The Aadhaar of all things

From a severely critical stand against Aadhaar in 2014, the Modi-led BJP in power has made a sharp U-turn to bulldoze its way into having every Indian scanned, tagged and labelled. A timeline of the country’s chequered date with the unique identification project


You’ve probably read the WhatsApp joke about a post-Aadhaar scenario in 2020 India. A man orders pizza over phone. He is asked for his Aadhaar number first. He then orders a family-size seafood pizza, only to be reminded by the attendant about his high blood pressure and cholesterol levels (thanks to his Aadhaar history visible to everybody “on the system”) and is advised to order the low-fat Hokkien Mee pizza instead, based on his recent search history on Hokkien cuisine. As if this isn’t creepy enough, the pizza guy refuses a card payment, citing the man’s maxed-out credit cards, advises against ATM withdrawal owing to his massive overdraft and even decides to hold off the free cola offer given his dire health situation. When the man turns livid, he is told to mind his language, given that in 2007 he was already imprisoned for verbally abusing a policeman!

2020 is two and a half years away, and the WhatsApp scenario appears less incredulous by the day.

By the government’s latest estimate, 112,01,12,468 Aadhaar cards have been issued since January 2009, when the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was set up under the Planning Commission. So if you are an adult Indian resident without an Aadhaar card, you are in a two per cent minority (98 per cent adults are covered).

Last week, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the 12-digit number would be the single monolith identity for all Indians in the coming years, replacing every other identity card. The government is serious because each week a new scheme is added to the three dozen schemes in which Aadhaar has been made mandatory. All the 84 schemes under the direct subsidy benefit transfer programme are expected to follow suit.

Here are just a few instances in which you should be ready to whip out your Aadhaar card — a free midday meal at a government school, access to Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan, LPG subsidy and foodgrains under the public distribution system, six scholarship schemes for students with disabilities, getting your EPF pensions, booking a train ticket online, getting a backward caste quota or benefit, and, according to the most recent directive in the Finance Bill, filing your tax returns.

Why did a dispensation so critical of Aadhaar in 2014 make a sharp U-turn to bulldoze its way into having every single Indian citizen scanned, tagged and labelled?

The earliest felt need for an identification project can be traced to the Kargil Review Committee, instituted by the Vajpayee Government in 1999, in the wake of the Indo-Pak war. The Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam-led panel had recommended a citizenship database for the identification of legitimate Indian citizens living in border areas.

As outlined in a Scroll article, this quickly expanded to include all Indians under the Multipurpose National Identity Card project, which was pilot tested in a few villages. The Citizenship Act was also amended to give a legislative backing to the scheme, which built on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s general stance against illegal immigrants.

The search for identity

The Citizenship Act was amended in 2004 by the incumbent Congress government to make way for the National Population Register (NPR), a database of the identities of all Indian residents, maintained by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India.

Eventually, in 2009, Aadhaar, or UIDAI, surfaced as a 12-digit identification number that served as proof of identity and address — meaning, it applies to all residents whether they are citizens or not, unlike with the NPR. Aadhaar, which means ‘basis’ in Hindi, is intended to be an all-encompassing substratum of identities that can provide “instant access to services like banking, mobile phone connections and other government and non-government services”. The United Progressive Alliance government managed to link it to its Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) system for subsidies provided to targeted groups.

As the main Opposition party, the BJP had felt that the Aadhaar number ought to have been given only to Indian citizens, and not all residents, which, in its view, would include millions of illegal immigrants.

Nandan Nilekani, the former CEO of IT giant Infosys, was appointed UIDAI chairman in July 2009. The first Aadhaar number was issued in September 2010, and then the pace accelerated: 100 million by November 2011, 200 million by February 2012 and 500 million by end of 2013. “We felt speed was strategic. Doing and scaling things quickly was critical. If you move very quickly it doesn’t give opposition the time to consolidate,” Nilekani told Forbes India in a 2013 interview.

Here’s the part most of us forget: The largest opposition that Nilekani was referring to at that time was the BJP.

“The people who thought of themselves as having given birth to IT in this country refused to listen to a common man like me. Even the SC has demanded answers,” Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, had said and alleged that the Aadhaar programme was a bundle of lies to loot the country’s treasury.

As the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, days ahead of delivering the party’s biggest-ever victory, he had tweeted: “On Aadhaar, neither the Team that I met nor PM could answer my Qs on security threat it can pose. There is no vision, only political gimmick.” Recently, when Aadhaar enrolments had crossed the billion mark, this tweet was dug out prominently.

The U-turn

So, what changed? How did the Aadhaar’s primary opposition become it’s key crusader?

There were two meetings that supposedly changed the destiny of the Aadhaar project. In the first week of June 2014, as Nilekani was vacating his government-allotted Lutyen’s bungalow as UIDAI chief, he met Modi and Jaitley and persuaded the new regime to persist with Aadhaar. The more important meeting was with Vijay Madan, the UIDAI director general and mission director. According to a Governance Now article, when the UID team spoke of the potential savings from plugging subsidy leakages, and weeding out “ghost beneficiaries”, Modi asked them to give a precise estimate. The figure was “up to ₹50,000 crore a year” or a good 9.4 per cent of India’s ₹5,31,177-crore fiscal deficit.

