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Sunday, March 30, 2014


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.” 


naavi said...

Nandan has also developed the arrogance of Congress to brush aside all objections. Now he is claiming that aadhar is his credential to be an MP. This shows his dishonesty

Harsh said...

Earlier battle between Home Ministry and UIDAI about population register and Aadhar are clear manifestations of lack of intellectual rigour and incoherence in policy sphere under UPA. Conceptually, AAdhar is a good idea. Only hope next Government will find ways to tweak it and make it more useful. Otherwise it's fate may turn out be that of pet project of top boss in any organisation. Boss gone, project gone. Only problem is that they do not involve ₹50000 crore of tax payer's money.

Unknown said...

This is an argument known since its inception.It really beats me how some one like Nilekhani went about solving the problem.How much protection they have put for Infosys network?Or how they safeguard the employees enrollment? Is it that Nilekani is incompetent to fore see the challenges?No, it is not, it is just the fact that this 37,500 crores is not coming from his or his investor's pocket but from tax payer. Had he applied the same jurisprudence to Aadhar, and identity management, he would have been excused as having given his best shot. In my view he did not apply his mind or give his best shot, did a shoddy job just because it is not his money.This attitude is loathsome for a public servant. He is no different from some one who embezzles money.

Anonymous said...

Aadhaar is idea which is well conceived and well planned. The figures (Costs of issuing Aadhar) quoted by author seems like have come from BJP headquarters in Nagpur rather than the Govt.

The similar systems are in place across the world including poor countries such as Uganda, Tanzania in Africa. The courts have not called it a scam nor CAG has found any issues in tendering process.

Anonymous said...

Aadhar was conceived as an identity card not a proof of citizenship - for example, the social security card in the US serves as an identification number - even non-citizens can get it. I agree that the implementation could have been done in a much better way - I had volunteered for some technical aspects of the program and the rush to do things was very evident - the implementation environment was certainly haphazard!

Sanjay Choubey said...

"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":

Swapan, as usual inuendos from you. Here is what your colleague Subbu Swamy, said yesterday:

"So far Rs 4,000 crore has been spent on Aadhaar. Also, more than Rs 12,560 crore has been reserved for it"

Eveny Swamy, arguably a conspiracy theory expert, could not think beyond 4000 crores.

Regarding SC decision, you are conveniently ignoring that it was necessitated becos not 100% population has been yet covered by the scheme, hence benefits solely based on this would amount to discrimination.

Time and again it has been clarified by UIDAI that aadhar is an id meant solely for directly reaching to the beneficiary. If any other institutions like banks etc intends to use it for additional verifications, it is free to do so but not mandated.

Privacy concerns: Very weak argument. If you have a Drv Lic, PAN or for that matter a bank account, it is already compromised. What is your specific argument against aadhar here again?

Illegal Citizenship: On one hand you praise SC decision, rightly, which says it is not proof of citizenship, on the other hand, you say it will give illegal immigrants proof of citizenship. Bunkum. Anyone can get any id/address proof line pan/drvlic/ration card etc in India for for a sum. So whats new? At least due to biometrics, duplicacy can be kept to a minimum. Going forward methods can be implemented to identify and root out lacunaes.

Linking of aadhar to direct cash transfer means more public coming into the banking system, which was again one of the primary objectives.
As readers, we understand your complusion to write a column/blog a day to earn, but to trash something without much rhyme or reason is deplorable.

Intellectual Integrity: Between a Ananth Kumar and Nandan Nilekani, that's a no brainer.

But my doubt is on your intellectual integrity who sees no wrong in your politics of choice but everything wrong in opponents politics.

Anonymous said...

Apart from many inaccuracies of illogical reasoning and fallacious arguments, the article contains a patently incorrect figure of Rs 37,182 crore as money spent on Aadhaar. The correct position as given by Wikipedia is as below:
“About Rs. 38 billion (Rs. 3800 crore) has been spent totally on Aadhaar program from inception (28 January 2009) till 31 December 2013 with enrollment of over 600 million (60 crore) persons. This cumulative expenditure is projected to be Rs. 40 billion (Rs.4,000 crore) by 31 March 2014. It includes operating costs as well as capital expenditure (infrastructure of land, building, machinery).”

samAlochaka said...

Nandan should be tried for treason.