Who Is Opposing the Aadhaar Project?

Proponents of Aadhaar have used several derogatory names for those raising questions about the project. But what motivated people to challenge the government's plan in the first place?

This is the fourth in a series of articles on the UID project that Usha Ramanathan will be writing for The Wire. Read the first part here, the second part here and the third part here.

The proponents of the unique identification (UID) project are angry and in a mood to attack detractors. Nandan Nilekani, the brains behind the project, has many names for them – all delivered pejoratively, of course: Khan Market liberals, JNU types, privacy-wallas who have colonised their minds with Western thought and Goebbelsian liars. He has been open about his contempt for everything happening in India: “In India, half are fake…fake…Fake is the operative word, right?” And, in another interview, “In India, you know, everything is a racket” and “every scheme is a scam” (as the interviewer, Vir Sanghvi, pertly observed, “except Aadhaar”). The last one was while talking about why children should have a UID number to get their mid-day meal in government schools.

Interestingly, all these adjectives are reserved for the hoi polloi. There isn’t a word that he breathes about the scams where the politically powerful and the corporate leadership have been caught with their hand – wrist and elbow – in the till. No Satyam, no 2G, no Commonwealth Games, no Bellary Brothers. No Vyapam, where witnesses are falling like ninepins, except they are falling dead.

ISPIRT, which presents itself as a software product industry roundtable, and of which Nilekani is the mentor, actually had a team that they named ‘Sudham’ allegedly meant to troll anti-UID critics. They had to shut it down after iSPIRT’s convener Sharad Sharma got caught operating Twitter handles using an alias to do some vicious trolling. In that time, they had moved from the relatively mildly contemptuous references about “Lutyens armchair folks (who) have never built anything in their lives” to “JNU-types” to more aggressive posturing and name calling such as “ISI stooge” and talking about the “drivel that comes from either an ignoramus or a malicious mind”.  (Sanjay Jain, who has since taken charge in iSPIRT, reportedly told Economic Times that Sudham was set up in late December 2016 to “dispel myths” about Aadhaar and India Stack.)

The most recent of this was when Ram Sewak Sharma, chief of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India who was earlier the director general of the UIDAI, spoke to the Indian Express and accused those questioning the UID of launching “motivated campaigns”, apparently to serve the data collection interests of various multinational companies. The immediate provocation was the flooding of the internet with data from leaking departments and ministries, containing information including mobile phone numbers, bank details and UID numbers, to be seen or downloaded. In some, a slight adjustment in the URL was enough to make the database accessible. The problem for Ram Sewak was not the leak. It was the embarrassment that was caused by the leaks being exposed. So it was not those who were leaking the data that were hauled up, but the researchers who were threatened. That is how the provision in the Aadhaar Act 2016, which leaves it to the UIDAI to decide who to pursue and about whom to complain, is being used.

When Sharad was forced into contrition and he made a public apology (for allowing the trolling, but not owning up to the trolling he had done), Nilekani tweeted a “Bravo”. That is how this game is played, it seems. While those opposing the UID are subjected to thinly-veiled intimidation, the India Stack “volunteers” (a word that is going to need some serious interrogation) are hurrah-ed for apologising (when found out) for nasty trolling.

And what motivated them to challenge the project, in court and in other public spaces? There has been plenty of writing by Reetika Khera, Jean Dreze, Gopal Krishna, Praveen Dalal, Himanshu, Ramkumar, Kiran Jonnalagadda, Sunil Abraham, and there was recently Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s dramatic change of opinion.

Moneylife has hosted articles and talks, and Ram Krishnaswamy’s blog is a storehouse of what has been in the media since 2010.

But these are not the exception. There are many others. And here are some of them.”

Shantha Sinha set up the MV Foundation, which works for the eradication of child labour. She is a former chairperson of the National Commission for the Protection of the Rights of Children. According to her,

“The most effective way of tracking child labourers and out of school children is at the level of gram panchayats in rural areas and wards in urban areas where children are not statistics and numbers but real names and persons whose rights are to be protected and with involvement of community.  A UID… can at best give a number to the child but not help rescue the child or restore to her rights. Nor does it strengthen the capacities of public institutions to serve children. Further, it could also lead to stigmatising the child for good as an out-of-school child or child labourer. There can be no short cuts in the process of tracking children.

