Aadhaar and the rhetoric of fear

In Indian Express, Society by Praveen ChakravartyLeave a Comment


Five years and Rs 4,000 crore ($800mn) later, there is a pregnant pause. “Are you who you claim you are?” is a question that more than 60 crore Indian residents can now answer with integrity. Twenty-three out of the 36 states and Union territories of India can now verify the authenticity of more than half its residents. Adorning false identities with motives of terror or poverty can now be eliminated. Clumsy mnemonics of combinations of name and parents’ names to prevent duplication can now be replaced with an elegant fingerprint validation. The three lakh crore ($60bn) spent every year in welfare schemes with an estimated leakage of Rs 30,000 to 50,000 crore ($6-$10bn) solely due to false identities can now be plugged. All with the help of the Unique Identification Authority of India’s Aadhaar programme. A programme that captured the biometrics of 60 crore residents in four years at a cost of Rs 65 per person and for a total amount that is less than what the top two corporate loan defaulters owe their banks.

Yet, there are apprehensions over its longevity as Aadhaar awaits its fate under the new establishment. There is almost a xenophobic reaction to Aadhaar. It conjures up an image of terrorists from the western borders or illegal immigrants from the eastern borders of the country masquerading as foreign residents, and being legitimised through this system. Or a phobia of tyranny, a country where its citizens are stripped of all privacy rights and live in perpetual fear of the state watching them through this Aadhaar x-ray prism.

It is indisputable that national security is of paramount importance to any sovereign state. Economic benefits, efficient service delivery, citizen convenience, etc, are merely ornamental if the system that delivers these benefits compromises on internal security. Most large sovereign states in the world, such as Japan, the US and the UK, capture biometrics of only their foreign visitors and/ or migrant workers. Biometric identification of foreign residents or visitors is deemed essential by these nations ostensibly to stamp out security threats. Surely, the decision to use biometric identification as a primary tool by these developed nations was taken after much deliberation with utmost priority to homeland security. In this context, the prevailing paranoia over supposed illegal immigrants in West Bengal getting an Aadhaar number is perplexing. It is obvious that being able to biometrically identify illegal immigrants is better than leaving them out of the system. If the argument is that Aadhaar legitimises their illegality by giving them the right to welfare benefits, access to banking, rights of adult franchise and others, then the solution is to not make Aadhaar the sole requirement for any of these rights and benefits. But to propose that Aadhaar be made available only for citizens and leave out purported illegal immigrants is akin to issuing licence plates to only those cars that have not been involved in a hit-and-run case, as opposed to licensing all cars so as to be able to track the ones involved in hit-and-run cases. Contrary to the rhetoric, providing biometric identities to all residents, legal or otherwise, fortifies internal security measures, rather than diluting them.

Aadhaar has a solitary purpose — to uniquely identify an individual. To accomplish this, it collects fingerprints of 10 fingers, retinal scans of both the eyes and tags these to the name, gender, address and date of birth of an individual. It guarantees zero duplication, that is, no two people in the pool of 1.2 billion people can have the same set of 10 fingerprints and two retinal identities. This can stem identity fraud, which is at the very core of everything illegal — from terrorism to migration to benefit claims and so on. Of the top 20 states (including united Andhra Pradesh) that account for 95 per cent of the population of the country, on average, 55 per cent of residents in each state have an Aadhaar number. Of the top 20 states, 12 states have more than half their residents covered under Aadhaar, with certain states like Andhra, Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab and Tamil Nadu having more than 75 per cent of their residents covered. However, Aadhaar coverage in the border-sensitive states of West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and the Northeast is on average 44 per cent, less than the national average. Thus, there is a need to ramp up Aadhaar coverage in these states from an internal security perspective, not question the need for it.

The other Aadhaar phobia of the state invading privacy rights is more nuanced and complex. The Aadhaar database in itself has no other information about the individual other than biometrics, name, date of birth and address. Which is about the same information sans the biometrics that one can find of more than 600 million voters on the Election Commission website. Hence, the fear is more about the moral right of a state to collect personal biometric information of its residents for which there is no binary answer. It is a social contract between the state and its citizens. For a citizen wishing to avail of state services, the need for biometric identification is purely an efficiency of service delivery issue, which is a decision of the department or ministry that provides this service. Entitlement to welfare or other citizen rights cannot be solely on the basis of Aadhaar, which at best can be a authentication tool.

National interest has been the resonating theme of Narendra Modi’s campaign and in the initial days of his stewardship thus far. The prime minister’s speech in the Lok Sabha demonstrated the trait to rise above party politics to build a strong nation-state. It is this notion that should pervade over the impending decision on the future of Aadhaar. It has the potential to make the country immensely stronger, in its borders and in its villages.

Published on 23 June, 2014 in Indian Express