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How Aadhaar grew from an idea into one of the world’s largest identity platform

Ram Sewak Sharma, the first director general of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) writes an insider’s account in The Making of Aadhaar: World’s Largest Identity Platform

The book tends to get defensive in places, notwithstanding the author’s disclaimer at the beginning, “This book isn’t written to defend Aadhaar."

The story of Aadhaar, as narrated in The Making of Aadhaar: World’s Largest Identity Platform, sounds like the story of the average startup — a radical idea executed by like-minded people coming together to resolve a problem. Whether this particular startup, which was conceived in 2009, was a failure or a success is debatable.

For the author of this book Ram Sewak Sharma, the first director general of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) — the body that designed, implemented and manages Aadhaar — the “proof of the pudding” came after May 2014, when the use of Aadhaar under the Narendra Modi government exploded. This, after the BJP, in its manifesto, had promised to review the Aadhaar programme “with implicit intent to shut it down altogether during the whirlwind election campaign”.

Sharma begins by summing up his experiences during various bureaucratic postings in Jharkhand, ranging from streamlining personnel records and digitising public grievances to managing election logistics — all using innovative digital means. The learnings from these episodes proved to be the building blocks of the Aadhaar project.

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Sharma recounts how he came on board, his early interactions with UIDAI’s then chairman Nandan Nilekani and the groundwork for the project. He recalls how the venture moved forward despite setbacks, either in terms of the technologies that it wanted to implement or in the form of political opposition.

The cover of the book

The next section addresses the main concern about Aadhaar — privacy. Sharma elucidates critics’ concerns but is mostly rhetorical in his response. The chapter ‘Civil Society’s Punching Bag’ is a prime example. He also invokes George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) to counter the fear of Aadhaar being used as a tool for surveillance, writing, “It’s a thought-provoking and deeply disturbing view of the world that we could invite upon ourselves. But Orwell’s novel is about as relevant to understanding Aadhaar as his equally brilliant parable Animal Farm (1945) is insightful about the lives of pigs.”

The book tends to get defensive in places, notwithstanding the author’s disclaimer at the beginning, “This book isn’t written to defend Aadhaar. It isn’t an autobiographical account of my days at the UIDAI either.” Still, it manages to provide insight into the building of one of the most significant tools of digital governance in the last decade, from various perspectives, including those of technology, law, society and governance — which is exactly what one would expect from the coign of vantage the author enjoyed.

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