Deserving children have been denied admission into residential schools for want of Aadhaar. Among many others, there is the case of a tribal boy who fled from the Maoist area in Chattisgarh and joined school in Bhadrachalam in Telengana. He shifted from Hindi medium to Telugu medium, made it into the residential school after intense competition – and then was denied admission because he has no Aadhaar number! He lost one year, never procured an Aadhaar – how could he? He has no documents in Telengana. He then began to work as a construction labourer, and his fate is now sealed. While the Aadhaar card was said to be inclusive, in practice it has been exactly the opposite. It has deprived innumerable children of their legitimate access to their education. Exclusion is hitting the mid-day meal too!”

Bezwada Wilson has spent his adult life working for the eradication of the practice of manual scavenging. In 2010, Wilson was one of 17 concerned citizens, which included Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, Romila Thapar and S.R. Sankaran among others, who issued a “statement of concern” about the project. He says,

“We want to bury this identity of having been manual scavengers. Coming out of untouchability is not easy. Oppressive identities are to be cast off, not documented and kept forever. What we need is a technology that will destroy this demeaning work and finish off this identity. Instead, what this is doing is branding us forever.

This project was never about plugging leakages in subsidies. Look where they have taken it. First, they said it was only for welfare and then they have kept on expanding it into all kinds of areas. All this time, the government has been waiving corporate loans worth Rs 1.14 lakh crore! How can you expect citizens to trust this? “This project is making nonsense out of choice, consent, even citizenship. It has to be understood that the people are not slaves.”

Colonel Mathew Thomas, who retired after serving ten years in the army and another ten years in defence research, says,

“Everyone has a motivation for what they do or say. In the 1970s, in the early years of computers I used them (computers) for the solution of scientific and business problems; specifically, Finite Element Analysis for structural problems on missile components and production planning and control systems for missile manufacture. The experience was invaluable. I learned the hard way what computers and IT could be used for and where these are useless. Most importantly, I understood two things: one, that physical ground reality must be organised to match proposed computer solutions before the solution yields results. And, two, misapplication of IT systems to problems where they cannot be used is dangerous as it fosters a false sense of resolving issues.

As soon as the project was announced in January 2009, my first thoughts were, ‘How in heaven’s name, are they going to do this?’ So, I wrote to the prime minister and Nandan Nilekani. I received no replies. As I continued to study, research and obtain information on the scheme, I found an organised pattern of untruth and obfuscation. The government then, and now, and those managing the project have been less than honest with us; some in government out of ignorance or misplaced faith, and some wilfully, for reasons that remain unknown. Why do you think the UK scrapped the National ID card and the US is yet to implement its Real ID Act after eleven years? Do you know that the UIDAI says, in its contracts with companies that are handling the data, “No assurance can be provided as to the accuracy of the demographic data in its database”? Do you understand what this means?”

Major General S.G. Vombatkere (retd) has an enduring respect for the liberties which the constitution recognises. His keenness to contest the unconstitutionality of the project derives from what he saw of the making of constitutional history.

“I remember my father and recall a personal debt to the constitution of India and the Supreme Court of India. To elaborate, my father, Vombatkere Gurunandan Row (better known as V.G. Row, barrister-at-law), was general secretary of a society named People’s Education Society and was publishing a newsletter from the society. People’s Education Society was declared as an unlawful association under extant criminal law by the Government of Madras [The State of Madras vs V.G.Row].

My father fought the charge in the courts of law up to the Supreme Court before a five-judge bench including the CJI, and on March 31, 1952, won his case on the basis of the freedom of expression and freedom of association, which the Constitution guarantees every citizen. Indeed years later, on 16 October 2008, Justice K.Kannan (Judge, Punjab & Haryana High Court) noted thus: “The triad of fundamental freedoms of expression, movement and association found the first affirmation in A.K.Gopalan and V.G.Row, the names that are etched into constitutional history via the Madras High Court”.

