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.