AADHAR – Why should there be activism against it?

For some time now, I have been receiving many messages that range from dire warnings of terrorists using AADHAR information to collapse of all financial machinery due to AADHAR. On the other side, thousands of people are following government directives and have not only enrolled for AADHAR, but are also now linking it with all other services, keeping faith that government will do what’s best for the people. Today, I had an opportunity to attend a seminar by MoneyLife Foundation where two experts Dr Kachare and Dr Anupam Saraph spoke on their respective experiences and opinions about AADHAR. Finally, the seminar ended with a keynote address by the Central Information Commissioner, Dr M Sridhar Acharyulu.

Here is my opinion on the entire discussion and what was missing in this discourse. First of all, as with any organization which has a specific agenda, the discourse totally lacked the rigor of diverse viewpoints. Dr Kachare and Dr Saraph were supposed to present two diverse viewpoints, one talking about the benefits of AADHAR, while the other should have highlighted the issues and problems associated with it. This rigor was totally missing in the discussion.

Dr Kachare spoke in favour of AADHAR, but his arguments did not have any factual data. He did not give any real numbers or information about systems that are employed to ensure data privacy. He did not highlight the real need for having an Identification System for citizens in the first place. He made only classic emotional statements about how AADHAR has been a gigantic scaled operation incomparable to anything in the world. When speaking on the concerns of privacy, he questioned why we shared so much of our personal information with private players like Google, Facebook and even companies like Uber and not with the government? He questioned as to why do activists target the government, when private players are regularly sharing and mining personal data to their hearts glory? While he made a valid point here about activists attacking only governments, his counter questioning did not provide any answers to what kind of systems are established by AADHAR for addressing the issues of privacy and data sharing. In fact, his mixing up of arguments between government and private players further weakened his argument. Because, immediately and rightly so, it was pointed out that enrolling with private players in optional, while enrolling in Unique numbering system of governments is mandatory. If the seminar really wished to hear both sides of AADHAR, then a speaker who was knowledgeable about AADHAR, its concept and its systems, would have done justice to this discussion. This speaker should have been someone who knows the inside workings of UIDAI and AADHAR and who could have possibly answered questions and presented arguments more logically.

Coming to the opinion expressed by Dr Anupam Saraph, he mentioned that his opinion rests on three questions that he had asked under the RTI to UIDAI and the answers received by him. The basis of the entire campaign against AADHAR seems to rest on the answers provided to the RTI query and on media reports. So indirectly, it rests on the possible incompetence or even laziness of the Information officer within UIDAI who has answered the query. Dr Saraph also mentioned about several lapses like data leakages and siphoning off of subsidies by misusing AADHAR. However, there was no argument strongly put forward as to why India should not go for a Unique Identification Number system for her citizens. With or without AADHAR, public money gets siphoned off and frauds by hackers happen. Probably, more accountability in the system may give us lesser siphoning and fewer frauds, as criminals will find that there is a higher chance of getting caught. So frankly, the arguments put forth by Dr Saraph again highlighted only systemic problems in AADHAR, nothing that really questioned its concept and existence.

Finally, the key note address by Dr M Sridhar carried a lot of legal substance. There is obviously a need to fix some privacy and data mining laws to ensure effective use of AADHAR and prevent its misuse. Dr M Sridhar elaborated on privacy, personal information and its conversion into public data. There exists a very seamless way in how this happens and it’s important for individuals to understand these subtle yet important differences. We find these nuances being exploited in public arguments and I think Dr M Sridhar has a great understanding of what is private, what is public and what can be shared under what circumstances.

However, again, in presenting his arguments against AADHAR, the arguments focused on the need to create and establish legal frameworks to prevent misuse of AADHAR. But none of his arguments really questioned why anyone should object to AADHAR or a Unique Identification numbering of citizens, as a concept. Some of this statements were in super hyperbole. For example, he asked, “Why should we all get reduced to a number, when we are given good names by our parents?” With this logic, then, we should also be going against Birth Registration, because that is where we start getting numbered. Right from School Roll numbers to Bank Account numbers, we are really working with numbers all the time and AADHAR is just another one. But I have found that such emotional hyperboles works wonders in activists groups and end up getting applause for the speaker.

Some other examples that were quoted by him seemed out of place and the only purpose was to provoke extreme emotion rather than try and fix the issues of legal complications that he has expertise in. For example, he mentioned that the Crematorium asked for AADHAR number of the deceased. Or a Hospital wouldn’t admit a patient because Aadhar number was not quoted right off the cuff when getting admitted. These seem very far fetched and hard to believe. I have personally never encountered such extreme case of AADHAR Obstinance ever. So all in all, Dr M Sridhar had a range of points to make, but none of then really supported why he was against the concept of AADHAR or Unique numbering system that any country employs. His talk was full of anecdotes which simplified a lay persons understanding of privacy related legal issues, but did not give a concrete solution as to how AADHAR can fix its legal lapses. So once again, I was looking at arguments that highlighted systemic failures and probable systemic failures, but nothing that was said, is something that cannot be fixed.

So, at the end of the discussions, I am still left with a question as to why activists are really opposing the concept of AADHAR or a Unique Identification numbering system for India? National Identification Numbers are used by many countries since many years. Notable amongst these is the Social Security Number issued by the USA. Since its inception in 1920s, the SSN has proven to be a valuable tool for the government to distribute social benefits to people. In some European countries, issuing a Unique Citizenship Number has ensured that taxation laws can be effectively implemented. My personal experience of using the SSN in the USA tells me that there can be a great accountability amongst citizens when your identification gets linked with numerous things like Tax numbers etc. Even as a student and as a temporary resident of the USA, I was issued a SSN which was linked to all the University services that I availed. The US government could indirectly keep track of my stay in their country.

Even in the USA and rest of the world where Citizens are issued numbers, there have been lapses in the systems like duplication, data sharing etc. But as legal frameworks developed and laws were put into place, these lapses have been curbed significantly. In fact, these systems have yielded more positive results, particularly in distribution of social benefits to the poor. When lapses are highlighted by the media, sometimes it’s important to note that without the Unique Identification system, probably these are much more and remain hidden. Whereas, systems like the AADHAR will have the capacity to unearth such scams and curb them to a large extent. And, here we have to accept the reality that despite the best of our efforts and most honest intentions, every system in the world has a chance to get misused. The question is how to keep the misuse to the minimum.

Lastly, I always resent anyone taking a stand that all issues and probable future issues should be resolved before any public program or scheme begins. There is no way that this is even remotely feasible. Even in our small decisions within the family, there is very less probability that everything will happen exactly as we have envisioned and planned it. And there we are talking about huge scaled government operations run by multiple actors. If we try to close and address all possible failures on day one, not a single program, project or plan can ever take off the ground. We have to understand that governments, like people, are making decisions based on currently available data, technologies and resources. Plans and programs take off ground and issues get addressed along the way. Doomsday portends and future disasters are scary and plausible, but rarely happen, because the programs and plans are constantly shifting and changing to meet new challenges. Multiple actors, including media, judiciary and the citizens along with the government will constantly work with public programs and robust versions emerge only and only when the program is off the ground and in some stage of implementation and never at the beginning.

AADHAR is a game changer for India. It has the potential to bring in numerous benefits. Government will have to be receptive and reactive in facing challenges to this flagship program and probably also proactive in addressing probable lapses that may occur. But debunking the entire concept of Unique Citizen Numbering due to fear of lapses will be like ‘killing a person today just because he/she will probably die from cancer in the future’.

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