If my father had not fought and won his freedom on the basis of the constitution of India, he would have been imprisoned, changing everything in a big way for my mother, my brother and me way back in 1952, when I was still a child. That is the debt I and my family owe to the constitution of India, and to the Supreme Court of India which recognised and enforced its freedoms.

Long live the Republic of India, and may the values it enshrines always remain valid in Indian society!”

J.T. Dsouza is a biometrics expert who demonstrated in the Planning Commission how ridiculously simple it is to fake a fingerprint. That was on September 30, 2011, in the presence of representatives from the UIDAI and Natgrid.

“My objection is to the hegemony of the state, where the state treats its citizen as subjects to be subjugated. Identity projects, with control residing in a centrally controlled repository have been repeatedly misused in the past. Nazi Germany and Kosovo (with the ideas of ‘identity cleansing’ and ‘archival cleansing’) in more recent times are examples.

The intrusive bullying and abuse of power by the state that the project has already witnessed is testimony to the problems of the project.

My second objection about technology involves a whole panoply of reasons. One, the use of wholly untested theories as the foundation of the project. Two, intrinsic flaws of biometrics as an authentication factor. Three, vulnerabilities of centralised database to misuse, both official and inadvertent. Four, non-existent technical infrastructure in most of our country. No matter how secure you make the central core, the nature of such a system makes securing the periphery impossible. This project continues to gloss over all of this at our peril.”

Nagarjuna is a professor at the Gnowledge lab, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. He says,

“Centralisation of any resource will eventually go against the democratic ideals of distributed justice. Centralisation leads to single point of failure.

In a true democracy, we wish the state to be transparent to the people, and not vice versa. The very possibility of a certified unique identity will create multiple modes of criminal activities that never existed in the past. A certified unique identity will create more crime than reducing the crime.

The Aadhaar system is not built like self-reliant technology ventures like Atomic Energy or Space Research, but with commercial links with global security companies. This will make the entire country vulnerable. Considering that the Aadhaar is promoted by powerful agencies (both private and public), it shows that it serves their interests and it is not about recognising power in  the people.

Identity is not created by birth, real social identity is developed dynamically as we live. Freedom to build or change character without coercion to other lives must be respected at any cost.”

Anupam Saraph is an innovator and polymath, and has been an advisor to government on technology and on identity systems. He asks,

“What is the motivation of the child who sees the emperor’s new robes don’t exist? What will the child do if the emperor insists the robes exist?

Having experience in building identity solutions, and having developed logical frameworks for identity documents, it is plain that the UID is merely a number that is assigned to unverified and unaudited data submitted by private enrolees – 34,000 of who have been suspended by the UIDAI. This means that there can be millions of ghosts in the UIDAI database.

It is fairly obvious that any bank accounts opened solely on the basis of such a number can allow “ghosts” to create and operate “mule” accounts. Furthermore, even while the RBI’s own system of digital money transfers has been used by government for over a decade, the sudden unexplained switch to a non-government payment system based on Aadhaar that facilitates money laundering by destroying the money trail raises serious questions that need investigation.

The UID cannot serve as the basis for identification of any individual in an impartially arbitrable way. This means using it to build governance, national security, digital economy and anything at all is plainly absurd and, because it will destroy lives and the nation, inhuman. If I turn a blind eye to what is so obvious I would be no less guilty of the crimes than the perpetuators of the UID.

Should anyone who sees absurdities, illegalities, anti-national and criminal intent need any further motivation to expose it?”

Vickram Crishna is an engineer who, like most others featured here, has challenged the project in court.

“My problem with the technology is, in most instances, that commercial considerations trump the priority of meeting incredibly high standards, and this can be seen in the design choices at every stage. The manner of implementation of this system, however, is fully dependent upon a very high quality of seamless connectivity across the country, which in itself demands a very high level and availability of specialised labour, apart from electrical power and stability. We are some years away from approaching such a situation  and the present distribution of quality of service is heavily weighted in favour of major cities, and against rural areas in general.

It is attractive to initially bar all failures, and claim reduced expenditure as savings, and this is what is being observed now.

