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The Trouble with Aadhaar

The Trouble with Aadhaar

September 07, 2011

India's new identification system is gathering steam, but how beneficial is it really?

Aadhaar', meaning 'foundation' or 'support', is the name given to the new individual identification system established by the Unique Identification Authority of India. Its goal is to bring the essential demographic and biometric information about an individual into one system, which can then be easily accessed around the country to make it easier for individuals to access various governmental and non-governmental services. It would also help those services – including passport authorities, banks and voting booths – to quickly and easily verify a person's identity and speed up the process.

However, like any new piece of legislation or government programme, one has to look at Aadhaar first from the point of view of how it will benefit the government's own endeavours, then how they plan to sell the new system to citizens. Is there a trade-off? If so, is that trade-off acceptable and in the public interest?

All present ID databases – passport, driving licence, PAN, bank accounts, voter ID etc – will be agglomerated into Aadhaar, making all information about an individual quickly and easily accessible. The point is made by UIDAI that caste, creed, religion, geography will form no part of Aadhaar, but it must be considered that the metrics listed above will become the new metrics by which Indian people might be judged. That's to say: the ongoing judgment of Indians will remain, even if the method by which people are judged changes. This is clearly in the government's interest and not the people's; it's also in the interest of the other parties, such as banks, that will have direct access to the Aadhaar database.

But just how might Aadhaar breach the privacy of Indians? Certain pundits on Twitter suggested that Aadhaar would not pose any new privacy risk to the Indian people, for surely the government already knows all that it needs to know through other sources. This is something I generally agree with; the government of India, as in most countries, has had access to personal information of its citizens for a long time through the various ID systems and programmes already discussed. Aadhaar is not a revolution in this regard. What it does do, however, is make that information accessible effectively with a single click. It's like being able to find out all the important information about a person from a really good and accurate Wikipedia page, rather than having to track down the same information from a long list of different online sources. This swift and efficient access will allow for closer monitoring of India's citizens: a step closer to Big Brother.

If I'm honest, Aadhaar probably would have a positive impact on the lives of most regular Indians. I recall an impoverished friend in Kerala who had to undertake eight consecutive weekend trips to his native place, over 200km away, just to get a passport application approved. He wouldn't have to do that with an Aadhaar as his details could be called up by any authority anywhere in India, let alone a couple of hours' journey away. It also ought to offer easier and broader access to government aid services, such as poverty alleviation programmes.

My biggest concern in this regard, however, is for those who live in border states like Assam, Sikkim and Kashmir. I mentioned the likelihood of closer monitoring under Aadhaar; with laws in those states already very strict on citizens' movements, Aadhaar would provide the government with opportunities to take possibly unrelated pieces of information – for example, a person's unexpected presence in Manipur and the occurrence of a terrorist attack in the same location – as grounds for interrogation and/or detainment of that individual. We might once have been able to dismiss such an idea as unchecked speculation. Unfortunately, there have been so many reports of coerced confessions and unlawful detainments that nowadays, it's wiser to acknowledge the worst possible outcomes.

One must always remember that any aspect of Indian bureaucracy can become corrupted. Aadhaar certainly would not be exempt, just as the Jan Lokpal wouldn't be either. False Aadhaars would become a commodity to be traded like false passports. In my experience, Indians who make a living from others' ignorance – particularly 'agents' who facilitate individuals' acquisition of important documents – will use their so-called status to the most cynical degree. In the case of Aadhaar, I fully expect 'agents' to pop up outside authorised offices and instruct regular folks coming in that 'no, what they read was incorrect, the system is like this actually... I know the registrar and the system, give me one thousand rupees and I will do the needful...' Such a scenario could lead down any of a number of very unfavourable rabbit holes for the individual in question, from a month's wages out of pocket to full-blown identity theft.

The projected cost of Aadhaar, meanwhile, is excessive. Around Rs 2000 crore (US$466 million) has been approved since the 2009 union budget, but consider the overall projected cost of Rs 12,000 crore (US$2.7 billion). The initiative is expected to create over 100,000 jobs, meaning not all that money would be disappearing into officials' pockets or a giant computer network... but it's also worth keeping in mind that that enormous sum is a mere 0.07 2G scams. With limiting corrupt practices listed as one of the goals of Aadhaar, it would seem that even if such a massive amount of money was poured into its implementation, it would still be small change compared to the combined effort of senior government officials in their pursuit of personal wealth.

