Of tall caims and low cunning

The perils of ‘Aadhaar’
28 အောက်တိုဘာလ 2010

Aadhaar - the Indian government policy dishonestly marketed as a social security-related scheme, actually originates from “national security” concerns, with nefarious implications for surveillance, profiling and tracking of citizens.

Published at
Syndicated column

An elaborate charade has begun with the rolling out of the first Aadhaar unique identity (UID) numbers in a tribal district of Maharashtra by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chairperson Sonia Gandhi. At its core is the pretence that giving a unique 12-digit number to each underprivileged citizen will achieve what hundreds of welfare schemes, and numerous efforts to control corruption, have failed to accomplish: namely, pilferage-free delivery of services to the poor.

Aadhaar, meaning support, foundation or sustenance, is being projected as a magic wand—just what the poor need from a benevolent state. The paternalism cannot be missed. Aadhaar’s legitimacy is pinned on benefiting the underprivileged. But, as with all magic wands, this could prove illusory.

Aadhaar is supposed to ensure that grain wouldn’t be diverted from the Public Distribution System, and that corruption will be eliminated from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), in which 15-20 percent of funds are pilfered. This is to be achieved by collecting basic information (name, address, parents’ names, date of birth, etc.) and biometric data (photographs, all 10 fingerprints, iris scans) for each resident.

This will be used to generate a UID to conduct all manner of transactions: from buying rations on below-poverty-line (BPL) cards, to NREGA enrolment, to opening a bank account. It’s claimed that the UID will ensure non-duplication and hence eliminate leakage. As we see below, this claim is excessive, if not specious.

Aadhaar’s origin and real purpose are rooted in “national security”, including surveillance, profiling and tracking of citizens. The UIDs will be fed into a database to be shared with NATGRID (National Intelligence Grid), which includes 11 security and intelligence agencies (e.g. Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing, CBI, Central Boards of Excise and Direct Taxes, etc.)

NATGRID, to be created by next May, will provide real-time access into 21 databases—including bank account details, credit-card transactions, driving licences, and travel records. An intelligence official has been quoted as saying: “Once you feed in a person’s name, you’ll get all the details about him, across all the databases.” These include the colour of his/her car, the traffic fines to be paid, and the last time he/she paid by card for a late-night dinner.

However, Aadhaar is being dishonestly marketed as a social security-related scheme. Eminent economist and food rights activist Jean Dreze deplores this. From the Right of the spectrum, former Intelligence Bureau director AK Doval welcomes the deception, and admits that Aadhaar was “intended to wash out the aliens and unauthorised people. … Now, it is being projected as more development-oriented, lest it ruffle any feathers.”

This deception violates transparency and public trust. Yet, the chair of the National Identification Authority of India (NIAI), Nandan Nilekani, claims Aadhaar is about “inclusivity, … a better quality of public service delivery, it’s about giving people, who have been denied identity, a chance”.

The claim is carried to farcical extremes by Aadhaar’s apologists who say it’s the only protection for India’s 250 million migrant workers against summary eviction. This is rich, given the Indian state’s record in displacing 45 million people since Independence and in bundling 1 lakh poor families out of Delhi and forcibly “repatriating” migrant workers for the Commonwealth Games. But we’re asked to believe that the state has suddenly turned benign and wants to deliver services efficiently to the poor through Aadhaar.

The NIAI starts with the premise that “in many areas [NREGA] wages continue to be paid in … cash” and there’s massive duplication of job-cards. This is factually wrong. Since 2008, NREGA wages have been paid into bank accounts, reducing corruption. Today, 83 percent of job-cardholders have accounts.

Yet, as economist-activist Reetika Khera points out, “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 turns extortionist and 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 ….”

UID can at best help prevent “fraud”, not collusion or extortion, which are far more common. A great deal of corruption is not wage-related, but materials-related. Sarpanchs collude with officials to create fictitious records of building-material supplies. Aadhaar cannot tackle this. Only transparent accounting and supervision and verification by the people can.

