The Aadhaar of a Unique Idea

The Aadhaar card is an idea which has come to stay in India. Already more than 70 crore Indians have Aadhaar identity, a remarkable achievement within a span of three to four years; as noteworthy as the spread of mobile telephony within one decade to the remotest part of India. The book by Nandan Nilekani and Viral Shah essentially relives the vicissitudes of creation of this Unique Identity programme; having outlived the original doubts, sharp opposition from the Home Ministry (then led by the redoubtable P Chidambaram, who was gunning for the Home Ministry’s alternate rival version card), groups questioning the feasibility of the programme as also the possibility of national sabotage though ‘sensitive’ population information reaching the wrong hands. Aadhaar has survived all these; the final victory being seal of approval by the Modi government. The authors have relived the roles played by many individuals and institutions, as well as the inevitable crises, dog-fights, road-blocks and scepticism en-route; surely with much delicate chest-thumping, no doubt deserved!

Rajiv Gandhi had once said that in all development programmes, only 16 per cent of the pay-load reaches the ultimate rural beneficiary; the distribution pipeline is highly faulty, politicised and reeking of corruption.

The Unique Identity, if properly used, can be a major vehicle for cleaning up the ‘payments’ system, to reach money or services to intended beneficiaries with minimal leakage, at least cost. Thus, as the Digital India Programme takes off, the impact on issues such as KYC (Know Your Customer), banking facilities in every part of India, micro-financing of small, tiny and atomic sector (which are now out of reach of formal financial institutions and are prey to private money lenders), and finally bringing a near-total cash economy to banking channels can all contribute significantly to system efficiency. Aadhaar is poised to be a key element in the success of the ambitious Digital India Programme, aggressively pursued by the government, which has potential to reach the 3,50,000 panchayats of the country, bridging the urban-rural divide. The Unique Identity is an important cog in this wheel.

Advances in technology need interlocking and converging forward movement in different fields to manifest itself. Indeed the Unique Card idea was proposed formally by many sources as early as the early 90s. But its time had not come, as the other supporting technologies had not arrived on the ground in India. One recalls that as early as the late 90s, the technology was available, the decision was taken and money allotted for commencement of a massive programme for computerising land-records, starting in two states—till date this has still not succeeded, due to major opposition, and vested interests of local authorities and petty politicians who stand to gain by keeping the rural land ownership scene confused and complicated. Indeed, Chandrababu Naidu started computerising urban land records to lead to seamless transparent urban land transactions, starting in Hyderabad and a number of other Andhra towns; even after two decades this is not a reality in most towns and cities in India. Technology per se is only a tool. It is not the final objective; the atmosphere for its application is essential.

Unique Identity is not a new concept in the world. The social service number concept of the US and other similar programmes in many countries, including Switzerland, are decades old. The Nilekani/Shah narrative sharply brings out the salient features of adapting technologies used in other countries to serve in Indian conditions. India in many ways is unique—many economists transplant foreign ideas into Indian soil, without appropriate modification to meet Indian requirements. The Aadhaar success story brings out clearly the lesson that every good idea cannot be automatically borrowed in India.

The authors have indulged in airy-fairy high-flown plans for nearly every sector of the economy: revamping education, reaching power to rural areas, bringing public health to the common man. These ideas have been floating for decades; they are also technological feasible. Nilekani and Shah have not said anything new here—technology is not enough, the system and the politics and culture have to accept change. One need not see too much in this book, except an account of a successful journey well planned for many decades, but whose time to succeed has arrived.