Modi in his keenness to showcase the arrival of “acche din” immediately sought a 100-crore enrolment target at the ‘earliest’, putting paid to speculations that the new government would shelve the UIDAI project. A funding of ₹2,039.64 crore was formalised in the 2014-2015 Budget presented a week later, to create the infrastructure to enrol 30 crore people to add to the 70 crore already enrolled. The UIDAI targeted the 1-billion mark by the end of that fiscal.

Money bill to beat legal hurdles

It was in November 2012 that the SC admitted a PIL filed by retired Karnataka High Court judge KS Puttaswamy and advocate Parvesh Khanna, questioning the government’s decision to issue Aadhaar even as the National Identification Authority of India Bill 2010 was pending before the Rajya Sabha since December 3, 2010. They argued that there was no legislative backing for obtaining personal information. Also, the proposed law was rejected by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance.

The PIL argued that linking the Aadhaar number with food security, LPG subsidy, the Employees’ Provident Fund and other direct benefit transfers made the enrolment mandatory, thereby falsifying the government’s claim that it was voluntary. Several other PILs too voiced similar privacy concerns.

Currently, there are two legal strictures governing the validity of Aadhaar: the apex court order of October 15, 2015, limiting the card’s voluntary use to six schemes (PDS, MGNREGA, LPG, NEPS and social assistance programmes) and prohibiting the government from making it mandatory for receiving any benefits or services; and the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016, which is under challenge today. Both strictures have distinct operational status, but petitioners argue that recent government directives making Aadhaar mandatory are leading them to wonder whether the SC’s interim order is overshadowed by the Aadhaar Act or if the government is defying the court.

On March 3, 2016, in a surprise move, to put all dissent to rest, the Aadhaar Act was introduced as a Money Bill in Parliament to give it legislative backing. Things moved pretty fast thereon. On March 11, the Aadhaar Act 2016 was passed in the Lok Sabha. On March 26, the Act was notified. Accusing the BJP-led NDA government of showing “utter contempt” for the Rajya Sabha by taking the Money Bill route, senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh challenged it in the Supreme Court in April. He likened the use of the Money Bill, which was passed overruling amendments moved in the Rajya Sabha, to “knocking a nail in the coffin of the Upper House”.

The government’s move took many, including Aadhaar advocates, by surprise. “We need to separate Aadhaar as identity from its specific functionality for which it’s used,” says Praveen Chakravarty, a senior fellow at the IDFC institute and a former member of Nilekani’s core team. He believes that just as a voter ID alone isn’t enough to vote, seeing the ownership of an Aadhaar card as key for any transaction is “fear-mongering”. Its use will still involve a process of checks and balances.

But can’t thumb prints be replicated with Fevicol?

“Sure, there could be failures, as there are with any system. But this is a far more foolproof method than any we’ve had before. Internationally also, biometric is to authenticate a higher level of security.”

The argument for privacy

“Aadhaar has the potential to improve welfare service delivery. But it has to be achieved in an inclusive manner befitting a truly liberal society and not through coercion,” says Chakravarty.

His only misgiving is with the use of the Money Bill to introduce the Aadhaar, without any right to privacy. “It should have gone through the process of debate in Parliament. Then it wouldn’t have been passed without a strong right to privacy safeguard,” he says, pointing that even a junior UIDAI officer can access the data of anybody he/she chooses.

“Aadhaar inverts the idea of transparency. It makes people transparent but the State opaque,” says legal expert Usha Ramanathan, a legal expert and anti-Aadhaar crusader.

The use of Aadhar as verification at every instance can help piece together very detailed information about citizens. These include banking transactions, online purchases, travel itineraries, mobile phone usage, location history and practically anything that can be electronically recorded and verified with an Aadhaar.

In February this year, the UIDAI filed a police case against Axis Bank and others for alleged unauthorised authentication and impersonation attempts by illegally storing Aadhaar biometrics.

The latest outcry over breached privacy involved a screenshot of cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s personal details that went viral on Twitter. The UIDAI blacklisted the agency that revealed Dhoni’s Aadhaar details after his wife complained to the IT Minister. A recent Scroll report shows the UIDAI received 1,390 similar complaints but took no action.

There are legitimate fears such an information database might eventually be misused, for instance in racial profiling or revealing voting preferences.

In January this year, Hyderabad-based ECIL developed a biometric-enabled mobile terminal for instant authentication of a voter “to prevent rigging of votes”. Till August 2015, the Election Commission was working on seeding Aadhaar data with that of voter ID card, in an attempt to weed out fake voters. However, the poll panel stopped this exercise after the SC ruled that Aadhaar be made compulsory only for PDS and LPG distribution.

Nilekani, in an interview to BLink, insisted that the Aadhaar has more privacy regulations than any other service in the world. He also pointed out that all election commission data is already online, and anyone can look up any voter’s name, date of birth, gender and address.

Additionally, social media profiles too are shared publicly of our own volition.

