Dissent and Aadhaar

We have been numbed by a series of lies, myths and fictions about the project.

Written by Jean Dreze | Updated: May 8, 2017 10:37 am
Aadhaar card, Aadhaar, unique identification, SC Aadhaar, PAN cards, Aadhaar PAN cards, Fake pan cards, Biometric data, Aadhaar news, India news, Indian Express Image for representational purpose.

India is at risk of becoming a surveillance state, with faint resistance from libertarians, intellectuals, political parties, the media, or the Supreme Court. Very soon, almost everyone will have an Aadhaar number, seeded in hundreds of databases. Most of these databases will be accessible to the government without invoking any special powers. Permanent surveillance of all residents becomes a possibility. Only a simpleton would expect this possibility to remain unused.

With everyone on the radar, dissent is bound to be stifled. As it is, many people and institutions are anxious not to get on the wrong side of the government. NGOs are afraid that their registration might be cancelled if they antagonise the authorities. Vice-chancellors and principals are unable to stand up for their students’ right to hold public meetings on sensitive issues. Newspapers treat the government with kid gloves, especially on security matters. Investigative agencies target or spare Opposition leaders at the government’s bidding. Nationalism is confused with obedience to the state. With Aadhaar immensely reinforcing the government’s power to reward loyalty and marginalise dissenters, the embers of democracy are likely to be further smothered.

How did we get there, without even noticing it? One answer is that we have been numbed by a series of lies, myths and fictions about Aadhaar.

The first lie was that Aadhaar is a voluntary facility. Today, we know that this was just doublespeak. Soon it will be virtually impossible to live in India without Aadhaar. And if you cannot live without Aadhaar, in what sense is it voluntary? As a columnist aptly put it, Aadhaar must be “the biggest bait-and-switch in history”.

Also Read | Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: Aadhaar-related cases could tell us whether our jurisprudence is fit for an age of technology

Another early fiction was that the purpose of Aadhaar is to help welfare schemes. The truth is closer to the reverse: Welfare schemes have been used to promote Aadhaar (by creating mass dependence on it), irrespective of the consequences. As it happens, the consequences so far have been disastrous. If the name of a worker employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is spelt differently in his job card and Aadhaar card, he is at risk of not being paid. If an old widow’s age happens to be understated on her Aadhaar card, she may be deprived of the pension that keeps her alive. For the public distribution system, Aadhaar is a calamity: In Jharkhand and Rajasthan, millions of people are deprived of their food rations every month due to technical problems related to Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA), according to the government’s own data.

Third, Aadhaar was endowed with mythological powers as a weapon against corruption. Many people fell for the simplistic claim that Aadhaar would “ensure that the money goes to the right person”. In reality, Aadhaar can prevent only some types of corruption, mainly identity fraud. If a contractor fleeces the government by over-invoicing, Aadhaar does not help. Nor does it help when a dealer gives people less than their due under the public distribution system. Sometimes, Aadhaar can make things worse, by disrupting fragile systems and creating confusion. For all we know, it may even create new varieties of identity fraud. Even if Aadhaar proves effective in curbing various forms of corruption, it is not the magic bullet that had been announced.

Fourth came a series of bogus claims about Aadhaar-enabled “savings”. Most of the savings figures have no solid basis. Instead, they acquire an aura of plausibility by repetition. A common pattern is that an official press note mentions a savings figure, say, from a closed-door presentation at the Prime Minister’s Office, newspapers quote that figure without verification, sundry commentators repeat it, and it becomes part of the Aadhaar lore. These dubious figures are then added up to produce an awesome grand total. Some of them are worse than gas — for instance, when Aadhaar-related glitches deprive people of their entitlements and the shortfall is counted as “savings”.

Fifth, the technology was claimed to be flawless. Today, there is growing evidence that this is not the case. In ideal conditions, ABBA seems to work most of the time. But often the conditions are far from ideal, causing immense inconvenience. And even the ideal-condition success rates may not be good enough if ABBA is to serve as a common tool of identity verification. In a recent interview, Nandan Nilekani stated that “this is a system which works perfectly in 95 per cent of cases”. That does not sound reassuring: In many contexts, a 95 per cent success rate is far from adequate.

Sixth, there is an ambiguity about the relation between Aadhaar and citizenship. Aadhaar, we are told, is for all residents, whether they are citizens or not. Sure, that is what the Aadhaar Act says. But then, why has enrolment been stalled in Assam? And why is Aadhaar enrolment in Assam being linked to the National Register of Citizens? Aadhaar deprivation could easily be used there as a weapon against illegal migrants, or communities branded as illegal migrants.

