January 16, 2018

The World’s Largest Digital Identity Programme: Aadhaar has become an important technological instrument to empower the poor and entitle them to get their benefits without any interruption or middlemen

Aadhaar is a game-changer. It has become an important technological instrument to empower the poor and entitle them to get their benefits without any interruption or middlemen. In this pursuit, Aadhaar is concretising the most important objective of Digital India: leading to digital inclusion and empowering common Indians. It is a marvel of innovation that uses safe and secured technology seeking to subserve the other objective of digital India namely transformation based upon technology which is affordable, inclusive and developmental. Today, 119 crore Indians have Aadhaar in a population of nearly 130 crore. The coverage of adult population is nearly 99%. Today, Aadhaar stands tall as an Indian innovation, globally acknowledged as the world’s largest digital identity programme.

One needs to understand the power of a smile on the face of a poor MGNREGA worker who had to run from pillar to post to get his entitlements. Now with Aadhaar linkage, MGNREGA wages are directly reaching into the bank accounts of poor people without the extraneous influence of any middleman. It has been widely reported in the media that with Aadhaar linkage nearly 80,000 fake teachers were found in a very small survey of the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Aadhaar is saving public money, which in effect is tax payers’ money. The net savings of nearly Rs. 57,000 Crore generated by disconnecting the subsidy in case of fake gas connection or fictitious ration cards or fake teachers will be utilised for more provisions for poor. Is it not a cause to celebrate when transparency is shinning upon the shoulders of Aadhaar?

One basic difference in the Aadhaar of UPA and Aadhaar of NDA needs to be appreciated. UPA-era Aadhaar was without any legislative approval: without any backing by a Parliamentary law. The first thing the Narendra Modi government did apart from making Aadhaar robust, safe and secure was to give it the security of a proper legal cover backed by a Parliamentary legislation. It has ample provisions for safe upkeep, creating a robust accountability mechanism and most importantly, powerful privacy provisions. Unauthorised use of biometrics data by anyone beyond permissible limits can invite severe punitive damages as also criminal prosecution. The core biometrics — the fingerprints and the iris — are duly protected by strong encryption.

More than six crore authentications are being done every day, nearly free of cost. A marvel of technology confirms digital identity by comparing the query of a number by fast matching with the iris and the fingerprint. UIDAI does not maintain a database of services or utilities of individuals linked with Aadhaar or individual details such as caste, religion, educational qualifications, medical records etc. Therefore profiling of individuals based on Aadhaar is nothing but an unfounded claim.

Aadhaar is a digital identity to supplement physical identity. Even the core biometrics under the present law can be revealed only in case of a compelling ground of national security when a designated joint secretary to the government of India makes a request based upon appropriate ground and the same is vetted and confirmed by a committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary and comprising the Law Secretary and IT Secretary and that too for a very limited period.

As many as 76 crore bank accounts have been verified using Aadhaar eKYC and this only gives a digital identity to your account so that in case of abuse for money laundering or terror funding, the ownership of the account cannot be denied. Ordinary citizens have nothing to worry but those who are involved in money laundering, patronising or promoting terror funding or other related heinous offences may have a lot to worry.

Some form of digital identity has become a common practice in today’s world. From motor vehicle licence to a voter id card containing all the details being routinely available on websites of respective authorities these days. A digital identity regulates entry in the Supreme Court or High Courts or government and corporate offices or media headquarters. To visit certain countries, one is supposed to confirm identity through fingerprints either for obtaining the visa or for any other purpose. Under the relevant Registration Act and Rules there are provisions that while executing land transfer documents you need to confirm your signature with your thumb impression — a practice being followed for more than 100 years. Even smartphones operate with fingerprints or face-recognition systems. One is curious to note that in all this, one does not have any objection but when it comes to Aadhaar serious objections relating to identity verifications are raised.

The government is of the view that in accordance with the Aadhaar Act, no poor person shall be denied his or her entitlement. Whether it is food or other entitlements it must be provided using other identity documents and effort shall be made to bring them on Aadhaar.

On the issue of privacy we need to have greater clarity. In the wake of the Supreme Court judgment now the ground rule of privacy is well laid out. It is equally important to note that under the garb of privacy innovation cannot be killed. India is becoming a global hub of startups. Data is important for innovation and India has the potential to emerge as a big global centre of data analysis: the new exciting frontier of technological innovation, economy and employment. Artificial intelligence and IoT have great potential for innovation by using data. Most important, the plea of privacy cannot become the shield of the corrupt and terrorists. The government has already set up a panel under the leadership of an eminent retired judge of the Supreme Court Justice Srikrishna, to recommend for a robust data protection law and we expect the report soon.

However, it needs to be reiterated that the Aadhaar ecosystem, as far as safety and security of the core biometrics is concerned, is very safe and reliable and is subject to regular audits by experts. The UIDAI has recently added another feather in its cap by making provision for virtual ID for those who desire virtual ID coverage over Aadhaar numbers.

The success of Aadhaar is finding its resonance world over. The World Development Report 2016 released by the World Bank stated, “A digital identification system such as India’s Aadhaar, by overcoming complex information problems, helps willing governments promote the inclusion of disadvantaged groups.”

The poor man is happy and feels empowered. Aadhaar has given a big aadhaar (base) to India’s digital accomplishments. It is time to recognise its worth.


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