And the Unique Identification Juggernaut Keeps Rolling On

Why has the NDA government - so loath to give any credit to the previous UPA governments on social policy - embraced one of UPA-II’s most questionable initiatives as its own, disregarding Supreme Court orders along the way?

File picture of aadhar enrolment.  Photo: Kannan Shanmugam, Shanmugam Studio, Kollam (Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

File picture of aadhar enrolment. Photo: Kannan Shanmugam, Shanmugam Studio, Kollam (Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The Unique Identification (UID) or aadhar scheme brought in by the UPA II government in 2009 was projected as a singular exercise in citizenship rights – one that would provide an identity to millions who were denied public benefits because they had no identification. Each person would provide some basic information, and their biometric data, and  get a unique number in return. For those who cannot provide a “proof of ID” and a “proof of address” to enrol, there is an “introducer” facility.

The numbers, however, tell a very different story. According to the reply to a Right to Information query received in April 2015, out of 83.5 crore Aadhaar numbers issued so far, only 2.19 lakh – or just 0.03% – have been issued to people who did not have a pre-existing ID document. Yes, that’s it! The rest have just acquired a third ID on top of at least two existing IDs.

In order to attract people to enrol, the UID authority published several documents that showcased the advantages of integrating the UID with social welfare programmes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and the Public Distribution System (PDS). As I have argued elsewhere,  these claims were false because they were based on a lack of understanding of the processes involved in NREGA and PDS.

Legal Vacuum

A National Identification Authority of India Bill providing a legal framework for the project four years after it was started, was tabled in Parliament in 2013 and sent to the Standing Committee on Finance, chaired by BJP MP Yashwant Sinha. The Committee’s report urged the government to reconsider the UID scheme:

“In view of the afore-mentioned concerns and apprehensions about the UID scheme, particularly concerning the contradictions and ambiguities within the Government on its implementation as well as its implications, the Committee categorically convey their unacceptability of the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 in its present form… The committee would, thus, urge the Government to reconsider and review the UID scheme as also the proposals contained in the Bill in all its ramifications and bring forth a fresh legislation before Parliament. ” (p. 35)

The Standing Committee added, “Unlike many other schemes/projects, no comprehensive feasibility study, which ought to have been done before approving such an expensive scheme, has been done involving all aspects of the UID scheme including cost-benefit analysis.”

The Planning Commission then commissioned the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP) to undertake a cost-benefit analysis for the project. The NIPFP report claimed that  linking seven welfare programmes to UID would lead to a saving of Rs. 1 lakh crores over 10 years, with an internal rate of return of 50%. When it was pointed out to the NIPFP that their study was based on faulty assumptions, they conceded that:

“a “full-fledged cost benefit analysis of Aadhaar” is difficult for two reasons: first, many gains from Aadhaar are difficult to quantify because they are intangible; and second, even if in specific schemes there may be tangible benefits, the information available on those schemes does not permit a precise quantification of those benefits.” (Chandrashekharan et al, 2013)

Yet, the government of India continues to spend on UID . Till December 2014, nearly Rs. 6000 crores had been spent. Since 2012, the government has tried to make UID compulsory for various government services and programmes – through the backdoor. In Delhi, an order issued by the revenue department of the state government on January 1, 2013 makes aadhaar compulsory for all services provided by the department. Those wanting to get married, register property, get gas connections, all have to show their aadhar numbers. Parents wanting to admit their children in the 25% quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) in private schools under the Right to Education Act have to provide aadhar to get income certificates. Thus, it has become an additional barrier for poor parents.

Supreme Court Ignored

By 2013, several public interest litigation petitions were admitted in various High Courts, challenging the project on different grounds. These were clubbed, and the Supreme Court began hearings in 2013. On September 29, 2013, the Supreme Court issued an interim order in which it stated:

“no person should suffer for not getting the Adhaar card inspite of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory”.

On March 24, 2014, the Supreme Court issued a stronger order.

“More so, no person shall be deprived of any service for want of Aadhaar number in case he/she is otherwise eligible/entitled. All the authorities are directed to modify their forms/circulars/likes so as to not compulsorily require the Aadhaar number in order to meet the requirement of the interim order passed by this Court forthwith.”

Neither interim order seems to have had much effect on either the state or Central governments. For instance, in February 2015, the Ministry of Rural Development issued an order making aadhaar compulsory for those working under NREGA. In March 2015, the Supreme Court issued a third order expressing its anger to the Central government for not abiding by its earlier orders.

UID and Direct Benefit Transfers

The government has proposed making Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT) to individual bank accounts through a National Payments Corportaion of India (NPCI) an aadhaar-enabled system. The additional merit of using aadhaar-enabled payments over electronic transfers through CORE banking is not entirely clear. The early experience of DBTs (aadhaar-enabled or otherwise) has not been particularly encouraging.

The Kotkasim (non-aadhaar) experiment in Rajasthan to transfer the kerosene subsidy into people’s accounts failed because of the ham-handed manner of implementation – partial opening of accounts, incomplete linking of ration cards with accounts, delays and irregularity in crediting accounts, etc. This meant many people were unable to make kerosene purchases and stocks remained unsold with dealers.

In Jharkhand, a pilot for aadhaar-enabled NREGA payments in five blocks faced similar hurdles. The main role of aadhaar in the Jharkhand experiment was to facilitate payments through a “business correspondent” (BC), who could widen the reach of the banking system in rural areas. Dependence on fingerprint recognition, internet connectivity, and the goodwill of the BC created new vulnerabilities. It has been discontinued. In Haryana, where the banking infrastructure is better, payments through BCs had to be abandoned because of accountability issues.

Providing a legislative framework to the UID project is important, because it relates to the debate on privacy and surveillance. The UID Authority’s response is that this is not a matter that concerns ordinary people (because, the argument goes, they have nothing to hide). The best answer comes from Glenn Greenwald in his talk on Why Privacy Matters, where he requests all those who have nothing to hide to send him their passwords. In the US, the debate has picked up following Edward Snowden’s revelations on the US government’s surveillance programmes (PRISM, x-keyscore, etc). A belated and somewhat stunted debate on privacy and surveillance issues has just begun in India in the context of the government’s plans to fast track the “central monitoring system”. There is potential for abuse of a UID-type centralized database.

Why has the NDA government – so loath to give any credit to the previous UPA governments on social policy – embraced one of UPA-II’s most questionable initiatives as its own? Disregarding the Supreme Court’s orders, the Standing Committee’s strong objections, the evidence of failed UID-enabled experiments, and the legal vaccum, why does the UID juggernaut roll on?

Reetika Khera teaches at IIT Delhi