Finally, the confidentiality of the identity information collected at the time of Aadhaar enrolment is a myth. The initial draft of the Aadhaar Act, known as the National Identity Authority of India (NIDAI) Bill, did protect that information. But the final version does not. On the contrary, it creates a framework that enables the government to share or sell that information, except for the core biometrics, with any “requesting entity”. A vast collection of lucrative Aadhaar applications is now being built on the back of this information sharing facility. This is almost as big a bait-and-switch as the claim that Aadhaar is voluntary.

All this raises an interesting question: If the government misled the public to no end on this subject, can we trust it not to misuse the formidable powers of Aadhaar? The problem, however, is deeper. Even if it is not misused, the very existence of a huge infrastructure of surveillance is bound to stifle dissent. This ought to be a major concern for anyone committed to democratic rights and civil liberties.

The author is Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University

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  1. J
    JAYV
    May 12, 2017 at 2:04 pm
    Privacy sure why not? All using google twitter wasapp gmail yahoo hotmail utube pl stop. The servers are in the USA. Don't go abroad their capturing your finger and iris data.
    Reply
    1. G
      Gaurav
      May 9, 2017 at 9:58 pm
      please if possible rewrite this article in a much readable format with headings/highlights etc so that its easy for people to read it.
      Reply
      1. L
        Lalit Jaipur
        May 9, 2017 at 12:39 pm
        Everyone is talking about US social security number whenever there is issue about Aadhar . I m sorry friends but In Usa there is lots of law to public regarding their personal security information which we don't have in India and if there is any than we all know that government is the first which doesn't follow them.we are going through Hindu patriotism so I m sure most of the people will agree whatever Modi government does but we will definitely pay big price in future for these decisions.may god bless us all
        Reply
        1. G
          Girish Gaur
          May 9, 2017 at 6:20 am
          Ha ha pseudo victim state terrorism.
          Reply
          1. J
            jay desouza
            May 9, 2017 at 5:11 am
            If all people were angels, we do not need police force, jails, judges, army, weapons etc. But there are lot of crooks (most politicians, many Govt servants, contractors. fake currency handlers, terrorists, foreign NGOs, fake religious and charity organizations, and free loaders based on caste/..........etc). Therefore, every person needs to be monitored. Most people who have nothing to hide, are not scared. But 99 crooks are scared. In USA, there is social security number, without which one cannot open a bank account. So you stupid (or paid by crooks author, just shut up).
            Reply
            1. N
              NirAadhaar
              May 9, 2017 at 11:55 am
              Though you are judgemental, Glad you are not a Judge. Privacy, Personal Freedom and Security, I don't like the data being shared with organisations to manipulate, and misuse. I Do not need any surveillance system, in a corrupt state. We are still a state with zero implication on any crime. Powerful people at the top are more often irresponsible, not just crooked. What exactly are you trying to prove ? Its ok to be one under constant surveillance ? Do you think what you buy at the store, where you are , what you are doing constantly is going to make the world any better ? The crooked already have duplicate Aadhaar cards, if you are hoping it is going to be a cure all panacea ... Sorry my friend your optimism is short lived at the best and will only make you disappointed. Remember, You chose to get Aadhaar, I Don't and let me be what I do. Are we creating a digital divide ? Aadhaar being a validation for your existence (Its optional as advertised) with all the faulty tech.
              Reply
              1. V
                V.Suresh
                May 11, 2017 at 4:50 am
                Well said Mr NirAadhar !
              2. V
                V.Suresh
                May 11, 2017 at 4:57 am
                Mr Jay Desouza: Evidently, you are seriously history challenged. During the 1930s in Germany and during the German invasion of countries like Poland, France, Netherlands etc. the s were able to obtain records of who was Jewish and round them up. Ofcourse, there were many Jews who had fought in World War 1, were German citizens and did not expect that to happen. But they were so wrong. Collection of sensitive information about citizens for various administrative purposes through social security numbers is a vital and necessary tool for citizen as well as state. But then, unlike a Sweden or a Finland or a Canada, the creation, protection, usage and access to these records needs a government, technology and a legal regime far more mature than what India has. Hopefully that will be in place such that during the next Godhra type pogrom the BJP wont provide addresses of Muslims to its lumpen underbelly.
                Reply
              3. R
                Riya Fucker
                May 9, 2017 at 4:37 am
                My dear author,you are not able to smell your own nose dirt !!!But rst of the world knows that the survellance argument is a lame duck because your business of sel poverty in the name of socialism is no longer profitable.The same s like u are alawys ready to bend their knees and bend at the foreign airports to get Iris canned without questioning those countries !!All develope countries have a mechanism to track their citizens right from their birth dia was not having this system and the ilk of this author have enjo for 70 years!!Now because the trail is under their bums,these so called socialist self decalred iberals are now running from pillar to post crying foul and raising ssues which have no logical reasoning !!!Time the SC understands this corrupt intellectual terrorism
