Once again, as the critical reports surrounding Aadhaar do the media rounds, some suggesting that the ambitious project can even be scrapped, I feel compelled to write about its technological and economic significance.
In my opinion, the Aadhaar project is too huge and significant to be done away with just like that. I do not mean to equate it with the “too big to fail” phenomenon of banks during the economic downturn, but here are a few solid reasons why the unique ID show must go on:
1. Expenditure and milestones: The government is already said to have spent around Rs 4,000 crore on the project and over 63 crore Aadhaar numbers have been issued. A poor country like India should not waste an expenditure or effort on this scale, especially at this late stage.
2. The power of digitisation: While there has been talk of digitising other documents like passports, PAN cards, ration cards, etc, it is for the first time that a 12-digit number can unlock the value of technology and economic benefits at a huge scale. Once the seeding of this number with many more public and private enterprise services takes off in a big way, the multiplier effect by way of speed and cost-effectiveness will run into billions of dollars.
3. Mobile as a delivery channel: Linking the Aadhaar number to the mobile number of a person and using similar authentication mechanisms as used by banks and telecom firms can not only extend the reach of e-governance services but also make them convenient and quick.
4. Power to the individual: While some criticise Aadhaar as invading a person’s privacy by taking their biometrics data, on the contrary, Aadhaar authentication can empower hundreds of millions to seek their entitlements from the government. To my understanding, they can haul the authorities to court if they find out that the details linked to their Aadhaar numbers are incorrect or the due benefits are not being given to them. The self-service portal of UIDAI allows people to take control of their own profile data (with due authentication). This is something that never happened before and the control was always with authorities or third-parties. Privacy laws are a work in progress in India, but holding that bugbear to scrap an immense project like Aadhaar will not be of much use.
5. Improved security: Rather than split hairs on Aadhaar numbers being given to illegal immigrants, a more practical approach would be to let the whole database stabilise and then, with proper passport and border controls, segregate the data of those who indeed have infiltrated the borders unlawfully. I wouldn’t go into the politics of what should be done with the data or with those to which it belongs.
It is understandable that a big hue and cry is being raised because of the change of government. Even if supposing there are flaws in the way data was collected or in the accuracy of data itself, which organisation on earth could have undertaken such a humongous exercise with zero error?
If one were to think of the new government as a new tenant in the house of democracy, and imagine this tenant to be a little upset that the furniture is not arranged according to their wishes or because there are some cracks here and there—would it be advisable to throw it out the window (including the window?) and go buy some new expensive stuff?
Or would it be more prudent to sit down (perhaps on a chair with no cracks), take stock of the situation calmly, make the necessary course corrections, and then press the pedal for further development and growth?