Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. He was absolutely right but in public policy, engineering is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the widespread adoption of any technology; it also has to be buttressed by design simplicity, a scalable architecture, an “open” platform, satisfying multiple stakeholders, privacy safeguards, and trust. India will soon cross 100 crore Aadhaar numbers, and the current Aadhaar Bill in Parliament is important infrastructure to enable government to go paperless, presence-less and cashless. This will catapult India to the front of the league of nations whose governments use technology to create an effective, efficient and modern welfare state that treats its people with dignity.
Every entrepreneur knows that if you wait for all lights to be green, you will never leave home. I took the Aadhaar job in 2009 with the understanding that a law would eventually be passed and that we had solid legal grounds to initiate the project. Because of the decision to start and not wait, today we have close to a billion numbers issued, and visible evidence of its utility with Rs 10,000 crore-plus savings in LPG subsidy in one year alone. But Aadhaar now needs regulatory legitimacy to operate at its full potential. The current bill is a balanced synthesis of various stakeholder perspectives and adequately addresses the concerns of the Supreme Court. Let’s take a look at the bill and what kinds of revolutions it could enable.
The key features of the Aadhaar Bill are in the details. Enrolment is voluntary. It shall only be used as proof of identity and not as proof of citizenship. It enables the government to prevent fraud, corruption and waste by requiring the Aadhaar number for delivery of any benefit, subsidy or service from the Consolidated Fund of India, such as LPG subsidy, MGNREGA wages, various insurance schemes, provident fund schemes, government scholarships, and much more. It does not prohibit the usage of Aadhaar for any other purpose by any public or private entity. It provides privacy protection at an unprecedented level for Indian law. For example, it has, one, “use limitation” — it can only be used for the purpose for which the user gives consent. Two, “collection limitation” — no information other than demographic (name, address, date of birth, sex and, optionally, email id/ mobile number) and biometric (photo, fingerprint and iris scan) will be collected. No other personal information of an individual will be in the Aadhaar database. Three, “access and rectification” — the user can access his own information and has an obligation to rectify it if it needs updating. Four, no demographic information or identity information received from the Unique Identification Authority of India can be displayed publicly. Five, the only exception to certain confidentiality (but not security) obligations is national security, provided an order to disclose information is issued either by a court, or by a joint secretary or higher officer, and vetted by a high-powered committee headed by the cabinet secretary. Even then, sharing of a particular piece of information will be permitted only for a limited time period. Further, that no core biometric information can be shared is a principle without exception — people saying that core biometric information will be shared are wrong because Clause 29(1) is not overridden by Clause 33(2). Finally, the bill includes stringent penalties, including imprisonment for breach of privacy and other violations. Overall, the law represents a useful synthesis of the learning, feedback and advice that two governments have received and should take care of the Supreme Court’s concerns that Aadhaar was functioning in a legislative vacuum, without accountability.
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Moreover, as the recent net neutrality debate shows, there is a clear and present danger of “digital colonisation”. An important aspect of that is who manages the online digital identity that people will use to access the internet. We run the grave risk that all our online access will be in the hands of a few foreign internet “gatekeepers” that will track all our digital activities. In that context, the Aadhaar platform, which gives an open, secure and privacy-protected digital ID to a billion Indian residents to access the internet, will be a critical bulwark to ensure our digital independence.
The massive savings from a limited deployment of Aadhaar show that it is a powerful instrument against retail corruption, far better than creating another bureaucratic layer that only deepens the decision-making gridlock. Once the bill is passed, India could see a Cambrian explosion of innovation inside and outside government. It would enable unprecedented financial inclusion. It could eliminate more than 2,000 crore pages of paper (a low guesstimate). It could enable more than 300 million daily seekers of government services to save at least two hours every day. It could eliminate fraud in government subsidies of at least Rs 50,000 crore every year. It would enable linking individuals to an organisation that has a unique enterprise number and this would shift enforcement to big data rather than feet-on-street. It could unclog our highways and eliminate waiting rooms in hospitals. It could eliminate fraud in degrees and substantially improve labour market matching. And much more.
In the wonderful book, The Case for India, written in 1930 by historian Will Durant, he lamented, “…study and writing were frivolous things in the presence of a people — one-fifth of the human race — suffering poverty and oppression bitterer than any to be found elsewhere on the earth… I was filled with astonishment and indignation at the apparently conscious and deliberate bleeding of India by England throughout a hundred and fifty years. I began to feel that I had come upon the greatest crime in all history.” India has not only beaten the odds but come a long way since 1947; we are a vibrant democracy, a growing economy, and a cultural honeypot. Aadhaar can accelerate India’s rise and fulfil our tryst with destiny. It is time for legislation, action and innovation.