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                1. N
                  NirAadhaar
                  May 9, 2017 at 11:56 am
                  Good Name. Keep going.
                  Reply
                2. R
                  Reclaim kapali
                  May 9, 2017 at 3:45 am
                  If only the columnist had limited this to analytically discussing the flaws in implementation of Aadhar and recommendations to improve, instead of starting with a doom and gloom of oh Hitler is here again, then there might have been some credibility. Well seems the State since 2014 has not managed to silence the columnist nor stop Indian Express from publishing such polemic, rather disappointing for a supposed surveillance state. Just to make sure the doom predicted by the likes of Dreze come true. I would like to give the NaMo another opportunity in 2019, hopefully he will live up to the evil he is supposed to be and the columnist can have the satisfaction of "I told you so". Until then, all this polemic only helps drive the reasonable neutral more towards Modi, for between him and people like the author, he seems less dogmatic and less inflexible.
                  Reply
                  1. N
                    NirAadhaar
                    May 9, 2017 at 11:57 am
                    Good Luck
                    Reply
                  2. G
                    Gopal
                    May 9, 2017 at 3:24 am
                    This article and the one yesterday is nothing but an attempt to influence the Supreme Court. It is this nexus between judges and shady political outsiders that plays a key part in preventing governance and in reducing corruption.
                    Reply
                    1. N
                      NirAadhaar
                      May 9, 2017 at 11:58 am
                      I strongly believe this article has merits. Coming to Influencing the Judiciary, Come on ... the people giving judgement are not dumb to be swa away. If only thing you want to see is praise, may be you should start Chanting Aadhaar 108 times every day.
                      Reply
                    2. D
                      Dash
                      May 9, 2017 at 2:42 am
                      Part of Sonia's NAC,this Hindu-hater & his wife Bela Bhatia routinely go to Bastar and ask maoist terrorists to pick up guns and fight against India. This t has no right to lecture. He was part of the coterie that estro Indian econony during UPA era.
                      Reply
                      1. V
                        V.Suresh
                        May 11, 2017 at 4:58 am
                        Mr Dash: How come this Hindu hater has a Hindu wife?
                        Reply
                      2. H
                        hindu
                        May 9, 2017 at 2:18 am
                        it is hilarious that some s claim that 'those who have nothing to hide will not be worried'. As Snowden said, it is like saying that you are not interested in freespeech because you have nothing to say! Dumbest argument.
                        Reply
                        1. S
                          Sid Srivastava
                          May 9, 2017 at 1:36 am
                          Only those with something to hide are afraid. "NGOs are afraid..."" That's how it should be. NGO are interfering in Development. If, they can be better monitored with Adhaar then why not. ""Vice-chancellors and prin ls are ..." This is another positive, leftist radicalisation of education can be countered with Adhaar. ""Newspapers treat the government with kid gloves, especially on security matters."" Good, don't they do the same world over, in France in US they even NYT admits to doing that.
                          Reply
                          1. S
                            Sudheer Thaakur
                            May 9, 2017 at 12:34 am
                            what you see depends on where you are sitting . how true. when nac was part of power structure aadhar was a great idea but now unmitigated disaster, hypocrites.
                            Reply
                            1. M
                              MIGHTY BOMBER
                              May 8, 2017 at 11:42 pm
                              For buying railway ticket a person should have Aadhar, for buying aeroplane ticket a person should have Aadhar, for hotel booking a person should have Aadhar.What is the meaning of this ? Nothing substantial is said from government’s side, only thing said,“because government says so, you have to have Aadhar for whatever purpose government decides.”No opposition political party is saying anything against it in public, only some voices of dissent were heard in Rajya Sabha. On issue of Aadhar Mr.P.Chidambaram, Mr.Jayram Ramesh and many others said very important things elaborately in recently concluded Rajya Sabha session. Mr.P.Chidambaram’s views on economic reforms are not very satisfactory, but his present stint in Rajya Sabha is very significant and effective from the point of view of discussion on matters of public importance. How many commentators on this forum have heard discussion on Aadhar in Rajya Sabha ?Is Social Security Number in United States of America a biometric system ?
                              Reply
                              1. M
                                MIGHTY BOMBER
                                May 8, 2017 at 11:10 pm
