The Aadhaar debate: Is common ground possible?

Discussions on Aadhaar often descend into shouting matches. One way to make progress is to break it down into smaller bits to understand the nuances

N S Ramnath

[Final of the Challenge Réseau Ferré de France–Trophée Monal 2012 (épée world cup tournament in Paris): Diego Confalonieri (left) and Fabian Kauter (right). Photograph by © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.5] 

Recently, one of my friends got into a Twitter argument on Aadhaar. It stretched, off and on, for three days. One night, while lying in his bed, it struck him that he was staring at the dim reflection of light from outside on the blades of the speeding fan, instead of sleeping. He was thinking about the debate. In fact, he hadn’t slept well the previous two nights either.

What began as a gentle disagreement about some point on Aadhaar had descended into nasty attacks. His attempts to be reasonable were met with ridicule. His intelligence and integrity were questioned. Some of his tweets were twisted and he felt people ganged up against him.

They were not anonymous trolls. Some of them were his acquaintances, people whom he had met, people whom he knew professionally. That night, he promised himself that he will stop engaging, that he will forget the whole episode, and focus on his work and his family. “It got too personal,” he told me a few days later. There was a tinge of sadness in his voice.

We live in polarised times. It’s no wonder that debates on Aadhaar are getting polarised too. But, sometimes, these debates seem to get too virulent too soon, as if Godwin’s Law (which states “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1”) is on steroids these days. It might even be starting with the assumption that the other side is up to no good.

After all, if you see Aadhaar as something that can do no wrong to good people, you will dismiss even honest concerns about the project, and question the intention of your ideological opponent: “He is opposing it because he has vested interests, or maybe there is too much pressure from his social group.” Again, if you only see it as a surveillance tool, then everything it does will seem to be aiding an ill-intentioned machinery, and you will accuse your opponent of being a stooge of the government or a big business, or a fool who simply doesn’t get it.

Once you are sold into a big idea, it then becomes easy to cherry pick facts, and device interpretations to support your conclusion. That approach makes for very interesting television debates—and Twitter arguments—but does little to take the discussion forward. What if we keep our own ideology and our views on others’ intent aside, and look at the entire debate much like the way we would if we plan to buy a house or a car? That’s exactly what Nicholas Agar, a philosopher based in New Zealand suggested to us during a conversation recently.

After listening to several television interviews, following online debates, reading newspaper columns, and talking to people, I could see there are at least five major sets of arguments—around design, implementation, scope, speed and legal framework. However, they quickly move into a binary—is Aadhaar good or is it bad—and then descend to questioning intent and motivations.

Moving away from the binaries and attributing motivations would give space for more people to participate. Some might be okay with the design choices behind Aadhaar, but not with implementation; some might be okay with the speed, but not the scope; some might be okay with the idea but not the legal and institutional framework we have in the country right now.

Here’s a summary of my learnings:

Design

What are the arguments about?

They relate to basic design choices the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) team made in the early days of the project. For example: that they would use biometrics to ensure uniqueness; that it wouldn’t be a smart card, but an online ID; that the number would be random (and would have no information embedded in it); that it would be just an identity (not associated with a specific privilege, unlike say driver’s licence, which can serve both as a proof of identity and give you the right to drive a vehicle); that it would not be about citizenship, only residency; that they would collect as little information as possible; and so on.

What do they say?

Almost all of these design choices have pluses and minuses. For example, smart cards, one of the options the team considered in the earlier stages, have their advantages, but they are also more expensive, come with expiry dates, and are prone to damage, especially in rural areas. Similarly, biometrics have their advantages and disadvantages. Debates on these issues are often like debates between iPhone and Android fans, each of whom will only speak about the advantages of their favourite device and the disadvantages of the other. The arguments are often never ending.

How do we take it forward?

There is nothing one can do about design choices today. They were made back in 2009. Arguing about the advantages of smart cards might be a bit too late today (even though I have met people who believe there is still a chance). A more productive way would be to take these as given, as the systemic constraints, and focus on what can be done to mitigate the risks, and to best leverage what’s available.

Implementation

What are the arguments about?

A couple of years ago most of the arguments on implementation were around enrolments. They haven’t disappeared, and they are unlikely to. But, in the recent past, the focus of the arguments has shifted to applications of Aadhaar such as its use in the public distribution system (PDS) or noon meal scheme and various other government subsidies.

What do they say?

