Unique identity dilemma

Sold as a voluntary facility, Aadhaar is turning coercive — despite judicial intervention.

Written by Jean Dreze | Updated: March 19, 2015 6:05 am
Urea is the only fertiliser whose maximum retail price (MRP) is still fixed by the government, with imports also permitted only through designated state trading enterprises. All MGNREGA workers without a UID are supposed to be ‘escorted’ (sic) to enrolment centres, and after that to the bank so that their Aadhaar number can be seeded into their account. It is impossible to do this by March 31

It is easy to see why the Unique Identity (UID) project, also known as Aadhaar, has caught the imagination of many administrators, economists and policymakers. Identity verification is a routine problem in India and Aadhaar sounds like a foolproof solution. The idea is really smart and the technology is cutting-edge. After the initial hurdle of universal enrolment, numerous applications are possible: monitoring the attendance of government employees, linking multiple databases, fighting tax evasion, facilitating the portability of social benefits and much more. When ace promoter Nandan Nilekani was appointed to lead the project, the happy fate of Aadhaar appeared to be sealed.

And yet, Nilekani’s sales pitch left one question unanswered: is Aadhaar voluntary or compulsory? The initial claim was that Aadhaar was a voluntary facility. Indeed, this is how the sceptics (like business guru Jaithirth Rao, a committed libertarian) were swayed. Yet this claim was clearly hollow: how could Nilekani, or the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI), assure us that Aadhaar was voluntary when they had no control over its applications? The UIDAI’s real position was: “we provide the number, it is up to the government to decide what to do with it”.

This raised the possibility that Aadhaar would become mandatory for the purpose of various social programmes such as the MGNREGA and the public distribution system. Indeed, it quickly became clear that the Central government was keen to impose Aadhaar on a whole series of schemes — almost anything that involved identify verification. That suited the UIDAI very well, since it led people to rush to Aadhaar enrolment centres. But the UIDAI’s claim that Aadhaar was a voluntary facility posed a problem — how would enrolment be fast-tracked? The government’s imposition of UID as an eligibility condition for social benefits provided a neat answer.

And so, a tacit understanding quickly emerged that while Aadhaar was voluntary in principle, it was due to become essential for anyone who wanted to function — get a driving licence, transfer property, have a civil marriage or just get paid as a MGNREGA worker. In short, frankly speaking, it was compulsory.

This should have called for a reassessment of the whole project because there is a world of difference between a voluntary Aadhaar and a compulsory Aadhaar. Providing Indian residents with a convenient way of identifying themselves would certainly be doing a great service to millions of people who lack adequate identity documents. But imposing Aadhaar as an all-purpose identity proof is a very different idea. It carries at least four dangers.

First, Aadhaar creates a vast infrastructure of social control that could be misused. This may sound like paranoia — after all, India is a democracy of sorts. Yet it is a democracy where abuse of state power, from petty harassment all the way to torture, are a harsh reality for large sections of the population. In any case, principled resistance to the growth of state power is important for the healthy survival of democracy everywhere.

Second, the entire project is being rolled out without any legal framework. While Aadhaar is effectively being made compulsory, no law defines or protects the rights of the subjects of this compulsion. Further, in the absence of any privacy laws worth the name, people have no protection against possible abuse of the data they part with — including biometrics — at the time of UID enrolment. Privacy is not only an important liberty in its own right, it is also essential for the exercise of other liberties, such as the freedom to dissent.
Third, Aadhaar is not always an appropriate technology. Even in the best circumstances, it is not foolproof. In areas with weak infrastructure (for example, poor connectivity or power supply), it can cause havoc. Indeed, Aadhaar requires four imperfect technologies to work together: biometrics, computers, mobiles and the internet. Even a small risk of one of them being out of order can lead to considerable hardship for users.

Finally, the coverage of Aadhaar is still far from complete, and it could take years to become universal. Enrolment agencies, paid on piece rates, have drained the more accessible ponds, but those who fell through the net will be harder to catch. Even if enrolment centres are created, say, in every block, some people may find it difficult to get there and meet the requirements. As a recent World Bank report notes, identification systems can easily turn into a source of social exclusion.

Confronted with evidence of UID compulsion, the Supreme Court took a strong stand on this in two successive orders, dated September 2013 and March 2014. The latter clearly states that “no person shall be deprived of any service for want of Aadhaar number in case he/ she is otherwise eligible/ entitled”. This order has far-reaching implications since it effectively bans most compulsory applications of UID (with important exceptions, for instance, monitoring office attendance).

Interestingly, however, there is no sign of the government having taken any notice of these orders. On the contrary, the UID drive continues as more and more compulsory applications of Aadhaar are being forced on the public.

The Central government’s latest move is to make UID mandatory for all MGNREGA wage payments in 300 districts from April 1. The ministry of rural development recently sent stern orders to this effect to state governments. All MGNREGA workers without a UID are supposed to be “escorted” (sic) to enrolment centres, and after that to the bank so that their Aadhaar number can be seeded into their bank account. Everyone knows that it is impossible to do this by March 31, and that MGNREGA workers without a UID will effectively be deprived of their right to work from then on — but who cares? Even those with a UID are likely to face serious hardships as the system adjusts to this new and daunting imposition from the Centre. Little has been learnt from earlier experiences of similar top-down orders, such as the abrupt switch to bank payments of MGNREGA wages in mid-2009, which caused prolonged chaos and confusion.

As the ink dries on this article, another Supreme Court hearing on this matter has been held (on March 16). The court heard evidence of violations of earlier orders, including the case of a couple being refused a civil marriage without UID. Final arguments are to be heard from July 13 for disposal of the case. Meanwhile, the Central government is expected to write to all chief secretaries and ask them to ensure compliance with court orders. Hopefully, this will lead to some rethinking of the government’s invasive and coercive approach to Aadhaar.

The writer, a former member of the UPA’s National Advisory Council, is visiting professor at the department of economics, Ranchi University
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