In four decades of my career in government, I have not worked on a project which has been subjected to such an amount of criticism and ridicule as the Unique ID project of India now called Aadhaar. Today Aadhaar is central to India’s public service delivery reforms.
The prime minister launched BHIM using AadhaarPay a few weeks ago and called it a “game changer”. He said the
payment solution would set a global trend and lead other countries in taking lessons from India. He asked the IT minister to get it patented since other countries are looking to replicate the model. Besides BHIM, there have been many applications from DBT in several domains like LPG, eKYC in banking and the mobile world, authentication in PDS and attendance in offices.
I joined UIDAI as its DG in July 2009, after a conversation with Nandan Nilekani. I was excited to be part of something which aspired to use technology for transforming governance. But soon I realised that this is a project that many loved to hate. Some hate it for violating privacy while others are convinced that it is a tool of surveillance. Others believe that this is designed to provide all our data to multinationals and the CIA. Some believe that it will legitimise all illegal immigrants.
Many believe this is a tool to exclude the poor from the benefit delivery system. There were social scientists and others who declared that this was a technologically impossible project. UIDAI will be “drowned in duplicates”, declared some. Their estimates of duplicates were as high as 15 per cent, negating the adjective “unique” to this identity. Some declared that the “authentication” was a pipe-dream. Many alleged that UIDAI was wasting public money on a project which is based on untried and untested technology. No country in the world had done such a project and hence, it was sheer foolishness for India to even try to do it.
Today, many things being done in the field were architected in UIDAI many years back. As an example, UIDAI published a booklet titled From Exclusion to Inclusion with Micropayments in April 2010, months before the issue of the first Aadhaar number! It talked about a frugal, yet robust system of financial inclusion and payment which is inter-operable, low-cost and does not require much of an infrastructure. It is precisely this architecture which the PM is talking about patenting.
It has clearly brought out one thing: You may have a transformational technology for governance. However, nothing much will happen unless there is strong political support to implement it at a scale. This is precisely what is happening today.
In the initial years, people believed that Aadhaar was a public project being implemented by private fellows. Nilekani was by no means a “private person”. He was duly appointed by the government with the rank of a cabinet minister. Further, it was a government project implemented by the officers of the government of India like any other and it followed all the principles of accountability in its processes. It is subjected to all the Cs in the government: CAG, CBI and CVC!
We had an outreach programme to work with NGOs to get their support and ideas for better implementation of the project. We used to have regular interactions with them. Barring a few exceptions, the project was uniformly condemned in these meetings. In one such meeting, my concluding remarks included the following: “Before I came to this meeting, I was under the illusion that we are doing something very useful and good for our country and society, with pious heart and intentions. After listening to the deliberations in this meeting throughout the day, I have developed a serious feeling of guilt. It appears that we are all doing something truly anti-national and anti-poor.”
In another meeting, we were asked: How could UIDAI start this project without getting clearance from civil society in the country? Everybody ridiculed my innocent response that the extant approval process in the government did not have such a step (of getting clearance from civil society).
I remember giving a presentation related to the use of Aadhaar in the PDS before a sub-committee of the NAC, where questions were asked about my understanding of the field. When I told the committee that I had worked in the field and managed the PDS at district level, I was told that my experience was outdated. I talked about people getting their ration after Aadhaar authentication and portability of entitlements. I was hooted at and ridiculed as participants in the meeting believed that I was not talking any sense.
The worst indictment came from the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee. It observed that “The UID scheme has been conceptualised with no clarity of purpose and leaving many things to be sorted out during the course of its implementation; it is being implemented in a directionless way with a lot of confusion”. It raised serious doubts on the process and technology and rejected the draft legislation on the subject. Unfortunately, our pleadings that we had not been given an opportunity of being heard by the committee did not cut much ice.
There were several existential crises in the life of this project — especially in the initial years. However, it survived all these onslaughts. I think that we have just scratched the surface insofar as the applications to leverage Aadhaar are concerned. I look forward to many applications in the service of the nation from this unique digital identity platform, now becoming the envy of many countries in the world.