I have a problem with the understanding of ‘social contract’, as expressed in the implementation of the UID scheme. The constitution, as I read it, from its opening phrase of “We, the People…” was intended to lead to a state that is primarily citizen-facing. However, the justification for identity documents of one kind and another is invariably found to be the need to address failures in the state’s ability to identify citizens, and not any failures of the citizens themselves, as part of the social contract expressed as the constitution.”

Kalyani Menon-Sen is a feminist researcher of 25 years’ standing. She says,

“Many years of working with poor women has made me keenly aware of the many barriers they face in accessing their entitlements. Proving their identity is not the major barrier. The real corruption is in the system.This issue of systemic exclusions has been at the centre of my work. Over these last seven years, I have more and more first-hand evidence that UID has not improved service delivery, whether it’s rations or gas cylinders or pensions. Even more worrying is the fact that Aadhaar is actually creating more exclusion, again because of systemic failures – even people with valid UIDs are unable to claim benefits because “machine kharab hai (the machine isn’t working)” or fingerprints don’t match or because some new rule is unearthed that they are not aware of. I think what really brought home to me that the promoters of the scheme were losing their moorings was the announcement of the Aadhaar-midday meal linkage. We have the most horrendous rates of child malnutrition, children come to school starving and for many, the school meal is the only cooked food they get that day. This is a universal provision. What is the sense in making it Aadhaar dependent?

This is true for school admissions too – it is a universal right and making it Aadhaar dependent will only help schools to exclude children whom they don’t want to take – because they are poor, disabled, Muslims or Dalits. These are the exclusions that are happening and are being ignored.

I feel utterly frustrated that we invest so much attention on the GDP and completely ignore the GDI (gender development index) – shocking rates of anaemia, underage pregnancies, maternal deaths, malnutrition, violence, women’s employment. Do we really need to argue about methods of calculation when the naked truth is visible to the naked eye?

So I felt I had to take a stand and do something – I was very sure that if the facts about exclusion are put before the Supreme Court, they would at least stay these notifications while examining all the other constitutional issues.”

M.K. Pai is a software engineer and data scientist. He says,

“I fear that Aadhaar will destroy our delicate democracy by threatening exclusion. We can already see a future where dissenters will be silenced, their bank accounts and phones disabled, and unable to travel.

It is profoundly ugly for any government to require its citizens to get fingerprinted, no matter how noble the objectives. My fingerprints are my property and I should not be compelled to part with them unless I am a threat to society.

I am a software engineer and a data scientist. My work makes me very concerned about the future if we succumb today. Frankly, I do not trust any political party with such power.

Privacy is important and worth fighting for.”

The Meghalaya Peoples’ Committee on Aadhaar in a recent statement said,

“…it is noticed and have been informed regularly that subtle ways are being used to have people enrolled with aadhaar including school children under various guises, putting people in uncomfortable situations and that the statement made by the state government’s chief secretary on the matter (Shillong Times, 04/02/2017) confirms the fact. However, despite the fact that different departments and ministries of the Union government and state government, financial institutions have over and over again issued notifications, advertisements, including regular texting in mobiles, for necessity to enrol or register for aadhaar card, it is to be reiterated and reminded that enrolment for aadhaar is voluntary and so should not be coerced and intimidated by any establishment of government(s), institutions – medical, educational, financial, sports, etc. including corporate bodies.

…Yes,  having  Aadhaar  card  may be  one  of  the  requirements  but  it  is not  the  only  proof  of  one’s  identity  and  must  remain  optional  and  voluntary.”

Nachiket Udupa studied in IIT, has been part of campaigns on rural employment guarantee, food security and the right to information, and is currently involved in the marketing of sustainable foods. According to him,

“At an ideological level it makes profiling and tracking much, much easier than it should be. The path that they are heading down will lead to not just an Orwellian state (as in government doing complete surveillance of its citizens) but also Orwellian corporates (as in companies also knowing way more about their customers than they should). It is attacking privacy in the worst possible way.

At a practical level, because fingerprinting technology doesn’t work well enough, it is leading to large scale exclusions and hardships for many people, especially the poor. I am particularly bothered that this will lead to slow dismantling of the various hard-won rights of the poor, such the rights to food, work, education, etc.