Similarly, the NIAI attributes PDS leakages to duplicate ration-cards. But duplication has dropped significantly after computerisation of records and hologrammed cards. It’s as low as 2 percent in Tamil Nadu and 8 percent in Chhattisgarh.

Khera says: “There are two major sources of leakage within the PDS: one, diversion of grain, en route to the village ration shop. Dealers then appear helpless saying that they have been issued less …. Two, dealers undersell (e.g., only 25 kg out of the 35 kg entitlement) and yet make people testify on official records that they got their full quota.” Neither leakage can be tackled by Aadhaar. Unless people have the choice to go to another dealer, they will remain in the grip of the corrupt shopkeeper. But this needs a new supply-chain management system.

That demolishes the claim of portability of benefits. The claim of inclusivity is similarly vacuous. The Authority’s document says that “the NREGS programme can be used to enrol residents into the UID programme ….” But this cannot produce inclusion. It only admits that Aadhaar needs the existing PDS and NREGA databases to enrol people. The PDS-NREGA don’t need Aadhaar. If the government wants to reach those excluded from social programmes, such as homeless temporary migrants, it can open community kitchens.

In fact, by making Aadhaar a condition for delivering services, the government will exclude those who don’t have UIDs. This is perverse. It’s also contradictory. On the one hand, NIAI officials claim Aadhaar will accurately target the poor and break the barriers that prevent them from accessing services. On the other, NIAI openly says it’s “in the identity business. The responsibility of tracking beneficiaries and … service delivery will continue to remain with the respective agencies. … The UID number will only guarantee identity, not rights, benefits or entitlements.”

The Aadhaar project has grave civil liberties implications. It will enable the government to profile citizens and track their movements and transactions. There’s no guarantee that intimately personal details—pre-existing illnesses, romantic relationships, anonymous donations—won’t be shared with other agencies. The designated registrars include private operators as well as state governments, Life Insurance Corporation and banks. Also involved are multinational firms like Ernst and Young, and Accenture. There’s no assurance that they won’t misuse their access to data. Already, Apollo Hospital has applied for managing the health records in the Aadhaar database.

That’s not all. The draft NIAI Bill says the Authority will maintain details of every request for identity authentication and that identity information may be disclosed in the interests of “national security”. These clauses permit the tracking of citizens. Experience shows that whenever the government gets excessive authority, it is misused. That’s what happened with our anti-terrorism Acts and is happening with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and Public Safety Act in numerous states.

Excessive reliance on technology, especially to tackle special problems like corruption, can be disastrous. Technologies can fail. Biometric readings can go wrong if power supply fails—as happens virtually daily in most of India. Biometric readings may produce misleading results, as the Authority admits, “in Indian environmental conditions (i.e., extremely hot and humid climate and facilities without air-conditioning)”. People with low-quality fingerprints (e.g. construction workers) and with cataract/corneal problems can pose problems for fingerprints and iris scans. Between 10 and 60 million people could be excluded from UDI due to such errors.

Aadhaar poses serious data security problems. ID card schemes, says a London School of Economics study, are “too complex”, technically unproven and “unsafe”. All kinds of supposedly secure databases/websites, including those of India’s defence ministry and the Pentagon, have been hacked. Data theft and transfer to intelligence agencies or corporations have potentially horrendous consequences.

That’s one reason why many countries including the UK, US and Australia have abandoned national ID cards. Another is high costs. According to reports, UID’s per person cost is estimated to have jumped from Rs 31 to Rs 450-500. Aadhaar will probably cost something like Rs 150,000 crores. The Planning Commission is already allotting it Rs 35,000-45,000 crores over the next five years to cover only half the population. This is astronomical for a scheme with dubious benefits.

Yet, the Aadhaar project is being pushed through without a legal basis, and without public or Parliamentary debate. NIAI was created by an administrative order—and before any Proof of Concept studies were commissioned. Aadhaar numbers are being rolled out even before the relevant Bill is tabled in Parliament. The process is profoundly undemocratic and the project thoroughly misconceived. It must be halted at once.