So what’s all this news I’ve been hearing about some magic Utopian card? Yes yes, make fun of it all you want. But the Aadhaar card was thought of as a way of providing a unique identity for every resident of India, Non Resident Indian (NRI) or any foreign citizen residing in India of India. Like the social security number in America.
Oh, so was the Aadhaar card also going to come along with a gift pack of food, electricity and potable water for each citizen? It’s cynics like you who do our country in. What’s the harm in dreaming of a better world? According to the Aadhaar scheme, each citizen of India would be given an identification number of 12 digits for the purpose of establishing a unique identity for every single person in the country. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), a part of the Planning Commission, is responsible for implementing the scheme. And Nandan Nilekani, former co-chairman of Infosys Technologies, was appointed as the first Chairman of UIDAI in June 2009 – a position he continues to hold till date.
What a delightful plan. But why is everyone claiming that the Supreme Court has put a spanner in the Aadhaar works? The Court was actually just responding to a PIL filed by retired Karnataka High Court judge, Justice KS Puttaswamy. It ruled that Aadhaar Cards cannot be made mandatory to avail essential services and the government should exercise a little caution in issuing the cards – and definitely not distribute them among illegal migrants. This was because the PIL by the retired judge voiced concerns about Aadhaar Cards being given away to illegal migrants by the government.
What? But I thought the Aadhaar would be my pass to the grandest free feast of our times – the Food Security program. Not for the time being at least. If you’ve received your Aadhaar card, you can use it as proof of identity. The Supreme Court hasn’t commented on the validity of the Aadhaar Card as identity proof yet. So while you can’t have a feast thanks to it, you can get a gas connection.
What’s the hullaballoo in the media orchard about then? The hullaballoo isn’t totally unwarranted. The UIDAI (read Nandan Nilekani – chairman and poster boy of the UIDAI) which pretty much claimed that Aadhaar Cards will change the way things run in this country and that this will be a single uniform proof of identity across the country has put in a whopping Rs 3,735 Crore into the project as of July 31, 2013. But with the Supreme Court saying that the Aadhaar is not mandatory (which essentially reduces it to just another ID proof like a drivers’ license or a PAN card), the entire exercise has been reduced to just another humungous waste of money and time.
Bugger all, are you telling me that I spent that half day getting my picture taken and standing in line, just for another ID card? To add to my ration card, passport, PAN card, Voter ID card, driver’s license and gym card? Well, the premise of that card was that a centralised database would link all your other cards like the passport, driver’slicense, ration card, SC/ST card etc to your unique identification number. One card that fits all.
But what if the database crashes? Aah, ye of little brain. Before it can crash, the database has to be compiled. And if that somehow did happen, shouldn’t you be asking how the government plans on digitally sharing data when almost 40 percent of rural India doesn’t even have electricity?
Say what you will, but Nilekani’s plan has almost won me over in spite of me. The idea of a single mobile identity sounds really cool if the database issue is sorted out. Well, the idea is undoubtedly most grand. But then we live in a country where what exists in black and white very rarely gets replicated on the ground. And a project as ambitious as the UID comes with an entire range of teething troubles. The Supreme Court’s judgment, addresses just one of them – Aadhaar Cards being given away to illegal immigrants. Take a state like Assam which has very serious issues with illegal immigration, the problem could assume unmanageable proportions and have very far-reaching repercussions. Also, one cannot possiblydismiss illegal immigration as just one of those minor issues that comes along with all big projects.
This mega project – however noble and visionary it may be – has very little clarity of execution. And that is something which makes or breaks projects. Hardly surprising though, since the Ministry of Planning has itself admitted that no committee had been constituted to study the financial implications of the scheme and it was given a go-ahead without a detailed project report. In fact, the whole project technically has no legal backing at all as it has been running through an executive order and the Parliament is yet to pass the National Identification Authority of India Bill.
Classy! I expected no less from our government. And why have people suddenly woken up to these problems? It is strange for a project of this large a scale to have come such a long way without any serious scrutiny – but apparently it has. While there have been sporadic protests and objections from time to time, they have not been too organised and scathing enough to have any real impact. Also, the fact that different people have expressed doubts over different issues has resulted in individual concerns getting diluted. While a section has vociferously argued that the biometrics involved in the project will lead to a compromise on personal privacy, many have said that the idea itself is pointless. But no one has looked at the deficiencies or inefficiencies of the Aadhar Card in a holistic manner.
So what happens now? Is the government going to let the Aadhaar juggernaut carry on rolling? Well, Nilekani is definitely rolling on. He claimed just this month that all citizens will have an Aadhaar card by 2014 and they’ll be able to use them online. Because that’s just what villagers want to do, open their non-existent iPads and laptops and make bank transfers and pay bill for their non-existent mobile bills.
The government seems to be “rattled” according to news reports and wants the Supreme Court to modify the order by making Aadhaar mandatory to avail social welfare schemes which are heavily subsidised by the government. The government however still insists that it is a “voluntary” project.
What an utterly ambiguous stand. Only fitting, going by how ambiguous the Aadhaar scheme is.