India’s Tryst with Aadhaar

Even though it may be useful, with 92 crore citizens enrolled, it has crossed the tipping point

You are rushing to catch an early morning flight that will take you to an important meeting. You make it past the roadway check points and impossible traffic, only to run into a huge queue just to enter the airport. Your heart is sinking, thinking of the long lines for check-in and then airport security. Will you miss your flight? You travel frequently. You wonder, surely, can’t the government or the security guys think of a faster, more efficient method? Why not have a special identity card or a scanner method for frequent travellers, who are pre-checked and who can be fast tracked through security? Indeed, such a system has been implemented in the US and is voluntary and about one million passengers have signed on. Their enrolment data is elaborate, and in exchange for this prescrutiny, they enjoy a much better and convenient travel experience. Cue: what if travellers in India allow their Aadhaar to be tagged for a similar faster access?

Aadhaar gives you two things. A unique identity number and a free online instantaneous authentication. Just like the GPS in your mobile answers the question, “where am I”, Aadhaar answers the question “who am I” instantly. The GPS is completely trusted because it is based on free information beamed from satellites that were initially put up in space by the United States military. Nobody seriously doubts that GPS info can be fudged, or can be used and manipulated against you. Aadhaar, too, can become equally trustworthy. Indeed, this feature has been built into its design.

Because of its instant and free authentication of your identity, it is a boon especially for the poor. The Aadhaar framework is also friendly to the Digital India initiative, wherein lot of the documents can be stored in DigiLockers for free. These include scanned copies of your passport, degrees, mark sheets, ration card, voter ID and many more. Consider these five typical examples. Firstly, getting the cooking gas cylinder subsidy. Secondly, obtaining a new SIM card for your mobile. Thirdly, getting subsidised foodgrain from the ration shop. Fourthly, registering a new voter or modifying an older record. Fifth example is trying to get a unifying view of all your investments, in mutual funds, bank fixed deposits, pension account and post office savings schemes. Most of these common activities have been transacted even before the days of Aadhaar. But Aadhaar can make a quantum difference in enhancing speed and efficiency of such transactions. One of the promises of Digital India is improved governance by reduction of human interface between a citizen and a government servant seeking palm grease. The success of internet-based railway booking long ago convinced us about the benefit of digital interfaces. Not only did it remove the shady touts, but it also increased speed and transparency of a very complex ticket booking system.

The Reserve Bank of India believes that Aadhaar will greatly facilitate speedy rollout of financial inclusion. The telecom regulator TRAI, too, is supportive about authenticating mobile subscribers through Aadhaar. The Election Commission thinks that linking voter id to Aadhaar will help greatly reduce bogus voters and voting fraud. Since Aadhaar ID is given to those below 18 as well, their entry as voters will become seamless if Aadhaar link is used. It will be especially useful in urban areas with constant flux of migrant and shifting populations. The linkage of cooking gas subsidy to bank account and Aadhaar have already helped eliminate almost 30 per cent of either duplicate, bogus or fictitious names from 15 crore subscribers. By using Aadhaar for PDS and giving food subsidy directly into bank accounts, it can lead to huge saving and reduction in leakage.

There is much riding on the country’s adoption of Aadhaar. But it has been challenged in court by a dozen petitions, which are concerned about its misuse and endangerment of citizens’ right to privacy. All these cases have landed up in the Supreme Court. Hopefully, a reasonable compromise will arise. India’s tryst with Aadhaar is inevitable.