Aadhaar, then and now

The UIDAI has gone from being an object of ridicule to an admired project

Written by R. S. Sharma | Updated: May 19, 2017 12:50 am
Aadhaar card, aadhaarpay, aadhar, uidai, BHIM The prime minister launched BHIM using AadhaarPay a few weeks ago and called it a “game changer”. (Representational image)

In four decades of my career in government, I have not worked on a project which has been subjected to such an amount of criticism and ridicule as the Unique ID project of India now called Aadhaar. Today Aadhaar is central to India’s public service delivery reforms.

The prime minister launched BHIM using AadhaarPay a few weeks ago and called it a “game changer”. He said the
payment solution would set a global trend and lead other countries in taking lessons from India. He asked the IT minister to get it patented since other countries are looking to replicate the model. Besides BHIM, there have been many applications from DBT in several domains like LPG, eKYC in banking and the mobile world, authentication in PDS and attendance in offices.

I joined UIDAI as its DG in July 2009, after a conversation with Nandan Nilekani. I was excited to be part of something which aspired to use technology for transforming governance. But soon I realised that this is a project that many loved to hate. Some hate it for violating privacy while others are convinced that it is a tool of surveillance. Others believe that this is designed to provide all our data to multinationals and the CIA. Some believe that it will legitimise all illegal immigrants.

Many believe this is a tool to exclude the poor from the benefit delivery system. There were social scientists and others who declared that this was a technologically impossible project. UIDAI will be “drowned in duplicates”, declared some. Their estimates of duplicates were as high as 15 per cent, negating the adjective “unique” to this identity. Some declared that the “authentication” was a pipe-dream. Many alleged that UIDAI was wasting public money on a project which is based on untried and untested technology. No country in the world had done such a project and hence, it was sheer foolishness for India to even try to do it.

Today, many things being done in the field were architected in UIDAI many years back. As an example, UIDAI published a booklet titled From Exclusion to Inclusion with Micropayments in April 2010, months before the issue of the first Aadhaar number! It talked about a frugal, yet robust system of financial inclusion and payment which is inter-operable, low-cost and does not require much of an infrastructure. It is precisely this architecture which the PM is talking about patenting.

It has clearly brought out one thing: You may have a transformational technology for governance. However, nothing much will happen unless there is strong political support to implement it at a scale. This is precisely what is happening today.

In the initial years, people believed that Aadhaar was a public project being implemented by private fellows. Nilekani was by no means a “private person”. He was duly appointed by the government with the rank of a cabinet minister. Further, it was a government project implemented by the officers of the government of India like any other and it followed all the principles of accountability in its processes. It is subjected to all the Cs in the government: CAG, CBI and CVC!

We had an outreach programme to work with NGOs to get their support and ideas for better implementation of the project. We used to have regular interactions with them. Barring a few exceptions, the project was uniformly condemned in these meetings. In one such meeting, my concluding remarks included the following: “Before I came to this meeting, I was under the illusion that we are doing something very useful and good for our country and society, with pious heart and intentions. After listening to the deliberations in this meeting throughout the day, I have developed a serious feeling of guilt. It appears that we are all doing something truly anti-national and anti-poor.”

In another meeting, we were asked: How could UIDAI start this project without getting clearance from civil society in the country? Everybody ridiculed my innocent response that the extant approval process in the government did not have such a step (of getting clearance from civil society).

I remember giving a presentation related to the use of Aadhaar in the PDS before a sub-committee of the NAC, where questions were asked about my understanding of the field. When I told the committee that I had worked in the field and managed the PDS at district level, I was told that my experience was outdated. I talked about people getting their ration after Aadhaar authentication and portability of entitlements. I was hooted at and ridiculed as participants in the meeting believed that I was not talking any sense.

The worst indictment came from the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee. It observed that “The UID scheme has been conceptualised with no clarity of purpose and leaving many things to be sorted out during the course of its implementation; it is being implemented in a directionless way with a lot of confusion”. It raised serious doubts on the process and technology and rejected the draft legislation on the subject. Unfortunately, our pleadings that we had not been given an opportunity of being heard by the committee did not cut much ice.

There were several existential crises in the life of this project — especially in the initial years. However, it survived all these onslaughts. I think that we have just scratched the surface insofar as the applications to leverage Aadhaar are concerned. I look forward to many applications in the service of the nation from this unique digital identity platform, now becoming the envy of many countries in the world.

