The mindless mandatory linkage of biometric Aadhaar numbers to every aspect of our lives—from birth to death, plus telephones and banks accounts—is causing widespread harassment. It has, finally, woken up many who believed the hype that biometric identification was a gift to citizens and a world-beating technological leap. The number of people who are wary about the risks involved in linking Aadhaar to all activities has now risen dramatically, with details of its fallibility being reported every day by the media.
But the continued coercive tactics by phone companies, banks, insurers, cooking gas suppliers and regulators indicate that UIDAI (Unique Identification Development Authority of India) and the government are in no mood to listen, or even wait for the Supreme Court to hear the issue in January 2017.
Meanwhile, three things have worked at making people cautious. First, there is growing evidence of how inefficient a biometric Aadhaar is; but I will discuss that later. Second, Aadhaar is not merely about acquiring an identification number; there will be a cost/fee involved in every authentication and updation (for those who are not net-savvy). The government has maintained a complete silence on the cost of Aadhaar updation and other mandatory services; but it will happen.
Third, most people are, finally, realising that biometrics change over your lifetime. This means that Aadhaar authentication can fail at any time and would need to be updated frequently (in case of senior citizens, it may have to be done even every year or two).
Sections 6 and 31(2) of the Aadhaar Act make it very clear that citizens’ biometrics change and people will have to “update their demographic information and biometric information and from time to time” in the manner specified by the UIDAI regulations. If you find it frustrating to update bank KYC (know your customer) every couple of years, get prepared for perpetual harassment of multiple updates every time you change your telephone service-provider, bank or insurer; or when your biometrics let you down.
While secure updation is not an issue for the tech-savvy, Aadhaar is a nightmare for vulnerable, less-literate people and it is extremely disempowering for senior citizens who will need to rely on ‘Aadhaar Kendras’ or bank officials to handle updation.
What is stunning is that UIDAI appoints enrollers and mandates linkages, but it provides no recourse to those who are cheated by enrolment agents and banks. If you are a victim, you will end up fighting a legal battle or chasing the police for redress.
Consider another aspect. Like direct debits for loan repayment and standing instructions for credit card and other payments, the effort involved in the Aadhaar updation exercise will make us even more reluctant to change service-providers and put up with shoddy service. This makes a mockery of competition and choice in a free market.
Interestingly, even the Institute of Development and Research in Banking Technology (IDRBT), a subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has called for caution in use of Aadhaar for government programmes based on a study of implementation in Andhra Pradesh. It says that it is also unclear if, in the long run, the benefits of Aadhaar will outweigh the negatives.
Let us look at how people across the economic spectrum are already affected. On 1st December, Premani Kunwar, a 64-year old widow died of starvation. Her old-age pension was credited into the account of her husband’s dead first wife who had a valid bank account with updated KYC. It is alleged that Premani and her relative operated two bank accounts linked to the same Aadhaar to which funds were transferred, even 20 years after her death. The case reeks of collusion between bank officials and a nephew, who has been arrested; it also exposes the easy manipulation of records and its devastating impact on the very poor.
At another end of the spectrum is N Vadia, a high net-worth chartered accountant, who had his bank account abruptly frozen by HDFC Bank for failure to update KYC. While Mr Vadia claims that the Bank never informed him, HDFC Bank, which relentlessly spams everybody throughout the day, claims to have sent multiple messages. There is no explanation why it failed to follow RBI rules prescribing graded freezing of the account, or couldn’t have made a call. Instead, it even dishonoured RTGS/NEFT credits. Since the banking ombudsman rarely rules in favour of customers, Mr Vadia will have to battle it out in a consumer court, switch banks or simply accept shoddy HDFC Bank service. In effect, he is only slightly less vulnerable than Premani Kunwar. Failure of biometrics adds another tool of harassment to this situation.
In the previous issue, I wrote about Ravindra, a 64-year old Central government officer, who, harried by repeated failure of Aadhaar authentication, wrote, “I am desperate and sometimes start thinking of ending of my life. It is getting too much for me to handle.” Ravindra’s issue also is the lack of redress, no recourse or empathy and fear of disempowerment. Writing to UIDAI was of no use. Instead he received gratuitous advice to procure a phone in his son’s name, thereby defeating the very purpose of linkage, disempowering the senior citizen and placing a needless burden on his son/relative.
Now, imagine the plight of the 82-year old in Mumbai, who was curtly told by an Airtel employee that he could not have his SIM (subscriber identification module) card transferred from his daughter’s name to his own, despite having all identification documents including Aadhaar. Why? Apparently because Airtel has an unwritten policy not to issue SIM cards to people over 75 because “they may die soon.”
Dnyanada Deshpande, a journalist standing in the same queue, was a witness to this atrocity. Ironically, she says, he wanted to transfer the phone to his name (from that of his daughter) because it had to be linked to his Aadhaar and, in turn, to his bank account. Neither the government nor the UIDAI has bothered to respond to thousands of such senior citizens posting angry or plaintive complaints on the National Consumer Complaints Forum (https://www.complaintboard.in/complaints-reviews/aadhar-card-l231003.html).
Then there is Airtel Payment Bank, which colluded with its telecom provider, Bharti Airtel, to open illegal accounts for subscribers who linked their Aadhaar to the phone and diverted over Rs138 crore of subsidies to these accounts. It was fined Rs2.5 crore by UIDAI, but the 560,000 consumers who were harassed got no compensation; getting their money back was the only reward. This case raises serious issues about sharing of data between related entities and account opening procedures followed by payment banks; but RBI has been silent so far.
Whether it is the uneducated Premani who lost her life, a helpless Ravinder or the tech-savvy N Vadia, every consumer segment today is equally vulnerable to coercive actions or fraud by bankers and other service-providers in the opaque Aadhaar environment. We are not even talking about data security. a more serious issue.
Forced linkage to Aadhaar, no matter what the government claims, will leave too many people, especially less tech-savvy senior citizens and the faceless and nameless poor, extremely vulnerable to fraud. What is worse, a government, which is in the habit of repeatedly changing its goal-posts and objectives, is not called upon to explain its claim that it will help unearth black money.
Senior citizens, many above 80, are active, independent, and sometimes living on their own while capable of looking after themselves and their needs. But they are unable to face the unique harassment unleashed by our biometrics-based system. Even as new deadlines loom, there is no solution in sight. If the Supreme Court rules in favour of the government, be prepared to be forever vigilant about your savings and to keep jumping through hoops each time the government, RBI or UIDAI issues a new notification or your biometrics fail you.