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

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

  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
                Reply
                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. Load More Comments