A Great Idea Called Aadhaar

Ever since the Supreme Court has slammed the government for not fully making Aadhaar non-mandatory, the social media has been rife with severe condemnations for the Aadhar Project in general and Nandan Nilekani in particular. Some have even gone down to the level of terming Nilekani as the copycat of the American system and being too stupid to come up with anything original.

Here’s what I think: I believe Aadhaar is a great project and an excellent idea.  Very soon it would become a part of our everyday life.

For now, however, many of us have turned joyful after Supreme Court condemned Aadhar. Actually Supreme Court didn’t condemn the project. What the court said is what Nilekani has been saying for a long time, that its database cannot be used for any other purpose other than simple ‘identification’. So Nilekani stands vindicated with the court order rather than being condemned. It is those who feared this so much about Aadhaar effects who stand condemned.

Leaving it aside, if you go back in history, there are several such examples condemnation. Take our voting machine. It was ready in the late 80s itself. After that there hasn’t been a single court room where it hadn’t been to. Engineers from Bharat Electronics travelled the length and breadth of our country taking these machines and conducting demo for prime minister to panchayat president in Kerala. Today, the voting machine has become an integral part of our democracy. When the railway reservation was computerised, the comrades took their red flags and invaded our station platforms. When Rajiv Gandhi and Sam Pitroda set out to digitise our telecom network, they were derided as ‘Gandhi and his computer boys’.  No automation or computerisation project has ever been smooth sailing in India. The problem is half of us don’t understand technology and even fear it and the other half are concerned that computers won’t allow them to swindle anymore. And therefore they oppose it. It’s to our credit that, despite such opposition, some of these computerisation effects have taken place in the country.

Now, let’s see what some people’s concerns are about the Aadhaar project:

Concern: Aadhaar will invade our privacy. People will be reduced to mere numbers or pieces of data.

Answer: I don’t know what they mean by privacy. If you were to be anonymous and live without any identity, you’d need to be an agori in Banaras or a Naga sadhu living naked in the fringes of the Himalaya. For everyone else, who would like to live an ordinary life, work, get married, have children, have bank account and use internet, here’s a piece of news for you: your privacy is already gone. Google knows more about you than your wife. And to Google, you are not Abdul Hameed or Ajay Khatri. You are merely 39593839394343 in Google server. When your passport is scanned in the immigration counter, the computer is not going to exclaim ‘Hey, our Rani Mehra is going to Paris!’, but the software is simply going to register a number, ‘384939394’  in its database. Bank account, passport, Facebook account, why even a movie booking is done through identity numbers. There’s nothing to be embarrassed or agitated about it. It’s just a convenient arrangement. There may be hundreds of Rani and dozens of Rani Mehras in the city, but there can only be one ‘384939394’. Google or the immigration software programmes do this without telling you. And Aadhaar tells you.

Concern: There are already several ID cards, ration cards, voters’ id, etc. Why can’t we streamline these systems rather than invent a new one?

Answer: According to a recent estimate, there are approximately 1.5 crore fake ration cards in use in Tamil Nadu alone. And you can get two voters’ ID cards as well. If you’re interested please contact Mr Sharad Pawar and he could help you with that. However, there is only one fingerprint and only one retina image, which means you cannot get two Aadhaar numbers, and even if you try, the system will very soon discover it and mark it as conflict-id and disable your account.

If we have to streamline ration cards or voters’ ids, how do we do that? How do we prevent people from obtaining fake ration cards or duplicate voters’ ids? The only way is to do something by which they can’t obtain a duplicate. That’s exactly what Aadhaar intends to do. Once Aadhaar takes roots, we should be able to link bank accounts, PAN cards, ration cards and voters’ IDs everything with it so that no one can duplicate any of these.

Concern: Aadhaar isn’t without its own problems. One family in Delhi received their Aadhaar card printed in Telugu. The reason was that the private company which had been given the contract was from Hyderabad and there was obviously some goof up. And there is bound to be several such problems with Aadhaar too.

Answer: Well, Aadhaar is not a messiah sent down from the heavens. It is a software project built by a team of engineers who are, basically, human beings. If you were to read some of the articles written in the US or the UK about Aadhaar you would understand the magnitude of this project. Or if you were a software or database engineer you would know as well. It is one of the largest software projects in the world. Such a project cannot be without its own bugs. And there are bound to be teething troubles. When the first Toyota car was launched people actually laughed at it. During its initial days, when ISRO was sending rackets, invariably every racket was failing and falling back onto the sea. So much so that there were jokes in films and local plays.

‘Don’t go to the beach today.’

‘Why?’

‘They are launching a satellite in Sri Harikotta today!’

And where is ISRO today? The tables have turned so much that the joke today is that the space adventure film Gravity cost more to make than India’s Mars Orbiter project did. Why, even NASA was like that in their initial days.

When a large project is undertaken, there are bound to be problems and issues. All we can do is believe that they would be resolved and set right. What Aadhaar needs is the political will. And I believe that’s the direction Nilekani is traveling towards, by getting himself elected so that he can push for it in the parliament.

Concern: What is the guarantee that the collected data won’t fall into the hands of anti-social elements or cannot be used for communal profiling? Anyone still remember Gujarat or Coimbatore, where the shops belonging to a specific community were targeted and attacked?

Yes, we all remember Gujarat of 2002 and Coimbatore of 1998. We also remember Delhi of 1984. But, wait a minute; was Aadhaar there during those days? If it was not there, how did these anti-socials manage to target these communities?

The reason is simply this: During Gujarat and Delhi riots, they used ration and voters list and searched for Muslims or Sikhs across the city. They didn’t need Aadhaar. They can do the same even today.

To access Aadhaar database, you must be a skilled hacker in the Lisbeth Salander league. Even if you were a Salander, you would rather target various other servers that are easy to access and, perhaps, contain more useful data (say Sony Playstation or iTunes database or for credit cards). Besides, Aadhaar’s job is not to give you a list. Its job is to merely verify and confirm, is all. It checks a finger-print or an eye-scan and says so-and-so is indeed so-and-so. If you were to ask a list of all the people in a street, it will tell you to get lost.

Concern: In the US, the law prevents even the government from accessing the census data. In India, no institution is big enough to say no to our government.

Answer: Well, just recently we saw that the Supreme Court was big enough to say no to the government’s request for the data.

Concern: Take this example, when the BJP was in power, we all received the phone call ‘Main Vajpayee bol raha hoon…’ beaming through our phones. The BJP got hold of all our phone numbers without our permission. It violated our privacy.

Answer: Well, Aadhaar wasn’t there even then, and still they did it, didn’t they? In fact, the answer is there in that question itself. Be it communal profiling, violation of privacy, or loss of independence, they all can be done even today. I receive about 25 SMSes and three spam calls every day, and there’s nothing we are able to do.

To counter this, we would have to do try other ways. When I was in the UK, I never received a single SMS. There, if somebody sold my data, I could have sued them for millions and get my settlement announced within weeks. If a similar law were to be enacted in India where a spam SMS involves a compensation of one crore and a call involves five crores, then no one will bother you.

Concern: Linking Aadhaar with welfare schemes is bound to fail spectacularly.

Answer: And how is this going to fail? What kind of argument we are going to present? And, more importantly, how has these welfare schemes been performing so far and how is Aadhaar going to make it worse?

Concern: Indian economy is becoming highly capitalistic and urbane in nature. Regardless of what you and I protest, this is bound to go in this direction. Soon, many villagers are going to migrate to the cities. How is Aadhaar going to help them?

Answer: So how soon do we think India would be fully urbanised? In the next ten years? Or in the next hundred years?

Concern: So, these migrant, unorganised labourers are going to be roaming the streets of our cities, without any security or any address. You are already seeing these people from UP, Bihar and Odissa flooding Chennai and suburbs. How are those welfare schemes going to reach these people?

Answer: The main argument of Aadhaar itself is that you don’t need an address proof. Your only address is your retina scan or your finger print. You don’t even need to carry the Aadhar card.

The final point is that Aadhaar promises an opportunity for the welfare schemes to reach people more appropriately, regardless of whether they are from the cities or the villages. Rajiv Gandhi once famously mentioned that only 15 paise out of every rupee from these welfare schemes actually reach the beneficiary. Aadhaar can possibly increase it to 50 paise. The fact that we need the computer to keep a check on society’s integrity is a bit of a shame. The only solution is for all of us to become, to some extent, honest and sympathetic. That might take another fifty years. And Aadhaar might sail us through until that happens.