Why Indians should be thankful to SC for killing the Aadhaar

After a messed up three-year process and running through Rs 11,000 crore, the great discovery of a unique identity number for each Indian is practically dumped with the Supreme Court verdict that on Monday disallowed the government from sharing data with the CBI.

Moreover, a sting operation by Cobrapost revealed that the process is riddled with holes with practically anybody, even illegal immigrants, can obtain a unique Indian ID by paying bribes.

The main users of the unique ID, also called Aadhaar, were two: biometric data of bonafide Indian citizens (that could have been used by a number of government agencies for a variety of reasons including fight against terror and criminal investigations) and possibility of direct transfer of various subsidies as cash to the beneficiaries. Of course, the Aadhaar authorities haven’t yet said that they would share the biometric data with anyone and even appeared to be against the idea.

 Why Indians should be thankful to SC for killing the Aadhaar

In many cases the biometrics could have been misused. Reuters

The Supreme Court order on Monday was two pronged - one, don’t share biometric data with any third party (say CBI) without the consent of the the registered person (the Indian citizen); and two, don’t exclude anybody any service or benefit because they don’t have an Aadhaar card. In a single stroke, the multibillion dollar project Aadhaar fell flat on its face.

So the Aadhaar, as many predicted, becomes a badly produced photo-ID card which has absolutely no extra value that a driving license or passport has. It’s not even as useful as a ration card or a voter ID card because they have specific purposes. Going by what the BJP has said about the card in the past, the whole process is most likely to be scrapped altogether.

The critics of the Aadhaar has always maintained that the agency engaged in the process, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), might share the  biometric information of people with other government agencies thereby violating people’s right to privacy. They also thought that using the biometric data, people might be singled out, tracked, harassed and have their rights violated.

As it happened in the case on which the Supreme Court passed orders on Monday, the CBI might ask for data from the UIDAI for investigation even though the citizens of the country voluntary gave their biometrics for social benefits and national identification, and not to be subjected to investigation.

Right from the beginning, rights activists had raised this issue, but the architect of the Aadhaar Nandan Nilekani, who is now a Congress politician, as well as the UPA government brandished the cost-benefit analysis of the card.

"Even after taking all costs into account, and making modest assumptions about leakages, of about 7-12 percent of the value of the transfer/subsidy, we find that the Aadhaar project would yield an internal rate of return in real terms of 52.85 percent to the government,” said the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy in its cost-benefit analysis in November 2012.

The cost of building Aadhaar and integrating it with the government schemes was estimated at Rs 37,182 crores, said the government. Besides its proposed tangible results such as avoidance of leakages and lower transaction costs, it also claimed intangible benefits such as empowerment, inclusion and labour mobility.

But what rolled out over the last three years was a messy process although Nilekani claims that 60 crore people have been issued the card. Media reports showed that at many places, it failed to capture biometrics because many people involved in hard labour didn't have either usable finger prints or irises. In addition, the way the enrolment was outsourced led to faulty processes and corruption as the Cobrapost sting revealed on Monday.

People who have enrolled can vouch for the deep holes in the process because of the ease with which they could change addresses and other data. The data entry also was replete with faults that resulted in names and addresses having to be corrected over and over again.

Anyway, that’s about the efficiency of the process. The real story is about its utility.

The problem with the Aadhaar is that it was a technocratic fix to an international prescription to correct an Indian problem of leakages. It belongs to the cash transfer club - the fiscal deficit obsessed internationalists such as IMF and World Bank, and neo-liberals which like liquid cash rather than tangible social protection services. Cash is good for the market and can also put an end to age-old public distribution systems and social support in kind. Cash is an easier instrument to handle.

For cash transfer to function, this club requires a better identification system and associated bank accounts. The cat was out of the bag, when a recent IMF publication appreciated the work of the UIDAI. There is no other reason why every citizen of a large, complex and federal country such as India necessarily needs a national identification system. At best, it should have been an opt-in process in which people who feel like taking a national ID - similar to a passport - could opt for one.

The problem with Nilekani’s model was that it was imposed on people - who didn’t want it - with an ulterior motive, the motive of collecting their biometrics and playing with their rightful entitlements to please the cash transfer apostles. Thankfully the Supreme Court order has asked both Nilekani and the UPA to take a walk in the park.

This should have been the logical end of Aadhaar and it should have happened earlier because it could have saved a lot of money and people’s hardship. It’s for the government to decide whether it still wants to move ahead with the process now that the apex court has rendered it useless for the purposes it was built.

The BJP had problems with the card, particularly since it violated the right to privacy. Given the party’s proclivity to take impetuous steps in handling law and order and terror, they might find the biometric data of people useful in a number ways. Will it stick to its earlier stand and junk it, or engage in some double speak and use it against people? Additionally, some of the economists that are waiting jump in, once the NDA is in power, are more right-wing than all the neo-liberals we have seen so far. They might find Aadhaar useful for cash transfers.

Either way - whether the BJP goes ahead or not - for practical purposes the Aadhaar is junked. Every Indian should thank the Supreme Court for that.

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Updated Date: Mar 25, 2014 18:10:53 IST