All this is to say nothing of the somewhat confusing nature of the UIDAI website, or the expected 60-to-90-day wait for processing – but I'm out of space here. A line in an Economic Times piece from 2009, when the scheme was announced, boils it down to one critical issue. Those who opt not to take an Aadhaar, it said, “will find it very inconvenient: they will not have access to facilities that require you to cite your ID number”. I know I've been very negative in these paragraphs, but if one of the selling points of the system is the fact that your failure to submit to it will cause you suffering, then the people of India have a serious problem already.


  • Hiren
    09.09.11 01:55 AM
    After 2014, there will be 600 million Aadhaar numbers will be distributed. Assuming Of this 400 millions will be actual Working Adults who will deposit money in the bank account. Imagine by 2024 a 20 Trillion Dollar Solid Indian Banking Economy in following 10 years.

    2015 => 1Billion$ ( $2 in bank account ) => Rs 100 Initial Bank Deposit via Aashaar Enrollment
    2016 => 2.5 Billion$ ( $5 in bank account ) => Rs 250 - Initial Bank Deposit Savings for emergency
    2017 => 10 Billion$ ( $20 in bank account ) => Rs 1000 - Initial Bank Deposit Savings for emergency
    2018 => 100 Billion$ ( $200 in bank account ) => Rs 10000 - Individual Deposits Money via PDS/LPG Subsidy
    2019 => 200 Billion$ ( $400 in bank account ) => Rs 20000 - Individual Deposits via Employment Guarantee Scheme - Rs 10,000/Year
    2020 => 400 Billion$ ( $800 in bank account ) => Rs 40000 - Individual Deposits via Other Government Scheme: Affordable Housing, Pension
    2021 => 1000 Billion$ ( $2000 in bank account ) => Rs 100000 - Individual Deposits via First Job, Salary - Rs 1 Lacks/Year
    2022 => 5000 Billion$ ( $10000 in bank account ) => Rs 500000 - Individual Deposits via Private Sector Job, Salary - Rs 5 Lacks/Year
    2023 => 5200 Billion$ ( $10400 in bank account ) => Rs 500000 - Individual Deposits via Savings, Interest, Stock Market - Rs 10,000/year
    2024 => 20800 Billion$ ( $10400 in bank account ) => Rs 2500000 - Individual Buys the House (Expense) - Rs 25 Lacks
  • Sudha
    08.09.11 04:46 PM
    When I first heard about aadhar, i was relieved as I saw it as a way out of multiplpe documents—ration card, voter's identity card, etc. But as I read more about it, my unease grew and now I am quite concerned about privacy issues. You have contextualised the concerns very well.
  • sujatha sathya
    sujatha sathya
    08.09.11 09:22 AM
    i too have my reservations on its impact. yes it does help the BPL & other strata of society for whom an ID is a struggle & aadhar helps with loans & stuff but a large population who already have all kinds of ID proofs on them.....
  • umesh derebail
    umesh derebail
    08.09.11 06:58 AM
    Basically Aadhar should have been primarily designed to BPL families, Borderline residing citizens, last middleclass. I believe the idea of biometric verification is to weed out criminals or fraudsters. Somehow i feel lot of manipulation will be carried out through Aadhar in future, with out a trace funds might be siphoned off in one shot.
  • Karina Varma @BziB
    Karina Varma @BziB
    07.09.11 11:07 AM
    As an average Indian, I hadn't really given much thought to the security or corruption implications of Aadhaar. For me and countless others like me who choose not to live in the cities of our birth, it feels like a life saver. In one smooth sweep, it cancels out all the archaic (and multiple) forms of identification that we’ve struggled with all our lives. Anyone who’s ever applied a basic domicile certificate to get into college will know what I mean.

    The bigger picture your article represents is scary. Scary enough to make me wonder if we’re merely substituting one form of control for another. But will the bigger picture really matter to average Indians like me? My daughter's generation will most likely hate us for our shortsightedness - but then my daughter’s generation won’t have queued up at 10 different places for a mere domicile certificate either.

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