India has achieved unique distinction of connecting almost one billion people through Aadhaar cards, the world’s largest biometric programme that has a great potential to transform lives of hundreds of millions of people, especially those who are economically vulnerable and deserve hand-holding by the state. While the entire programme was conceived and half-way implemented by the then UPA government, the Nandan Nilekani-headed initiative has been equally supported by the Narendra Modi government thanks mainly to its pro-people appeal. The digital ID not only gives every citizen a sense of identity but also provides a seamless apparatus to the government to reach out to the last man or woman in the economic or social paradigm. In fact, it has shown a glide-path to institutions like the World Bank on how to reach the benefits to the poor without being pilfered on the way. Commending the programme, a recent World Bank report on Digital Dividends has estimated that it has resulted in saving a billion dollar to the Indian government by plugging leakage of subsidies which are increasingly being routed through the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) system.
While Aadhaar cards would not allow the middlemen to pocket thousands of crores of rupees meant for the poor and the lower middle class through the DBT, the biometric data base and its linkages with the banks through other ambitious programmes like the Jan Dhan Yojna would add up to a world of information about each of the beneficiaries. For instance, the banks servicing them can track their financial behaviour and accordingly devise the need-based micro-finance products for needs such as sewing machine, cycle or auto rickshaw. With increasing penetration of Internet through affordable smartphones, those at the bottom of the pyramid will grow well beyond beneficiaries of the government schemes to resourceful and empowered customers for a host of businesses. This would be the best case of disruptive technology and business model, so to speak.
Since the entire Aadhaar card programme is being implemented through an executive authority, it has been challenged in the Supreme Court on the issue of privacy. While the kind of information sought by the biometric system cannot be kept confidential anyway given the fact that electronic way of life is becoming all-pervasive, the best course should be to give it a legislative shield by an Act of Parliament. The government must show a sense of urgency in pushing the required legislation in Parliament in the Budget session itself. The Aadhaar Bill should generally be supported by all the parties, including the Congress which can claim its share of the credit as well for seeding the programme in the first place.