It is odd that an initiative like UIDAI, with its vast implications, should be uncontrolled by any legislation
Posted On Friday, January 25, 2013
Important message for Savings Account holders having Aadhaar / UID number issued by UIDAI” says the message on my bank’s online banking page. I follow the link. “You can now link your Aadhaar / UID Number to your Savings Account to avail the benefits of Government subsidies/payments directly into your bank account,” I am told. How nice. Problem is I don’t “avail of Government subsidies/payments”.
So why would I need an Aadhaar card? And what are the chances that someone who is entitled to a government subsidy would be able to get online to see this message in the first place? The Unique Identification Authority of India is not a corporation, not a government body. It is just a scheme of the Planning Commission. And it has, with quite unusual zest and zeal, set about the gargantuan task of “mapping” everybody in India, providing every single person with a unique identification number. But, as we all know, this is much more than a casual mapping. It is a full-fledged biometric database with fingerprints, photographs, addresses and more.
In some State-level variants, you can link your bank accounts to this database. The general idea, a brainchild of Mr Nandan Nilekani, is to cut through India‘s Byzantine bureaucracy and deliver government subsidies and grants to those intended, side-stepping all the money-grubbing talons en route. That sounds sensible and fair and, and perhaps in an ideal world, one in which we might be able to trust each other and those we put in power, transformative. Mr Nilekani’s vision is utopian; reality? Not so much. That an initiative so vast in its implications, its spending and its ambition should be uncontrolled by any legislation is more than a little odd.
There is no statute to control how this information can be used or by whom and under what conditions. There is no legislation, and there is also no parliamentary or judicial supervision. What is the remedy to a citizen who finds his information has been misused? Who is to be held responsible, and how, and under what law? How is it even possible to start the implementation of something along these lines without some formal structure? The UID enrolment scheme, though said to be ‘voluntary’, is aimed squarely at becoming non-optional. When banks and financial institutions start insisting on Aadhaar cards, we will be left with no choice.
This is one material distinction between, say, a passport or a driving license and an Aadhaar card. You can swan through life without a passport or a driving license. Proponents of the UID/Aadhaar scheme tell us that there is no cause for worry; passport-issuing authorities and transport officials collect pretty much the same information. Indeed they do, and passports even have a unique file number from which every bit of information can be retrieved.
The difference lies in points of access; who can access this information. The stuff that’s in government files isn’t open to banks and isn’t accessible except under regulated conditions. This is why so much information needs to be replicated. Once all this information is made available in a centralized database to a whole slew of agencies and, worse, private operators (not just banks; there’s no reason your path lab or favourite fast joint shouldn’t have it too – it is, after all, “only an id”) then we’re in the world of Eye-See-You.
An even simpler question. We give the UIDAI all this information. In return for what? What is the quid pro quo? This scheme only makes sense if you’re eligible for subsidies, grain, anywhere in a public distribution system. What if you’re not? And I already have sufficient ‘identification’.
Do I need one more card? And where does it say that this one card will replace them all? The one thing that the scheme greatly enables is the government snooping on citizens. When researchers and scholars like Usha Ramanathan point to these – and a myriad other – problems with the scheme, they are not being merely alarmist or obtuse. They are raising very fundamental issues of the meaning of liberty in the context of our polity.
Whether or not this spying is actually happening is not the point; the UID system facilitates it, and in the hands of an errant government is capable of the most egregious abuse. On the rare occasions we are moved to speak of liberty, we only do so by calling it a right. It is much more. Like the air we breathe, it is essential to survival, an undefinable hard won, easily lost, and under constant threat.
The deadliest assaults are the ones that come up in stealth, disguised as progress and achievement and the pledge of universal prosperity. The brightness of these promises blinds us to what lurks darkly beneath: that dreadful gaping, fanged maw of the state, a creature with an insatiable appetite for control and dominion. Nobody doubts Mr Nilekani’s intentions, ideals or integrity; all are beyond reproach. But as Cervantes tells us, idealists are not the wisest of men. For all their inefficiency and replication and nuisance, those free-standing silos of information we now have do not demand of us the much too heavy price of such idealism.
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