On February 5, I officially became part of the largest ever biometric national identity process in human history – getting my 12-digit Aadhaar or Unique Identification number from the governmental Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).
Simultaneously, I joined 1.1 billion other Indians already with an Aadhaar number, and entered uncharted territory. India’s Supreme Court is pondering over serious concerns raised about the biometrics-based Aadhaar ID system – from threats to privacy to risks of potential misuse from a snooping governmental Big Brother.
A core concern is making Aadhaar compulsory – with banks for months threatening to freeze accounts that have no Aadhaar number linked to them by March 31. The bankers’ threats may have no constitutional or legal sanction, but such possibilities push India into an unprecedented era of Orwellian nightmares, from intrusions of privacy, to smothering of freedom. American whistleblower Edward Snowden has pitched into the debate, declaring that the Aadhaar biometric ID system has loopholes that leave it open for abuse.
Anxiety about Aadhaar abuse increased after enterprising reporters declared that they had been able to buy private Aadhaar data for paltry sums of around 500 rupees (less than US$8), and get fake Aadhaar IDs at cheaper rates.
The Indian government dismissed the exposés and decided instead to haul the messengers to the dungeons, pressing criminal charges against the reporters for their troubles. That caused more uproar, but left unanswered questions of whether and how much India really needs the biometric Aadhaar.
Bemused citizens can wonder whether the 12-digit Aadhaar number is the promised genial genie delivering greater efficiency and integrity in governance, or a demon in disguise ready to unleash all manner of sneaky devilry on unsuspecting citizens.
Members of Parliament from West Bengal state, eastern India, protest in New Delhi against Aadhaar.
The Aadhaar national identity project was a brainchild of the previous government, and showed every symptom of fading out as a multibillion-rupee white elephant. And then Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to turbocharge it, and use Aadhaar to spearhead his much-touted mission to end corruption in India.
With unique Aadhaar numbers linked to individual bank accounts, life becomes tough for the black-money tribe using multiple bank accounts to dodge the taxman. Likewise, Aadhaar exposes another favorite black-money dodge – benami properties, or proxy ownership by registering possessions under names of family members, relatives and sometimes even the domestic help and the car driver.
That anti-corruption mission is fine, and is a primary reason that many Indians have uncomplainingly gone through the Aadhaar registering process this winter, much like the winter of 2016 when the country was frantically queuing up exchanging currency notes demonetized under a similar anti-corruption motive.
Being a rebel by nature, the compulsion aspect of Aadhaar found no favor with me – and the only way I could find out more was plunge into the process. The Aadhaar registration form downloaded from the Internet has an opening line dripping with irony: “Aadhaar enrollment is free and voluntary.”
It was free all right, but hardly voluntary – with the Modi government arm-twisting citizens with all manner of governmental services that need Aadhaar, including fundamental rights like operating a personal bank account. Even mobile phones need to be linked with the Aadhaar ID number. Unless of course, we exercise the “voluntary” right to spend a lifetime on endless arguments from an increasing number of demands to see the Aadhaar Card – from bank officials to hotel clerks.
“Aadhaar” means “foundation” or “base,” and the system’s basic mission statement says, “To provide for good governance, efficient, transparent and targeted delivery of subsidies, benefits and services….” But like a kitchen knife that can be used both to cook food and to kill, Aadhaar’s double-edged life seems to have be laid bare by media reports popping up about data leaks.
The Aadhaar enrollment process seems efficient overall, considering the mind-boggling logistics of recording biometric data from more than 1.2 billion pairs of hands and eyes.
The process allows for a month for the postman to deliver the Aadhaar card, but in two weeks I received my Aadhaar number online, after I ambled off to the registry office for the second time. I was asked to give a colleague’s mobile-phone number in a missing blank – I being one of the very rare species in these 21st-century days who do not own a mobile phone.
The efficiency was impressive, with an e-mail received by the time I returned from the Aadhaar office – a message of a kind I had never received before, a doorway to a helpful or headache-filled biometric age: “Your Aadhaar number XXXX XXXX 2339 was used successfully to carry out Authentication using ‘Fingerprint’ on 05/02/2018 at 15:57:13 Hrs at a device deployed by ‘UIDAI Internal System Monitoring’…. If you haven’t carried out this Authentication, please call us at 1947 or forward this mail to email@example.com.”
That’s a good number to call for worries about Aadhaar and individual freedom – 1947 was the year India gained independence.
I was one of the fortunate few who had little trouble with Prime Minister Modi’s two big wheezes, the demonetization frenzy last winter and the Aadhaar scramble this winter. Kind media colleagues ensured I did not have to stand in painful queues like millions of others suffering the runaround.
But similar questions linger, both with demonetization and Aadhaar: harassed citizens being asked to invest time, effort and patience in two nationwide mega-upheavals supposedly to fight corruption. The net result as yet seems to be only the small fry being caught in the anti-corruption net, while the big fish with Swiss bank accounts seem to have been left untouched.
The Aadhaar data collected and used or misused seems a genie easier to let out of the bottle than pull back in. The Supreme Court is yet to decide on Aadhaar use, but the general elections next year will deliver a more accurate verdict of how much India trusts Prime Minister Modi’s anti-corruption motives and methods.