Let’s not suspend disbelief

The UIDAI’s touching faith in Aadhaar blinds it to the dangers of the project

Written by Jean Drèze | Updated: August 10, 2017 6:33 am
C R Sasikumar

In two recent articles (‘Criticism without Aadhaar’, IE, May 13, and ‘The demonisation of Aadhaar’, IE, July 12), Ajay Bhushan Pandey, CEO of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), responds to various criticisms of Aadhaar. Pandey must be credited for having made the UIDAI’s case with clarity and reason. The case, however, is far from convincing.

Interestingly, Pandey does not invoke the UIDAI’s pet claim that Aadhaar is a “voluntary facility”. This claim never made much sense, and lost all plausibility with the compulsory PAN-Aadhaar linkage. Changing gear, Pandey now argues that the possession of Aadhaar is a reasonable demand on Indian residents. Just as someone who refuses to get a driving licence must forego driving, he says, someone who rejects Aadhaar must “make a conscious choice of foregoing the benefits”. This analogy is deeply misleading. First, what an Aadhaar-less person has to forego is not just any odd benefit, like being able to drive a car, but a whole gamut of essential facilities. For a person with taxable income, it could even mean going to prison for failing to file tax returns. Second, a driving licence, unlike Aadhaar, does not entail any serious infringement of privacy or civil liberties. Enrolling for Aadhaar, by contrast, means submitting oneself to lifelong state surveillance, or at least the risk of it.

Pandey assures us that there is no danger of Aadhaar being used as a tool of surveillance. This is like the Ministry of Rural Development telling us that nuclear weapons will never be used for a first strike. The UIDAI has little more control on the uses of Aadhaar than the Ministry of Rural Development has on the use of nuclear weapons. It is mainly the government, not the UIDAI, that uses Aadhaar. If the government decides to use Aadhaar as a tool of surveillance, the UIDAI (or the Aadhaar Act for that matter) is unlikely to stop it.

Along with downplaying these concerns, Pandey reiterates the UIDAI’s grand claims on the benefits of Aadhaar, including bogus estimates of government “savings”. “Critics who dispute these figures,” he adds, “may refer to the World Bank’s Digital Dividend Report 2016 which has estimated that Aadhaar could annually save the central government US$ 11 billion if used in all welfare programmes”. The said report, however, does not present any savings estimates. All it does is to make a passing reference to another study, by Shweta Banerjee and others, where it is pointed out (again in passing) that the Indian government spends about $11 billion every year on five major cash transfer programmes. There is not a shred of evidence in it of Aadhaar-enabled savings, actual or potential. In recent months, some of us have tried hard to uncover the basis of the government’s savings figures. We have found none so far. For instance, when a clarification was sought from the Ministry of Rural Development under the Right to Information Act, the ministry was unable to go beyond the general statement that “savings are in terms of increasing the efficiency and reducing the delays in payments”.

The only savings figures that have a semblance of substance are those pertaining to the LPG subsidy. Even those, however, are very speculative, and have been so distorted and misquoted that the chief economic advisor, one of the co-authors of the original estimates, had to distance himself from them (‘Clearing the air on LPG’, with Siddhartha George, IE, 2 April 2016). It is another matter that the CEA himself initiated the confusion with a misleading claim, published in New York Times on July 22, 2015, that Aadhaar had already saved more than Rs 12,000 crore of government money.

Aside from government savings, Pandey argues that Aadhaar is also a blessing for ordinary people. The latest UIDAI refrain is that Aadhaar “empowers” the citizen. Really? How does it empower an elderly person who lost her pension for lack of Aadhaar? Or a child who has to run from pillar to post because her name is spelt differently in the school register and her Aadhaar card? Or a destitute widow who finds herself unable to buy her monthly food rations because she fails the Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA) test? Against this, Pandey’s main argument is that “the citizen is also empowered because it is harder for anyone to impersonate him”. That does not sound like a great consolation for those who have been deprived of critical entitlements, or who resent Aadhaar’s “electronic leash”, as Shyam Divan aptly calls it.

Finally, Pandey dismisses the “collateral damage” done by Aadhaar in various contexts. He claims that evidence of this damage is limited to stray anecdotes, such as “a few instances of elderly people being denied food rations”. That is a very complacent reading of the alarming stories that are pouring in day after day. Further, the evidence goes much beyond isolated stories. Talking of the public distribution system (PDS), for instance, there is clear evidence from both official statistics and independent surveys that in Jharkhand alone millions of people are currently unable to buy their food rations due to ABBA-related problems. Further, the victims often belong to very vulnerable families, for whom the PDS is a lifeline.

Aside from downplaying the problem, Pandey claims that it reflects a failure of the “field agencies” to comply with the government’s instructions. He presents a novel interpretation of Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act, whereby these agencies are bound to ensure that a person who fails the ABBA test is able to use the PDS in some other way. He claims that instructions to this effect have been issued and that “violators have to be punished”. Coming from someone who urges the critics to pay more attention to “the facts on the ground”, this is a little lame. The situation on the ground is that this interpretation of Section 7, if it applies, is routinely violated, and that no violator of these alleged instructions has ever been punished.

Ultimately, the fixation with Aadhaar in government circles rests more on faith than facts. The last line of Pandey’s first article reflects this touching faith: “Aadhaar is India‘s technological marvel which, while empowering people, will enable India to leapfrog towards the status of a developed nation”. This faith seems to blind the UIDAI to the severe damage Aadhaar often causes on the ground. It’s time to get real.

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