India being the second largest population in the world, Aadhaar is one of the largest government databases on the planet, where a 12 digit unique-identity number has been assigned to a majority of the Indian citizens. According to the Government estimates, Aadhaar has covered 98% of the adult population in India. Aadhaar is being used as a tool to offer targeted delivery of subsidies, benefits and services to common man, in an efficient and transparent manner.
An important point to note is that the previous UPA government brought Aadhaar without a legal framework. It was only in the year 2016, the new Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, benefits and services) Act was notified by the NDA Government. This Act gives a statutory backing to this unique identification number to be assigned to each and every Indian citizen. The main intention of this Act was to empower Aadhaar with legal backing and constitutional validity.
It is interesting to know that during the period 2009-2014, the general narrative thrust that sections of the media conveyed to the people was that Aadhaar is a one-stop solution for getting all the benefits from Government Schemes. It was largely portrayed as a silver bullet that would help the government reach the poor, and as a nationally valid and reliable proof of identification for millions of Indians.
Narrative in 2009 – 2014
During the period of 2009-2014, Aadhaar was portrayed as a novel and transformational step by the UPA government, saying that, “The new number-based system, known as Aadhaar, or foundation, would be used to verify the identity of any Indian anywhere in the country within eight seconds, using inexpensive hand-held devices linked to the mobile phone network.” – as reported by Lydia Polgreen of New York Times. Aadhaar was meant to be breaking the caste, religion and socio-economic barriers, prevailing in the second-most populated country, India. Lydia reported that, “It would also serve as a shortcut to building real citizenship in a society where identity is almost always mediated through a group — caste, kin and religion. Aadhaar would for the first time identify each Indian as an individual.”
It was effectively portrayed as a means to deliver benefits of all the social welfare schemes to the poorest sections of society. Rajesh Roy and Romit Guha from The Wall Street Journal reported that, “India is planning to start giving cash directly to its poorest citizens, in a bid to reduce massive corruption that prevents subsidized goods and welfare benefits from reaching those who need them. The cash transfer will be enabled through Aadhaar, a numerical biometric identification that is currently being given to everyone in the country.”
In addition, there was also an effort to mandate Aadhaar in other databases for improvements in service delivery and this should be the main prerogative of the departments concerned. Neelasri Barman & M Saraswathy from the Business Standard reported that, “The electronic know-your-customer (e-KYC) process, based on Aadhaar or unique identification number, would be a boon for the banking and financial services sector.” Shweta Punj from Business Today reported that, “consumer goods companies could design applications to monitor the supply chain and improve connectivity with retailers in rural areas. Services such as insurance would improve, as insurers would have better information about potential customers and be able to offer more competitive rates.”
Aadhaar was quoted as an “Effective Delivery Tool”, “Enterprise Catalyst”, “Innovation Enhancer”, and what not! It was expected that millions of people across the country will get benefits of various government schemes – such as cooking gas subsidies and old age pension payments, MNREGA payments, PDS distribution, scholarship payments targeted at them, through the Aadhaar-enabled direct cash transfer system. Frances Zelazny, from Center for Global Development, Washington in his case study reported that “The UID program aims to improve the delivery of government services, reduce fraud and corruption, facilitate robust voting processes, and improve security”.
Not only this, UID was expected to be beneficial for private sector as they will get an economical, secure and flexible mode of verifying user identity. Shweta Punj from Business Today reported that, “One, UID could spur development through entrepreneurial activity, and two, it could empower women.” and that, “The UID project’s open architecture lends itself to innovative applications. Besides MGNREGA payments, Aadhaar can be linked to distribution of cooking gas and foodgrain, cash transfers, and identity proof for SIM cards. It has the potential to spur enterprise and consumer applications.”
Aadhaar became the main achievement of the then UPA Government, as it supposedly promoted financial inclusion. Financial Action Task Force (FATF) Report supremely supported AADHAAR by saying, “If successfully implemented, it (Aadhar project) would be the first biometrically verified unique ID implemented on a national scale and would provide the ‘identity infrastructure´ for financial inclusion as well as for strengthening anti-money laundering and combating terrorist financing implementation,”.
“To build the database, the Indian government has created a highly unusual hybrid institution: a small team of elite bureaucrats who are working with veterans of Silicon Valley start-ups and Bangalore’s most-respected technology companies” – said Lydia Polgreen of The New York Times.