Concurring with this view, Chakravarty says, “It is surprising that we’re perfectly okay with giving all our life information to a 32-year-old named Mark Zuckerberg. However, this is voluntary. Whether we fully know consequences or not is another matter altogether.”

With the Finance Bill requiring all PAN cards to be linked to Aadhaar, there is added concern over privacy. Sunil Abraham, founder of the Centre for Internet and Society, says Aadhaar runs the risk of being used fraudulently. “If I want to get you in trouble, I can make a large purchase of gold against your Aadhaar number, which is linked to your PAN,” he explains.

He advocates for a system where different government departments don’t store Aadhaar numbers in their databases but instead use a token issued by UIADI kiosks. This would prevent proliferation of the number.

Technical glitches

In February this year, Modi claimed in the Lok Sabha that plugging leakages through Aadhaar had saved the government ₹14,000 crore. And that nearly four crore fake ration cards have been seized till date.

One method of establishing a fake ration card is if the owner has not availed himself of his ration. Ever since Aadhaar’s biometric identification has been linked to point-of-sale (POS) machines at ration shops, residents have had to queue up with a prayer on their lips. A lot could go wrong — the biometric might not recognise them or, worse, there could be a network failure, forcing everyone to return home empty-handed. In both instances, while ration shop owners should ideally mark such transactions under ‘Transactions with “N” response from Aadhaar’, they invariably mark them under “Household yet to take ration”, implying that the beneficiary has chosen not to take home her share.

The February 2017 data for 22 ration shops across Delhi, accessed on the Department of Food & Supplies website, shows that none have a single beneficiary marked under “N”. At a Delhi Cantonment outlet, of the 1,038 registered beneficiaries only 168 have been marked “Y”, or ‘Yes’, showing they have taken their rations. Another 871 have been marked “Household yet to take ration” and none have been marked ‘N’ to indicate glitches in the Aadhaar authentication.

As Amrita Johri of citizens’ action group Satark Nagrik Sangathan explains, “Aadhaar relies on internet and electricity. This might seem like a problem only of rural areas. But we don’t have to go far. In South Delhi’s East Mehraam Nagar, there is a ration shop with no mobile signal and no network. Officials said we have to show that Aadhaar is a success, so the shop’s POS machine was finally hung on a jamun tree to get it to work.”

She questions the government’s reluctance to acknowledge the many instances of failure in the project.

Frighteningly, three consecutive failed attempts could lead to the card being placed in an abeyance list and possibly invalidated.

Top performers and laggards

Delhi is rated one of the better performing States/union territories, while Rajasthan has one of the worst records with the maximum number of biometric and network failures.

According to the government’s 2017 monthly estimates, 27 per cent of the residents whose Aadhaar cards have been seeded to the PDS were denied rations owing to biometric or network failure. This figure would be higher if the unseeded cards are also taken into account.

Nikhil Dey, founder of Rajasthan’s Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) says his organisation is fighting with its back against a wall.

“Nearly 73 lakh households get their monthly rations in this State, where a little over a crore households are eligible to receive them. We’re not even talking about exclusions here,” says Dey. Besides network failure, there are many instances of the old and sick who are unable to visit the shop to physically verify themselves.

“Back-up options such as OTP (one-time password) or facial recognition only work in theory,” says Dey. He alleges that shop owners often fudge the OTP system by punching in their own numbers and stealing the quotas of genuine beneficiaries.

He too believes that several names have been struck off as dead to project that the Aadhaar has weeded out a high number of fake social security pension ers.

Nilekani applauds Andhra Pradesh for its progress in the Aadhaar project by investing in infrastructure to eliminate technical glitches. J Satyanarayana, the UIDAI’s part-time chairperson, told BLink in an email interview that Aadhaar has led to transparency and efficiency in nearly all government schemes in AP.

During March 2017, 42.29 lakh (93.02 per cent) pensioners received their payment through Aadhaar-based biometric authentication, he says, adding that real-time monitoring systems are in place.

“The entire PDS (rations) is linked to Aadhaar,” he says. As many as 1.21 crore (87.39 per cent) card holders collected their ration this month, and 95.94 lakh received wages (totalling ₹5,283 crore under MNREGA through Aadhaar-enabled systems, he informs.

Neighbouring Telangana too is known for its 99 per cent Aadhaar enrollment, leading to an impressive 80 per cent of its population accessing the PDS.

BP Acharya, special chief secretary in Telangana’s planning department says, “Aadhaar’s use can perhaps be most seen in Telangana’s speedy clearances, investment promotion, creating licences and clearances for shops and establishments.”

Telangana took the Aadhaar database project one step further through its Citizen 360 programme. In August 2014, months after the State was newly formed, it conducted one of the largest household surveys in a single day, covering one crore households. This data was integrated with the Aadhaar database and now links different benefits on the same platform. Now the Aadhaar identity is linked to other details such as the holder’s driving licence and even crime record.

The UIDAI holds out AP and Telangana as shining examples of Aadhaar’s efficiency when backed by the right network and infrastructure. But for the lakhs of biometric factory rejects who are denied their rights, Aadhaar can only mean a mass experiment gone horribly wrong.