers in India and abroad.

So when Nilekani took over the project of providing a unique identity number to every Indian, he brought with him immense intellect, experience, execution capability, a talented team and, most importantly, credibility. It is because of the credible people behind the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) that it earned trust. The unique 12-digit number allotted by UIDAI, called Aadhaar, would answer the question “Who am I?” definitively. It would use the latest technology of scanning biometrics (eyes and fingerprints) and do instant authentication. The World Bank has called it a revolution and other countries are marvelling at India’s fast-paced implementation of covering almost a billion people in such a short time.

This is not the place to recount the history and progress of Aadhaar. This is also not the place to record the glaring legal lacunae that have come to light: that enrolment agencies have very little liability for wrong registration or errors, or that UIDAI has no legal liability for misuse, fraud, exclusion or denial of service in case the biometric confirmation fails. There is no recourse to go to the police or the courts. Aadhaar has expanded hugely in scope and application in the last few years. More than 50 services and schemes require Aadhaar linkage, without which they can be denied. This legitimacy will be tested in the courts because of pending public interest litigation.

However, the biggest cause for alarm is that Aadhaar’s reach is becoming Frankensteinian, as in the case of a starvation death in Jharkhand. An 11-year-old child died because the family was consistently denied rations from the fair price shop (PDS) since their ration card was not linked to Aadhaar. One death is too many. Other starvation deaths linked to biometric failure have also been reported. It made the nation’s headlines, and the chief minister temporarily suspended the Aadhaar requirement. In a rural setting, surely villagers know each other, and chances of masquerading are near zero. If a panchayat member can certify a person’s identity, it is almost criminal to deny food to the starving because a biometric scanner did not work. The poor and indigent often lack the gumption to “demand” their rights. They can easily be bullied, after having already been defeated by hunger. It’s no use saying that there is a manual override for scanner malfunction. That’s where more mischief and corruption can creep in.

Hence it is imperative that we stop the Aadhaar juggernaut before it infringes on the very right to life itself. As an aside, we should note that even privacy has been accorded status of “right to life” by the Supreme Court. Aadhaar’s battle with right to privacy is well known, and is being tested in the courts. But let’s express alarm and abundant caution about Aadhaar’s eclipse of the very right to life itself. The darkest moment of the emergency years was the apex court’s assent to the suspension of right to life. Thankfully, that was remedied by political means through the 44th amendment to the Constitution. Let Aadhaar not unleash another dark emergency-like phase by infringing on the right to life.