For weeks now, the fate of Aadhaar, the UPA’s ambitious biometric ID programme, has looked uncertain. The Narendra Modi government scrapped the cabinet committee on the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which issues Aadhaar numbers, earlier this month, touching off speculation that the programme might be relegated. Then, an inter-ministerial meeting last week reportedly discussed merging Aadhaar with the National Population Register, a similar biometric ID scheme with a distinct mandate, conceived by the previous NDA government, ostensibly to avoid duplication in data collection. But now, with the prime minister seeking the speedy achievement of a hundred-crore enrolment target and a fresh impetus to Aadhaar-linked direct benefits transfer schemes, which had been flagging under the previous government, that misconceived union has fortunately been put off.
It is encouraging that the government appears committed to giving Aadhaar a chance to grow and realise its full potential, despite its close identification with the UPA regime. The programme’s utility lies in its promise to effectively target social entitlement programmes to those who need them most but are left out of the welfare system because they lack the stamp of officialdom to prove they are the intended beneficiaries of subsidies and benefits. In addition, Aadhaar can help the state cut down on the impersonation and duplication in muster rolls and beneficiary lists that lead to leakage and corruption in social assistance initiatives from the PDS to the MGNREGA.
Accused of duplicating the efforts of the NPR and criticised by civil society groups concerned about the possibility that such data might be misused by the government, Aadhaar has faced setbacks almost since its inception. In its last months in power, even the UPA seemed to lose its appetite to defend the transformative programme it spearheaded, abandoning direct transfers for LPG cylinders. However, many of the questions that still hang over it — for instance, its privacy implications — might be resolved if it were given a clearer definition in law. The BJP is complicit in Aadhaar’s uncertain legal status — the UPA was forced to rely on executive orders because the UIDAI bill was held up by the Yashwant Sinha-headed standing committee on finance. Now that the Modi government has moved towards taking ownership of the programme, it must work to give it the statutory backing necessary to build a stronger Aadhaar.