It is compulsory, and with no opt-out feature.

I don’t like how the people behind Aadhaar think that they are holier than thou and seem to have a sense of entitlement and would like to be beyond any sort of accountability.”

Ankita Anand is an award-winning journalist, writer and co-founder of the street theatre group Aatish based in Delhi, and this is how she says it:


I waited for the day someone would ask me my number
Until the state did, and I smirked,
“I know you’ve used that line on a billion others.”

At that it should have left,
But it persisted,
Insisted it would give me one,
If I did not have one of my own.

It wouldn’t take no for an answer,
And now I have fingerprints instead of handholding,
Iris scans, while I wait to be seen,

At least I would be safe, I tried to tell myself,
Until yesterday, when I found myself exposed,
Every single digit of me, up for sale as data porn.

(Anand and Udupa had to battle the system before they could register their marriage without a UID.)

Nikhil Dey, Shankar Singh, Vineet Bhambhu , Nikhil Shenoy, Aruna Roy and others work with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan, and this is what they say:

“We are activists who live amongst people in rural India and also travel to many places across the country to work with campaigns and movements to improve delivery of programmes meant for poor and marginalised communities and individuals. We believe that well designed people centric social sector programs can make a big difference in people’s lives. We have also spent many years looking at policy and its impact on implementation.

The UID is  currently one of the biggest policy initiatives where proponents of UID claim better delivery by a) ending corruption b) much greater efficiency and most importantly c) of comprehensive inclusion.

We are motivated by the suffering, frustration and pain we are witness to and therefore make strong comments on the UID – initially through apprehension, and, now, through experience and example.

It has, in fact, miserably failed on all three claims. In some ways it has made things worse. Exclusion due to the mandatory use of UID has been so high, that it should cause a comprehensive rethink for the delivery of welfare benefits. Food security rations are supposed to be delivered to 1 crore households in the state of Rajasthan. But figures have shown that at least 25-30% of these households are not able to draw their rations despite being enrolled under UID. This has meant exclusion of some of the most vulnerable people for whom the food security act was designed. In some ways, this is criminal negligence and exclusion, and this has been happening over a period of the nine months since September 2016, when the options started being shut off. We have documented very serious life threatening cases of exclusion and put them up as videos on the net. (We hope these policy makers will see the videos and answer each one of the questions of the poor about who will be held accountable for the failure to enable them to access their entitlements.) Corruption has not reduced – it has only changed its stripes, and inefficiency and delay are now caused by man and machine.

Our own motivation is to use evidence to convince policy makers to change their policy, or to convince those whose minds are still open to refuse to allow mandatory imposition of something that has clearly failed to deliver what it promised to. It has made things worse. Whether or not anyone bothers to listen, we are motivated by the pain and frustration we witness – to keep presenting the facts.

The poor are speaking; only those who need to listen are not even there. In the language of the day, they are ‘presenceless’.”

These are a section of the people who have been challenging the project, in court and outside it. There are many more – and they are from all parts of the country. Such as professor K. Saradamoni from Thiruvananthapuram, a very senior women’s rights activist, who wrote in saying, “Please think of something to stop this.” Or  a retired law professor from a law research institute who wrote to say, “It is only last year that the bank asked for fingerprints verification. Earlier, just physical presence and some ID proof used to be enough. In my case, even when the requirement was not there and despite my giving life certificate (which the bank says they duly forwarded to the EPFO) my pension, so called, was stopped after December 2015. The bank did send them reminders but no result. Then came the requirement of biometrics. My fingerprints did not match but the bank was very cooperative and sent a few letters, as they say, supporting my claim. It has been quite long but no response again from the EPFO. Now the bank has given me a form, certifying my identity, and asked me to go there personally. What disturbs me is why should I be made to run around without any fault? The bank is certifying my case, I have all other documents to prove my identity, why then this stupid requirement of matching of fingerprints?  The entire credibility of fingerprints to establish identity of criminals in criminology and forensic sciences has gone for a toss. It is time things and theories and fundamentals change.”

Usha Ramanathan is a legal researcher.