                                Some people ask,how Aadhar could invade their privacy ? Soon government could impose new rules stating that Aadhar is mandatory from having coffee to eating in restaurants, buying groceries; everything under Aadhar. What is the benefit to ordinary citizen ? Nothing. What is the benefit to government ? At the end of year someone could ask to explain how particular amount of money is deposited in a person’s bank account because every earning and expenditure is linked to Aadhar. Also because government has all details of expenditure, that data will be given to marketing companies to promote their products. Government as well as marketing companies will know what is the b of your shirt, your trouser, your eating habits, your favourite holiday destination etc., everything will be known to lot of people. This is invasion of privacy. Will this Aadhar use effect rich, wealthy people ? No. It will only be a concern for ordinary citizen. Self-righteousness of this government is a danger.
                                Reply
                                1. P
                                  P.R.Joshi
                                  May 8, 2017 at 10:40 pm
                                  A deceitful article. Self defining the intellectuals liberals and all that. Aadhaar is a technological wonder. For sure, it is help line for rooting out corruption and making social benefits effective. Author is visiting professor alright, but from where has he come? And how much is he concerned about poor of India? Indian express seems to've malicious intentions printing such stuff.
                                  Reply
                                  1. A
                                    Anuradha Kalhan
                                    May 8, 2017 at 10:04 pm
                                    The horror of it all is that nobody cares anymore for anyone or any thing. Stunned into dumbness and numbness is correct! But it began before the BJP government in fact this government is the result of that numbness of the heart and brain.
                                    Reply
                                    1. N
                                      Neelakantan Chandrasekaran
                                      May 8, 2017 at 8:58 pm
                                      in US social security number is compulsory for every citizen- No Choice!. is this person a Prof. of Economics? I pity the students- he is going to produce negative at ude above life in every student! tell me a subject- I also can write 10 things wrong about the Subject. Press ude- a perfect word for this author
                                      Reply
                                      1. R
                                        rajesh
                                        May 8, 2017 at 9:26 pm
                                        Social Security number in the US is often used by people engaged in iden y theft, which is the fastest growing crime in US . Also biometric data has not been linked to SSN due to precisely these serious privacy and security concerns . Someone illegally using your SSNand uming your iden y can cause a lot of problems. And regarding the "perfect word"- pre$$ ude ? Your mother's profession is not relevant to the argument at hand .
                                        Reply
                                      2. S
                                        Shrisha Rao
                                        May 8, 2017 at 8:31 pm
                                        There has been a lot of discussion about possible abuses with Aadhar, and some about possible architectural deficiencies in the Digital India framework. However, the author's Luddite views are not helpful even for these, and he completely ignores the benefits of Aadhar, and the hard work and g vision (unparalleled in the world) that have gone into it.
                                        Reply
                                        1. S
                                          Seshubabu Kilambi
                                          May 8, 2017 at 7:49 pm
                                          The more services are broughy under the aadhar net, the more people might suffer
                                          Reply
                                          1. A
                                            Ananta Kr.
                                            May 8, 2017 at 7:45 pm
                                            Oh my holy ! Were you sleeping when this project was taking off? Now that entire system has taken off, here comes the brigade of cry babies which are yel privacy privacy!!! For the sake of some sanity, the points that you raised here draws immense parallels with basic communication media in place right now. From social media to apps on the play store. I fail to understand how a first world problem and hoopla of the dreaded word i.e PRIVACY is haunting the nation that still calls itself third world when ill gotten wealth by the totally well off beneficiaries is an issue that has sat under the nose of administrators for so long! And then these pseudo intellectuals will come up with a fresh article on why India as low HDI. disgusted by such articles and authors who were supposedly sleeping when AADHAR started almost a decade back
                                            Reply
                                            1. N
                                              Neelakantan Chandrasekaran
                                              May 8, 2017 at 9:04 pm
                                              fully agree; well put. pl. include IE also to publish such reports/article
                                              Reply
                                            2. D
                                              DK
                                              May 8, 2017 at 7:00 pm
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