Relying on Big Brother’s Aadhaar

28 October 2010

The fundamental assumptions underlying Aadhaar are flawed. Its likely social benefits will be minuscule in relation to its cost and the public will pay a huge price through exclusion from social services, surveillance, loss of privacy, and strengthening a Big Brother state.

Published at
The Bengal Post

Even the staunchest critics of the United Progressive Alliance would give it credit for two laws—the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), and the Right to Information Act (RTI). While the first is annually generating 45 million person-days of work for the rural poor, the second has enabled citizens to scrutinise the state’s decisions and actions for the first time.

The UPA however has now embarked on a programme—the unique identity (UID) project, branded Aadhaar (support/sustenance)—which threatens to do the very opposite of the RTI and possibly to deprive millions of poor from NREGA’s benefits.

This may sound almost incredible given that Aadhaar has been presented paternistically as a saviour of the poor and indispensable to providing corruption-free public services to them. But, as we see below, the negative assessment is valid. Aadhaar’s primary rationale is to create a huge database on citizens’ biometric information (including the name, date of birth, address, photograph, all 10 fingerprints, and iris scans), which can be used to profile and track them in the interest of “national security”.

This project, launched under the National Identity Authority of India (NIAI), has already started with the rolling out of UID numbers in a tribal village in Maharashtra, which was specially spruced up for the occasion, and where people were given brand-new ration-cards and one month’s quota of grain, a rarity in Adivasi India. Soon, urban slumdwellers and homeless people will also be covered—and eventually, all of India’s 1.2 billion citizens.

But the Aadhaar project has no legal or Constitutional warrant. Indeed, the Bill to establish it hasn’t even been tabled in Parliament. The scheme’s Constitutionality or feasibility hasn’t been examined or established. NIAI was created last year by administrative fiat and without debate or a transparent process of selection of its chair. Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani was appointed chair in a collusive and opaque manner.

The assumption seems to be that our Information Technology leaders are demigods who can do no wrong. They have brought so much wealth and fame to India that they must know how to make IT work miracles and solve even social problems like corruption, while eliminating pilferage from the Public Distribution System and NREGA, and deliver what the poor need through technology.

However, the fundamental assumptions underlying Aadhaar are flawed. Its likely social benefits will be minuscule in relation to its cost (estimated at Rs 45,000 crores over 4 years, and cumulatively totalling Rs 150,000 crores. Incidentally, NREGA’s current annual budget is Rs 40,000 crores.) The public will however pay a huge price through exclusion from social services, surveillance, loss of privacy, and strengthening a Big Brother state.

The assumption that inefficiency and pilferage in social schemes are basically attributable to a lack of identification of beneficiaries, or duplication of PDS ration-cards and NREGA job-cards, is wrong. Surveys show that only 2 to 8 percent of ration-cards are duplicated. The bulk of NREGA corruption occurs through cheating on materials, not wages, which are mostly paid directly into bank accounts.

But, as economist-activist Reetika Khera argues, “three ways of siphoning off money remain—extortion, collusion and fraud. Extortion means that when ‘inflated’ wages are withdrawn by labourers from their account, the middleman …takes a share. Collusion occurs when the labourer and the middleman agree to share the inflated wages …. Fraud means that middlemen open and operate accounts on behalf of labourers.” Aadhaar can at best prevent fraud, a low-frequency occurrence.

Similarly, Aadhaar can do little about the two main sources of PDS leaks—diversion of grain en route from FCI godowns to ration-shops, and underselling the quantity (less than the 35 kg entitlement for Below-Poverty-Line people). Having proof of identity is useless here, or in weeding out rich people from BPL lists.

In fact, making Aadhaar a precondition for delivering services will exclude people without UIDs. So the claimed social benefits of Aadhaar are illusory or marginal.

But the potential for abuse of the NIAI database on each of India’s 1.2 billion citizens is immense. The registrars who collect their biometric data can sell it. Involved in the process too are several government agencies and multinational firms like Ernst and Young and Accenture, which can commercially abuse it, leading to profiling which denies people jobs or insurance.

However, the worst potential for abuse lies with the intelligence and security agencies, with whom the database is likely to be shared through NATGRID (National Intelligence Grid), which includes 11 agencies like the CBI, Intelligence Bureau and RAW. NATGRID will provide real-time access into 21 databases—including bank account details, credit-card transactions, driving licences, and travel records. Once you feed in a person’s name, you’ll get all the details about her/him, across all the databases.

So, through Aadhaar, the state can keep an eye on all citizens, opaquely—the RTI’s opposite. This will enable Big Brother-style surveillance, individual/community profiling, tracking of movements and transactions, and invasion of privacy, with terrible human rights and civil liberties consequences.

The NIAI database can be hacked, like all databases, with potentially deadly or diabolical consequences for citizens’ rights and freedoms. This, and high costs (which have risen 10-fold per Indian UID from earlier estimates), are the reason why many countries including the UK, US and Australia have abandoned national ID-card schemes.

India has foolishly unleashed the Aadhaar juggernaut—oblivious of the destruction it will cause. The juggernaut must be halted without delay. Aadhaar must be subjected to Constitutionality, transparency and cost-benefit tests.