The debate over India’s biometric authentication programme, popularly known as Aadhaar, has over the last few years dissolved into a wrangle between two groups of people – the ‘proponents’ and ‘dissenters’ of Aadhaar– involving a number of important issues, such as violation of individual privacy, exclusion of the deserving beneficiaries of welfare schemes, the security of biometric database, the real value of savings that have accrued to the government as a result of adoption of Aadhaar and more.
However, a noticeable fact in the ensuing debate is that both sides, at least at the outset, seem to share the vision of a future which is marked with a collective good. In other words, both sides seem to desire an almost similar end but through alternate pathways. For instance, both sides envisage a future where leakages in welfare programmes have been plugged and service delivery has become more efficient and effective.
The source of contestation between the two sides lies in the way they imagine the adoption of technology through which this desired future can be possibly achieved. Put differently, the proponents as well as opponents of Aadhaar envisage the interaction between technology and the existing social order differently, which implies that their socio-technical imaginations vary. By analysing their differences, this article intends to convey that this contestation involves a much larger socio-technical imagination with regard to the development pathway that India is taking.
While the opponents of Aadhaar argue against a historically and socially dominant imagination which visualises science and technology as an instrumental form of power and a panacea to tackle almost all developmental needs, the proponents view Aadhaar as yet another technical intervention for national development and a link in a series of chains towards an incipient modernity. Led by a powerful state and a long-held naturalised ideology of modernity, the imagination proffered by the proponents of Aaadhar, therefore, is quite formidable.
Therefore, what the dissenting faction has also been challenging, apart from Aadhaar, is the predominant notion of national development. Hence, at one level, their fight can be understood to be for strengthening democracy. Moreover, such a challenge also forces the state as well as citizens to gain a nuanced perspective on the issue, thereby, enriching them as well as our democracy.
The dissenting group argues that Aadhaar is not just another technical intervention, flagging some of its devastating consequences. In some sense, this is a re-enactment of other such episodes where nuclear energy and genetically modified organisms (GMO)-based technologies have been opposed by various civil society organisations. A number of shared characteristics can be traced in the way these three technological interventions have been problematised by different social actors. For instance, there are questions regarding sustainability related to the dangers of irreversible damages caused by their adoption. Further, many sovereign world nations have refused to either adopt or have outrightly rejected these technologies (be it nuclear, GMO or mapping their citizens’ biometric data).
However, despite commonalities of opposition to the adoption and use of these technologies, unlike other countries, such as Austria and South Korea, India has not seen a wider, people-based resistance against any of these technologies. In fact, whatever minor struggles have ensued, remain confined to their own spheres. There is yet no feeling of perceptible solidarity amongst the opposing groups belonging to these different technological fields.
The opposition to such technologies in India has more or less remained confined to activist-intellectual groups. This has allowed the proponents of the dominant socio-technical imagination to castigate the dissenting groups as upper class, Aadhaarophobic and patronising elites. Even the Prime Minister has been quoted as saying that those opposing Aadhaar “have lagged behind in technology – either they cannot understand or are purposely spreading lies”.
However, this is not only false but also betrays a complete disengagement with the arguments from the opponents of Aadhaar. In the contemporary world, as Austrian social scientist Ulrike Felt, has written, “virtually no choices can be seen as anti-technology pure and simple because all choices are made against the backdrop of an already technologised past and with the prospect of a technologised future.”
What these opposing groups have been arguing against is not technology per se but the specific form of technologies that they find unnecessary and potentially harmful in the short and medium term. In their resistance can be traced an imagination of a future based on alternative solutions. For instance, a survey of pre-Aadhaar era public distribution system (PDS) conducted in Chhattisgarh shows that the PDS reforms, such as careful monitoring of truck movements from godowns to ration shops, grievance redressal through active helplines and SMS-based alerts among steps that emphasised on “extending coverage, improving delivery and increasing transparency”, had resulted in the remarkable revival of the PDS system.
Social scientist Reetika Khera, through a survey of PDS in nine states, has shown that the respondents used to receive 84-88% of their entitlements prior to the use of Aadhaar-enabled uptake system and that the adoption of Aadhaar has led to new forms of exclusion of prospective beneficiaries. In response, the state-backed proponent group has cited the figures of savings that have accrued to the government due to the adoption of Aadhaar-based cash transfers and other systems while side-stepping the allegations of exclusion as ‘minor glitches’ and a ‘statistically insignificant’ occurrence. Economist Jean Drèze, a key member of the opponent group, has responded by terming the Aadhaar-enabled savings as “nothing but government-sponsored propaganda.”
The Supreme Court judgement (in August) in the Aadhaar case is, therefore, expected to clarify on a number of differences between the two sides. However, the judgment will most likely come in the current legal-political climate where concerns have been raised regarding the Supreme Court’s autonomy and independence, including by some senior retired judges. Moreover, as academic and columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes— the Supreme Court “justices seem routinely to anticipate the effects of particular decisions on the Court’s popular authority. This makes the court’s major decisions, however the Court itself chooses to present them, something other than purely straightforward applications of high constitutional principles or values.”
In such a context, it is pertinent to analyse the likely outcomes of the impending Aadhar ruling.
Consider the scenario that the judgement does away with Aadhaar (in at least its mandatory usage/enforcement), then, given the state’s incessant backing to Aadhaar, it might place the highest court of the land again at the forefront of being a bulwark against the executive’s overreach, like the National Judicial Accountability Commission (NJAC) judgement did.
A pro-Aadhaar judgement, on the other side, would do nothing to tackle the threat to sustainability and other issues surrounding the import of technologies and would provide a boost to, and strengthen, the already formidable socio-technical imagination of development. Hence, in the absence of wider people-based resistance, the dominant socio-technical imagination would acquire an undefeatable outlook and any questioning of the dominant imagination would become even more difficult.
In both cases, however, it can be said that the Supreme Court’s judgement would influence how the political will henceforth interact with the technological in the construction of India’s future.
Therefore, it can be argued that the Aadhaar case is not just about its constitutionality. It involves a number of interrelated elements—alternative imaginations of technology, autonomy and independence of the judiciary, and also alternative visions of the current and future development pathway for India.
Nikhit Kumar Agrawal is a student of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics.