The Aadhaar Bill opens the door to mass surveillance. This danger needs to be seen in the light of recent attacks on the right to dissent. No other country, and certainly no democratic country, has ever held its own citizens hostage to such a powerful infrastructure of surveillance.
The Aadhaar project was sold to the public based on the claim that enrolment was “voluntary”. This basically meant that there was no legal compulsion to enrol. The government and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), however, worked overtime to create a practical compulsion to enrol: Aadhaar was made mandatory for an ever-widening range of facilities and services. It became clear that life without Aadhaar would soon be very difficult. In these circumstances, saying that Aadhaar is voluntary is like saying that breathing or eating is voluntary. Legal or practical, compulsion is compulsion.
It took the Supreme Court to put an end to this doublespeak. In March 2014, the court ruled that “no person shall be deprived of any service for want of Aadhaar number in case he/she is otherwise eligible/entitled”. This was a very sensible interpretation of what it would really mean for Aadhaar to be voluntary. Throughout the proceedings, incidentally, the Central government stood by the claim that Aadhaar was a voluntary facility. The Supreme Court did nothing more than to clarify the implications of that claim.
It is important to note that Aadhaar could work wonders as a voluntary facility. A certified, verifiable, all-purpose identity card would be a valuable document for many people. But the UIDAI has never shown much interest in the Aadhaar card, or in developing voluntary applications of Aadhaar. Instead, it has relentlessly pushed for Aadhaar being used as a mandatory identification number in multiple contexts, and for biometric authentication with a centralised database over the Internet. That is a very different ball game.
The Supreme Court order caused consternation in official circles, since it ruled out most of the planned applications of Aadhaar. The Aadhaar Bill, tabled last week as a money bill in the Lok Sabha and passed by it, is the Central government’s counter-attack. Under Section 7, the Bill gives the government sweeping powers to make Aadhaar mandatory for a wide range of facilities and services. Further, Section 57 enables the government to impose Aadhaar identification in virtually any other context, subject to the same safeguards as those applying to Section 7.
In concrete terms, the Bill allows the government to make Aadhaar authentication compulsory for salary payments, old-age pensions, school enrolment, train bookings, marriage certificates, getting a driving licence, buying a SIM card, using a cybercafé — virtually anything. Judging from the experience of the last few years, the government will exercise these powers with abandon and extend Aadhaar’s grip to ever more imaginative domains. Indeed, Aadhaar was always intended to be “ubiquitous”, as Nandan Nilekani, former Chairman of the UIDAI, himself puts it.
Why is this problematic? Various concerns have been raised, from the unreliability of biometrics to possible breaches of confidentiality. But the main danger is that Aadhaar opens the door to mass surveillance. Most of the “Aadhaar-enabled” databases will be accessible to the government even without invoking the special powers available under the Bill, such as the blanket “national security” clause. It will be child’s play for intelligence agencies to track anyone and everyone — where we live, when we move, which events we attend, whom we marry or meet or talk to on the phone. No other country, and certainly no democratic country, has ever held its own citizens hostage to such a powerful infrastructure of surveillance.
If this sounds like paranoia, think again. Total surveillance is the dream of intelligence agencies, as we know from Edward Snowden and other insiders. The Indian government’s own inclination to watch and control dissenters of all hues has been amply demonstrated in recent years. For every person who is targeted or harassed, one thousand fall into line. The right to privacy is an essential foundation of the freedom to dissent.
Mass surveillance threatens to halt the historic expansion of civil liberties and personal freedom. For centuries, ordinary people have lived under the tyranny of oppressive governments. Compulsion, arrests, executions, torture were the accepted means of ensuring their submission to authority. It took long and harsh struggles to win the freedoms that we enjoy and take for granted today — the freedom to move about as we wish, associate with whoever we like, speak up without fear. No doubt these freedoms are still elusive for large sections of the populations, especially Dalits and those who live under the boot of the security forces. But that is a case for expansion, not restriction, of the freedoms we already have.
The Aadhaar Bill asks us to forget these historic struggles and repose our faith in the benevolence of the government. Of course, there is no immediate danger of democracy being subverted or civil liberties being suspended. Only an innocent, however, would fail to anticipate Aadhaar being used as a tool of mass surveillance. And mass surveillance per se is an infringement of democracy and civil liberties, even if the government does not act on it. As Glenn Greenwald aptly puts it in his book No Place to Hide, “history shows that the mere existence of a mass surveillance apparatus, regardless of how it is used, is in itself sufficient to stifle dissent.”
The champions of the Aadhaar Bill downplay these concerns for the sake of enabling the government to save some money. Wild claims are being made about Aadhaar’s power to plug leakages. In reality, Aadhaar can only help to plug specific types of leakages, such as those related to duplication in beneficiary lists. It will be virtually useless to plug leakages in, say, the Public Distribution System (PDS), which have little to do with identity fraud. On the other hand, recent experience has shown that Aadhaar could easily play havoc with the PDS. Wherever Aadhaar authentication has been imposed on the PDS, there have been complaints of delays, authentication failures, connectivity problems, and more. The poorer States, where the PDS is most needed, are least prepared for this sort of technology. There are better ways of reforming the PDS. Similar remarks apply to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).
I have seen some of this damage at close range in Jharkhand, where Aadhaar was supposed to prove its mettle. Aadhaar applications (in the PDS, MGNREGS, and even the banking system) have had poor results in Jharkhand, and caused much disruption. For instance, MGNREGS functionaries have cancelled job cards on a large scale for the sake of achieving “100 per cent Aadhaar seeding” of the job-cards database. MGNREGS workers have been offloaded by rural banks on Aadhaar-enabled “business correspondents” who proved unable to pay them due to poor connectivity. And the proposed imposition of biometric authentication at ration shops threatens to disrupt recent progress with PDS reforms in Jharkhand.
Seven years after it was formed, the UIDAI has failed to produce significant evidence of Aadhaar having benefits that would justify the risks. Instead, it has shown a disturbing tendency to rely on public relations, sponsored studies and creative estimates (including the much-cited figure of Rs.12,700 crore for annual savings on the LPG subsidy). To my knowledge, there has been no serious evaluation of any of the Aadhaar applications so far. Worse, some failed experiments have been projected as successes through sheer propaganda — business correspondents in Ratu (Jharkhand) and “direct benefit transfer” of kerosene subsidies in Kotkasim (Rajasthan) are just two examples.
No doubt Aadhaar, if justified, could have some useful applications. Given the risks, however, the core principle should be “minimum use, maximum safeguards”. The government has shown its preference for the opposite — maximum use, minimum safeguards. The Aadhaar Bill includes some helpful safeguards, but it does nothing to restrain the use of Aadhaar or prevent its misuse as a tool of mass surveillance. And even the safeguards protect the UIDAI more than the public.
The wizards of Aadhaar are fond of telling us that we are on the threshold of a “revolution”. With due respect for their zeal, a coup would be a more appropriate term. The Aadhaar Bill enables the government to evade the Supreme Court orders and build an infrastructure of social control. Further, it does so by masquerading as a money bill, pre-empting any serious discussion of these issues. This undemocratic process reinforces the case for worrying about Aadhaar.
(Jean Drèze is Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University.)