[Interestingly, (Ajay Bhushan) Pandey (the CEO of the Unique Identification
Authority of India) does not [any longer] invoke the UIDAI’s pet claim that
Aadhaar is a “voluntary facility”. This claim never made much sense, and
lost all plausibility with the compulsory PAN-Aadhaar linkage. Changing
gear, Pandey now argues that the possession of Aadhaar is a reasonable
demand on Indian residents. Just as someone who refuses to get a driving
licence must forego driving, he says, someone who rejects Aadhaar must
“make a conscious choice of foregoing the benefits”. This analogy is deeply
misleading. First, what an Aadhaar-less person has to forego is not just
any odd benefit, like being able to drive a car, but a whole gamut of
essential facilities. For a person with taxable income, it could even mean
going to prison for failing to file tax returns. Second, a driving licence,
unlike Aadhaar, does not entail any serious infringement of privacy or
civil liberties. ***Enrolling for Aadhaar, by contrast, means submitting
oneself to lifelong state surveillance, or at least the risk of it***
[emphasis added].]

Let’s not suspend disbelief
The UIDAI’s touching faith in Aadhaar blinds it to the dangers of the
project

Written by Jean Drèze

| Updated: August 10, 2017 6:33 am

 C R Sasikumar

In two recent articles (‘Criticism without Aadhaar’, IE, May 13, and ‘The
demonisation of Aadhaar’, IE, July 12), Ajay Bhushan Pandey, CEO of the
Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), responds to various
criticisms of Aadhaar. Pandey must be credited for having made the UIDAI’s
case with clarity and reason. The case, however, is far from convincing.

Interestingly, Pandey does not invoke the UIDAI’s pet claim that Aadhaar is
a “voluntary facility”. This claim never made much sense, and lost all
plausibility with the compulsory PAN-Aadhaar linkage. Changing gear, Pandey
now argues that the possession of Aadhaar is a reasonable demand on Indian
residents. Just as someone who refuses to get a driving licence must forego
driving, he says, someone who rejects Aadhaar must “make a conscious choice
of foregoing the benefits”. This analogy is deeply misleading. First, what
an Aadhaar-less person has to forego is not just any odd benefit, like
being able to drive a car, but a whole gamut of essential facilities. For a
person with taxable income, it could even mean going to prison for failing
to file tax returns. Second, a driving licence, unlike Aadhaar, does not
entail any serious infringement of privacy or civil liberties. Enrolling
for Aadhaar, by contrast, means submitting oneself to lifelong state
surveillance, or at least the risk of it.

Pandey assures us that there is no danger of Aadhaar being used as a tool
of surveillance. This is like the Ministry of Rural Development telling us
that nuclear weapons will never be used for a first strike. The UIDAI has
little more control on the uses of Aadhaar than the Ministry of Rural
Development has on the use of nuclear weapons. It is mainly the government,
not the UIDAI, that uses Aadhaar. If the government decides to use Aadhaar
as a tool of surveillance, the UIDAI (or the Aadhaar Act for that matter)
is unlikely to stop it.

Along with downplaying these concerns, Pandey reiterates the UIDAI’s grand
claims on the benefits of Aadhaar, including bogus estimates of government
“savings”. “Critics who dispute these figures,” he adds, “may refer to the
World Bank’s Digital Dividend Report 2016 which has estimated that Aadhaar
could annually save the central government US$ 11 billion if used in all
welfare programmes”. The said report, however, does not present any savings
estimates. All it does is to make a passing reference to another study, by
Shweta Banerjee and others, where it is pointed out (again in passing) that
the Indian government spends about $11 billion every year on five major
cash transfer programmes. There is not a shred of evidence in it of
Aadhaar-enabled savings, actual or potential. In recent months, some of us
have tried hard to uncover the basis of the government’s savings figures.
We have found none so far. For instance, when a clarification was sought
from the Ministry of Rural Development under the Right to Information Act,
the ministry was unable to go beyond the general statement that “savings
are in terms of increasing the efficiency and reducing the delays in
payments”.

The only savings figures that have a semblance of substance are those
pertaining to the LPG subsidy. Even those, however, are very speculative,
and have been so distorted and misquoted that the chief economic advisor,
one of the co-authors of the original estimates, had to distance himself
from them (‘Clearing the air on LPG’, with Siddhartha George, IE, 2 April
2016). It is another matter that the CEA himself initiated the confusion
with a misleading claim, published in New York Times on July 22, 2015, that
Aadhaar had already saved more than Rs 12,000 crore of government money.

Aside from government savings, Pandey argues that Aadhaar is also a
blessing for ordinary people. The latest UIDAI refrain is that Aadhaar
“empowers” the citizen. Really? How does it empower an elderly person who
lost her pension for lack of Aadhaar? Or a child who has to run from pillar
to post because her name is spelt differently in the school register and
her Aadhaar card? Or a destitute widow who finds herself unable to buy her
monthly food rations because she fails the Aadhaar-based biometric
authentication (ABBA) test? Against this, Pandey’s main argument is that
“the citizen is also empowered because it is harder for anyone to
impersonate him”. That does not sound like a great consolation for those
who have been deprived of critical entitlements, or who resent Aadhaar’s
“electronic leash”, as Shyam Divan aptly calls it.

Finally, Pandey dismisses the “collateral damage” done by Aadhaar in
various contexts. He claims that evidence of this damage is limited to
stray anecdotes, such as “a few instances of elderly people being denied
food rations”. That is a very complacent reading of the alarming stories
that are pouring in day after day. Further, the evidence goes much beyond
isolated stories. Talking of the public distribution system (PDS), for
instance, there is clear evidence from both official statistics and
independent surveys that in Jharkhand alone millions of people are
currently unable to buy their food rations due to ABBA-related problems.
Further, the victims often belong to very vulnerable families, for whom the
PDS is a lifeline.

Aside from downplaying the problem, Pandey claims that it reflects a
failure of the “field agencies” to comply with the government’s
instructions. He presents a novel interpretation of Section 7 of the
Aadhaar Act, whereby these agencies are bound to ensure that a person who
fails the ABBA test is able to use the PDS in some other way. He claims
that instructions to this effect have been issued and that “violators have
to be punished”. Coming from someone who urges the critics to pay more
attention to “the facts on the ground”, this is a little lame. The
situation on the ground is that this interpretation of Section 7, if it
applies, is routinely violated, and that no violator of these alleged
instructions has ever been punished.

Ultimately, the fixation with Aadhaar in government circles rests more on
faith than facts. The last line of Pandey’s first article reflects this
touching faith: “Aadhaar is India‘s technological marvel which, while
empowering people, will enable India to leapfrog towards the status of a
developed nation”. This faith seems to blind the UIDAI to the severe damage
Aadhaar often causes on the ground. It’s time to get real.



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Peace Is Doable

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