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    Ramesh Nittoor
    May 20, 2017 at 3:53 am
    Aadhar ins uionalized the individual, the track record of his financial performance, both ets and income-expenditure becomes available for analysis and model future performance. concur with author that surface has just been scratched in terms of potential applications. The cost of consumer borrowing is much too high in India, particularly for poor, it is simply absurd, in 40-120 percent per annum rate. Aadhar based banking applications could bring it down to US levels, or even lower. Along with Inflation targeting by RBI, Aadhar based financial services is likely to fuel long term growth to well above Chinese level for decades ahead. MMS govt envisioned and initiated these financial blueprint, including GST, and it is nice to see NAMO govt implementing those stalled measures so well.
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      pankaj
      May 20, 2017 at 12:51 am
      The difficulties that Aadhar faced shows the mental status and IQ of our representatives and civil society and the sheer d-u-m-b-n-e-s-s of our liberal elite.
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        pankaj
        May 20, 2017 at 12:52 am
        and in internet times history will keep these d-u-m-b guys exposed in a very nice way, people will remember them for generations on what they said.
        Reply
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        Raj
        May 19, 2017 at 11:54 pm
        Modi has pla huge politics around Aadhaar. Danger is that he will use it to target his enemies, of which signs are already ominous.
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          Ramesh M V
          May 19, 2017 at 9:51 pm
          Sir. True.. Any Change is always opposed by others.. People Talk about Privacy Infringement, but are ready to post full details with photos in Whatsapp and Facebook.. There I mistakenly touch a web site erroneously, my browser is filled with all sorts of nonsense. My name school college office every thing is Public. This is also infringement .. But, I am not technical, but expect aadhaar to read directly from scanner and confirm authentication, with a om method, asking user to use a particular finger before approving, and may be also a OTP. Look into such option. .
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            og
            Jun 17, 2017 at 10:58 pm
            Mistakenly, eh?
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          2. S
            Sid
            May 19, 2017 at 8:56 pm
            I have faded fingerprints because of skin problem. can't even update my biometrics. therefore I am unable to authenticate my aadhaar anywhere. Various services are being denied to me because of false rejection. I can't even buy a new sim card let alone some public welfare scheme. I wrote to UIDAI helpline many times about my skin (medical) issue but they don't want to solve the issue. they give me same reply" update biometrics". What else i can do? And I know there are many people who are facing the same problem. I am being mentally tormented because of mandatory aadhaar. How is this scheme inclusive in nature if it is clearly excluding people like me. How is aadhaar empowering me?
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              og
              Jun 17, 2017 at 10:59 pm
              Essential to be thick-skinned under the current government.
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              Ujjwala Rokde
              May 19, 2017 at 8:42 pm
              I am reading different opinions and pros & cons about Aadhar card,every day in and out. Being a common person I feel threatened about the misuse of aadharcard by antisocial elements as well as government it self. And still I am being forced to submit the aadharcard by bank and other ins utions. When I ask for the circular, depicting aadharcard as mandatory, no body coming forward. But banks are refusing to open the account with out aadharcard. Forcing people arbitrarily to their whims. Banks in India are behaving like a dictator, arbitrator and police all at the same time from the midnight of 9th Nov. till now. Is there any remedy to this ? Answer is welcome! And what about the fading/fainting fingerprints of elderly persons. Has Government reached to a solution to this problem. Or are we going to leave elderly persons helpless ? Think about this as everyone of us is surely going to be an elderly person one day or the other.Think about the agony you will face at that time! THINK!!!
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                Sid
                May 19, 2017 at 9:02 pm
                I am 23 years old and even i have faded fingerprints. my aadhaar is rejected everywhere and services are denied. there is no alternate way. i have written to UIDAI helpline explaining them in detail, even gave the picture of my faded fingerprints as many as 30 times. Same reply "update biometrics". its like they don't even want to acknowledge the problem.
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                  og
                  Jun 17, 2017 at 11:01 pm
                  Around the world, banks are realizing that their 18-year binge party of money-printing is coming to an end. A huge fraction of that fake money has now got to be destro . There is really no way out of this. Aadhaar will be essential to keep the population from going insane with violence in coming years. It is a very vital step to maintain some continuity of society in the face of overwhelming economic and political upheavals.
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                  TIHAEwale
                  May 19, 2017 at 6:00 pm
                  R.S.Sharma name the dubious en ies in sub committee of NAC who heckled u so that they are lkept out in future or let them justify in this very paper as why they felt so
                  Reply
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                    Ramu
                    May 19, 2017 at 2:18 pm
                    Adhaar is such a game changer, if your iden y is compromised you don't get a say in it as it can't be changed. Your banking info stolen udai will handle it you cost even lodge a complaint. Your family isn't in the pds scheme too bad you'll have to starve. Cal adhaar a game changer is akin to match fixing. You sincerely thing reliance Jio giving our free data is for the nation. It's to acquire your biometric and adhar details. its a shame that soo many media firms are sel out to a corrupt corporatized government instead defending citizens.
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