Aadhaar recognises the importance of establishing an effective and much-needed identification infrastructure for Indian residents, in a cost effective and secure manner. Various reports elaborated on the safety of Aadhaar, saying that it is backed by biometric de-duplication, and has a secure and robust identification infrastructure that effectively prevents fraud and duplication. Center for Global Development reported that “Its use of multimodal biometrics increases inclusion into the main enrolment database and has a huge impact in improving accuracy”.
Mihir Sharma writing in Business Standard said that opposing UID due to its privacy implications is an elitist thing to do and poor people need this without a doubt! – “It’s visible also in the attitude to the Unique ID project, continually stymied by elitist (and misplaced) panic about its privacy implications. Those lining up in poorer neighbourhoods across this country for biometric verification and a shot at an actual identity already live with harassment by coercive arms of the state. The UID, they recognise, brings hope of redress and accountability, something the middle class takes for granted.”
There were many success notes and case studies written on Aadhaar and how meticulously UIDAI initiated this effort of national integration and social inclusion. However, the somewhat neutral to positive coverage that Aadhaar used to get suddenly changed into conspiratorial speculation and negativity with the change of government in 2014. As you can see below, in the year 2014-18, the tone of coverage of Aadhaar becomes different. The below headlines show how the same tool changed from a ‘boon for the poor’ to one of ‘state surveillance’.
 FATF is an inter-governmental body established in 1989 by the G-7 countries and all the major economies of the world are its members
Narrative in 2014-18
Aadhaar has helped to ensure the right to a dignified existence for India’s citizens, through giving a unique social identification mechanism. It has helped the government in eliminating middlemen and facilitating direct digital payments for more than 400 government schemes. Apart from securing the rights of the poor, Aadhaar has helped Government to save over Rs 90,000 crore through direct bank transfers (DBTs).
During the period of 2014- 18, Aadhaar is now being portrayed by sections of the media as an anti-poor scheme, denying them of rations, subsidies or pensions. Blowing things out of proportion, hyperbolic headlines and judgements are being passed on something that is helping millions of Indians. Constantly trying to draw the picture that Aadhaar has changed nothing, now they try to say it has become a source of exclusion from government programmes for thousands of people.
Mihir Sharma who wrote in favour of Aadhaar and the benefit it provides during the year 2013, spoke right in contrast to his previous stance in 2018. In stark criticism of Aadhaar he wrote in Rediff, “Bureaucrats have transformed a project meant to empower the poorest Indians into one that empowers only babus and disempowers everyone else”. Never mind the millions of poor Indians who are getting direct benefit transfers due to the focus of this government on expansion of DBT into about 400 schemes.
Aadhaar had biometric measures being incorporated in it, right from the beginning and it is not a new feature. However, the same biometrics that were fine earlier, are apparently a problem now. Richa Mishra from The Hindu reported that, “Biometrics only make the citizen transparent to the State and that it does not make the State transparent to citizens”.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his article in The Indian Express in 2012, said, “The crosshairs of argumentation seem to be driven by more bad faith.” It is amazing how Mehta himself goes onto show bad faith in just a few years.
“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 information Aadhaar 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.”, he added.
However, in 2018, his dramatic change of opinion on Aadhaar saying, “But the more serious issue involves the conversion of Aadhaar from a tool of citizen empowerment to a tool of state surveillance and citizen vulnerability”. Resorting to alarmist rhetoric, the man who earlier, part-derisively asked, “Who’s afraid of Aadhaar?” ended up saying “Big Brother is winning” in 2017.
In the UPA times, Aadhaar stood with weak legal standing and option for legal redressal. The NDA government also led the legal regulations with the Aadhaar Act, which came into being only in the time of NDA Government, that is in 2016. The act of gaining the unauthorized access to the Aadhaar database is already made punishable not only under Section 43 of the IT Act but also under Section 38 of the Aadhaar Act itself.
Previously, Aadhaar was the basis of identification of Indian citizens and promoted the transparency, accountability and equity in the distribution of the social welfare schemes. Backed by biometric de-duplication, Aadhaar was a robust identification infrastructure that effectively prevented wastage, fraud and duplication. There was a huge narrative that Aadhaar can play a vital role in the creation of a unified payment infrastructure, which will drive targeted and direct distribution of subsidies, reduce use of cash and lower the fiscal deficit.
In contrast, during 2017-18, with the change in the Government and with a different Government implementing the same Aadhaar, it has become anti-poor, and has unsolvable privacy and security concerns which could threaten the citizens with the possibility of state surveillance.