Nilekani’s efforts to convince the NDA of Aadhaar’s benefits appear to have paid off.
A half-hour meeting that Aadhaar architect Nandan Nilekani had with Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this month followed by a conferring couple of days later with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has reportedly sorted the go-no go situation for the ambitious UIDAI project. The two meetings and a third that Modi held with his key ministers helped resurrect the unique identity programme of the previous UPA government. Subsequent to these meetings, officials have reportedly been instructed to speed up Aadhaar enrolment and work on transferring fuel and pension benefits through the programme. Further signalling its backing, the new government also announced an increase in its budgetary allocation.
Exactly five years ago, Infosys founder Nilekani (now 59) resigned as co-chairman of the firm and set out on a technological mission to build a near fail-safe database of biometric identities for a billion plus Indians. The “transformational project” was intended to help millions with no proof of existence by catapulting them onto a system on the cloud through a unique ID number where their identities could be validated anytime from anywhere within seconds. A lack of verifiable identity has been the bugbear that denies needy Indians access to welfare money even as thousands of crores are siphoned off through fake beneficiary identities and bogus claims.
The programme has already provided the unique 12-digit numbers to 650 million Indians in 18 states, half the country’s population. It has envisaged Aadhaar-bank account linkages and hopes to empower citizens by facilitating the sending and receipt of payments even through their mobile phones. So far, over Rs 4,500 crore has been spent on developing the Aadhaar system. In a pre-election interview, Nilekani had said that no government could afford to scrap the programme. It was too effective a foundation for fundamental reforms of the public delivery system in India, he said.
Despite the size and costs of the programme, the fear was that Aadhaar would get killed in the post-election political transition. Nilekani had resigned his post as UIDAI chairman, rendering it headless, when the Congress announced that he would be its candidate for the prestigious Bangalore South parliamentary seat in April’s Lok Sabha elections. Aadhaar figured prominently in that election campaign as Nilekani’s prime opponent, the BJP’s Ananth Kumar, attacked the programme, called it a national threat and said the NDA government would scrap it when it came to power. Kumar defeated Nilekani by a margin of 2.28 lakh votes and has gone on to become the chemicals and fertilisers minister in the new government.
And so the belief was that the Modi government would abandon the UID and favour the Union home ministry’s National Population Registry (NPR). Several ministers reportedly vociferously argued for the NPR over the UID.
It did not quite happen that way. Sources in the UIDAI recount that Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, was quite taken by the programme. Over 22 million residents in that state have been identified by their biometrics, enrolled in the database and allocated the 12-digit Aadhaar number.
The crux of the meeting between Nilekani and Modi was three-fold, people in the know told this columnist. The Aadhaar programme would help Modi keep his promise to provide an efficient government by helping usher in extensive welfare reforms. The argument was that the programme could help competently disburse some Rs 3,00,000 crore of welfare money through various government schemes. More importantly, the accuracy of the programme would help bring in the direct benefits transfer scheme to transmit cash to biometrically-identified beneficiaries. If this could help the Modi government plug welfare money leakages to the tune of 15-20 per cent, some Rs 50,000 crore could be shaved off the fiscal deficit.
To remove the legal hurdles arising out of litigation in the Supreme Court (which had ruled that Aadhaar could not be mandatory to provide government services to citizens), it was suggested that the bill be passed in Parliament.
In the five years since its launch, Aadhaar has gone through a host of challenges. There have been on-the-ground problems with enrolment and the delivery of Aadhaar cards. There have been turf wars between ministers in the previous UPA regime over the programme. There have been several legal impediments in the form of court cases. As long as he chaired the UIDAI, Nilekani adroitly managed to overcome most of these travails and push his pet project through. With his pitch to Modi and Jaitley, he may have yet again saved Aadhaar and even breathed fresh life into the programme.