By Swapan Dasgupta
It is really not surprising that Aadhar cards have become a talking point in the election campaign of Bangalore South from where Nandan Nilekani, the former chairman of the UIDAI is contesting as a Congress candidate. Although Nilekani is otherwise very careful to focus exclusively on local issues and not allow the focus to shift to the fact that voters are not electing a local MP to fix their water and garbage problems but contributing to the formation of a government at the Centre, he has deviated from the script on the Aadhar card issue. He has flaunted the enrolment of 60 crore people in the Aadhar schema as a colossal achievement and made it a part of his “problem solving” credentials.
Nilekani has every right to flaunt his credentials as the architect of the famed “One Indian, one identity” scheme which the Congress counts among its significant achievements. However, in the light of a Supreme Court reaffirming that Aadhar cards are not mandatory for citizens to benefit from the government’s welfare schemes, it becomes necessary to ask whether a programme that involved a colossal amount of taxpayers’ money—the estimates vary wildly from the stated government estimate of Rs 37,182 crore for the entire project to other estimates of Rs 50,000 crore—was really money down the drain. More to the point, after the apex court’s strictures, the next government will have to ask whether the additional piece of plastic in people’s wallets can play any meaningful role in the future. In short, can Aadhar be salvaged?
Much of the problem associated with the Aadhar numbers stem from the constant shifting of goalposts. When it was first conceived, the card set out to facilitate direct cash transfers to beneficiaries of government schemes such as MNREGA, pensions, scholarships, etc. The idea was laudable and was aimed at reducing corruption and ensuring welfare benefits flowed to the beneficiaries in toto. Again, apart from the fact that each individual would have a unique number and get their biometric details registered to avoid duplication, it was a more evolved version of the direct-to-bank transfers thought up the Rajasthan Government during Vasundhara Raje’s first administration.
So what went wrong? To begin with, it must be stated that identity cards often end up with multiple uses, often far removed from their original purpose. A driving licence, for example, is a permission to drive motor vehicles. In reality, it becomes a proof of identity and even address, used for showing off to both bank managers and the CISF guards at airports. A PAN card too does more than facilitate money transactions and tax returns. It becomes a supporting document for passports, gas applications, et al.
From day one, as an official document, Aadhar was destined for multiple functions. The problem arose when its purpose was extended from receiving government benefits to establishing identity and permanent residence. In other words, what was a facilitating document for eligible citizens became an instrument for establishing the right to be in India and, by implication, citizenship. And this is precisely how it is being increasingly used by non-citizens as an additional documentation, along with ration cards and driving licences, to establish citizenship. Various sting operations have clearly indicated that it takes as little as Rs 500 to get a permanent Aadhar number for those not eligible to get it.
The point I am making is not unique. Throughout the debate leading up to the mass-scale issuance of Aadhar cards, various bodies including the Home Ministry and the Intelligence Bureau had stated their grave doubts over the long-term security implications of the card. Those with an interest in civil liberties had also pointed to the possibility that this data could very easily be misused by a vindictive and intrusive state to invade the privacy of an individual. Finally, a parliamentary committee on finance had studied the scheme and pronounced it to be a bad idea.
The point is that what the Supreme Court pronounced last week had been said by various authorities before. However, so profound was the political backing for Nilekani that his hugely expensive application to join the political class was rushed through, brushing aside all objections. A scheme whose implications affected the very “idea” of Indian citizenship was put into operation without the sanction of Parliament and without the cast iron safeguards that were needed.
The reason for the rush was obvious: the Congress leadership believed that Aadhar would redefine the rules of electoral competition and establish it as a natural party of government for the near future. Nilekani was in a rush to meet a deadline and hence the speed.
From all accounts Nilekani has achieved a target of sorts—though even he is clueless as to how many “non-Indians” and illegal migrants have acquired a card to establish a proof of permanent residency. However, the Supreme Court has proved a party pooper.
Nilekani is a talented individual with a proven record of corporate governance. Why did he rush into a venture knowing fully well its pitfalls? My real complaint is not that Aadhar was flawed—some of the best ideas need to be tweaked. The more important question is: what does it tell us about Nilekani’s intellectual integrity? What does it tell us of a political culture that involves spending public money to advance an individual career?
Nilekani may or may not win the Lok Sabha election but he cannot avoid being grilled for walking into a disaster zone with his eyes wide open. “When a man of great intellect goes wrong”, Nirad Chaudhury once wrote about Lord Curzon, “his intellect only makes his wrongness incurable.”