Who’s afraid of Aadhar?

Is it the obdurate state striking back? Is it a turf war? It looks like both

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published:January 25, 2012 2:52 am

Indian public policy often short-circuits because there are too many crossed wires: one agency trying to do another’s work,and arguments being invoked in contexts in which they are inappropriate. There has been much speculation about the Ministry of Home Affairs’ objections to Aadhar in its current form. But it will be a travesty if the project of identification is moved from its current service delivery-oriented paradigm to a security-oriented paradigm.

To understand why this matters,here is a simple true story. A domestic help in Gurgaon wanted to open a bank account. The bank account was important for a number of reasons. Small savings would lose their value if they did not earn interest and,at that margin of poverty,even a few rupees mattered. Vulnerability to violence was likely to increase if the money was kept in possession. She approached several banks to open an account. Despite having West Bengal identity papers,ration card and election card,she was turned away. Banks would refuse to recognise these papers. Despite being “introduced” by people who presumably had sound standing,banks simply refused to open her account. Public sector bank managers were asked why they were refusing to open an account? Did they not have a mandate for financial inclusion? The answer came,“Poor people’s accounts remain dormant.” But more often,the response was “the identity papers are not adequate.” When asked why,the response was “these have been issued in West Bengal. We cannot trust them. The lady might be Bangladeshi.”

Eventually,a public sector bank agreed to open the account,but only after an incredible weighty Know Your Customer process was brought to bear.

This story was staggering at many levels. It illustrated the difficulty migrant workers had in opening bank accounts. Identity in India is not portable; it has been made too place-specific,too difficult to authenticate. In this case,despite the fact that there were some identity papers,they were declared untrustworthy. The constant refrain was: “We don’t know who these people are” — even when asked,“why did that matter? After all you are going to hold her money,not the other way around”.

Why do the banks want to do the home ministry’s job? The prejudgments that went into denying this account were strange. But the security mindset that went into this was more ominous — as if you needed a security clearance to avail a service that should be accessible.

There are many stories like this,that must be kept in mind rather than letting technicalities obfuscate the issues. Aadhar has had critics. Some have worried about its privacy implications; others about its effectiveness. These concerns can be addressed. The government has still got some way to go in creating a privacy framework that can regulate what information one agency can share with another. These concerns exist independently of Aadhar. But now,making a welfare-delivery platform hostage to security concerns will prove the dictum: most states want to convert subjects into citizens. We want to convert citizens into suspects.

Both the parliamentary standing committee and the home ministry seem concerned that non-citizens might get the UID. The short answer to this is,“So what?” It is the home ministry’s job to decide the citizenship issue. The possession of a UID does not prevent it from doing so. Why does it want to make a platform designed for delivering services,ease of accessibility and portability,hostage to its concerns?

The crosshairs of argumentation seem to be driven by more bad faith. For one thing,UID was self-consciously designed to avoid the citizenship issue. Why raise this issue now? In fact,the entire opposition to BJP’s identity plans was just this: don’t link services to citizenship. Linking identity to citizenship will lead to undue targeting of migrants. This is a reality. The whole idea behind having lots of agents enrol members into Aadhar was just this. The acquisition of this number should be easy and not associated with the law and order machinery. Citizens,particularly poor ones,should not be at the mercy of government officials. They should have choices in where they enrol. But if UID is taken over by the home ministry,as it were,it would be tantamount to accepting the very same arguments that the Congress had found ominous when the BJP proposed them. Maybe there is a genuine change of heart in government. But to convert Aadhar into a security project is to defeat its very purpose; it will affect adversely affect the poor and migrants.

The second argument is that there is a duplication of biometric data. For efficiency reasons this is an area of concern. But the blunt truth is that the collection of biometric data under UID at least has a justifiable rationale: service delivery. It is collecting biometric data for the national population register that has little rationale.

The collection of biometric data is not required by any of the relevant citizenship acts; the state is collecting information for its own sake. So the greater onus should not be on Aadhar but on the national population register to justify the need for biometric data.

There is also something oddly curious about this fact. There was some opposition to Aadhar. The information Aadhar itself collects is very minimal. It has one function: to authenticate identity. But there is less visible opposition to the national population register that collects far more potentially insidious information about caste,religious identity etc. The crowd that was,without much basis,highlighting the dangers of potential ethnic targeting when Aadhar was launched,seems to be less concerned with things like the national population register.

Aadhar is a unique experiment. It is not a panacea. But it is potentially game-changing in how the state distributes welfare. But it was also a unique organisational experiment,rapidly ramping up enrolment capacity to a million a day. One can only speculate whether opposition to Aadhar is the old obdurate state,that does not want to change,getting its own sweet revenge. But it will be hugely ironic if the government now decided that welfare delivery platforms should be the province of the home ministry. Ministries seem to want to do someone else’s job.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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