The critics are mainly concerned about exclusion. Implementation can go wrong on several accounts. Since Aadhaar is only a platform and not a solution, the implementation in most cases starts with solution design. For example, ration shops sold subsidised commodities to anyone on production of a ration card. However, in one state, after linking Aadhaar with ration card, the system allowed only one previously specified member of the household to buy from a ration shop. It led to hardships. But even a fairly well designed solution can go wrong because of buggy devices or unreliable network. The common man—often from the weakest section of society, with no safety nets—ends up being the loser. Critics also point out, mishandling of data could turn out to be a serious security issue.

Supporters say that it’s an evolving system—technology gets better, the network improves and bugs get fixed. They also point out that the critics tend to generalise. Every single instance of failure is highlighted as if the entire system is bad. Many of them find fault with the critics who only like to curse the darkness and will not moving a finger to solve the problems they point out to.

Both critics and supporters say the other side is not willing to engage.

How do we take it forward?

In this case, perhaps there is no need for engagement. It’s good for critics to remain independent, so they do their job as well as they can. And it’s good for the supporters to let the wall be, because in the case of Aadhaar, a good number of the vocal supporters are—or were—involved in the project. What’s needed is a feedback mechanism. It’s good for Aadhaar as a system if they use the feedback to make it stronger. And it’s bad for the system as a whole if they try to muzzle the critics. In at least three instances (see here and here) that’s exactly what the government seems to have done.

Scope

What are the arguments about?

Aadhaar is basically a unique digital identity. The Indian government started using it for cooking gas subsidies and rural employment guarantee payments to ensure that fake IDs are not used to claim these subsidies. Over the years the scope has increased. Recently, the income tax department made it mandatory to link Aadhaar with PAN card and quote the Aadhaar number for filing tax returns, because it sees it as a way to weed out duplicate PAN cards.  

What do they say?

Critics argue that the expanding scope changes the very nature of Aadhaar. For example, it was promoted as strictly voluntary—and needed only by those who want to get government subsidies. But by trying to link it with PAN card (which is not a subsidy) it has in effect made it mandatory. More recently, there were reports that Aadhaar might be mandatory to board a plane. This kind of expansion of scope—bit by bit—can change Aadhaar into a surveillance tool. Some critics have also questioned the use of Aadhaar by the private sector.

Supporters point out that Aadhaar was designed for multiple use—by both the government and the private sector. It will be used by those who want to ensure that the person on the other side is indeed real. Since one person can have only one Aadhaar, it can be an effective way to de-duplicate other cards, such as PAN. They dismiss the critics as paranoid, and that they indulge in slippery slope fallacy.

Critics say supporters dismiss their genuine concerns about the risks. Supporters say critics indulge in FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) to stall even genuine applications.

How do we take it forward?

Often the arguments on scope are in fact arguments against making Aadhaar mandatory. In some cases, the inability of the government to address the concerns either by action or by explanation kicks off intense arguments. In either case, more information and deeper engagement between the two sides might clear the air and make way for progress.

Speed

What are the arguments about?

If we divide Aadhaar into two phases—phase one, enrolment and phase two, application—the country has clearly moved to phase two after it crossed the milestone of one billion enrolments. Now, the government seems to be stepping on the gas on Aadhaar’s applications. It is now being linked to a range of public services from fertilizer subsidy to driver’s licence.

What do they say?

Critics say that applications are being rolled out with great speed without institutional mechanisms in place to absorb or remedy the risks of something going wrong. For example, UIDAI’s complaints and grievance redress system can only be described as opaque. The problem compounds with other elements in India Stack (the applications being built around Aadhaar). To launch one scheme after another without having institutional mechanisms in place is like launching a train without laying the tracks.

Supporters say that the speed is justified (one person said, “Are we going too fast? I would say we are going too slow.”), and it’s important to use the existing momentum to get things done. Many projects fail not because someone shoots it down, but because people slow it down. Momentum is lost, people lose interest, and it slowly goes into a state of inactiveness.

How do we take it forward?

Arguments on speed tend to be subjective. But, few can deny the fact that technology can often run faster than a society’s ability to adjust to it. Former UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani often talks about India becoming a data rich nation before becoming an economically rich nation. The idea is that individuals can use data to better their lives. However, if India becomes data rich while remaining institutionally poor, generating data might hurt more than it can help. Critics and supporters thus might find common ground in identifying the institutions the country will need.

Laws

What are the arguments about?

India still doesn’t have a privacy law. Sometime in the future (many hope in the near future) a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court will look at issues related to privacy in the context of Aadhaar. Right now, as the government links more projects to Aadhaar, some of the biggest debates on Aadhaar are around privacy.

What do they say?

Critics argue that it’s dangerous to start using Aadhaar at a time the country has no privacy laws. The incompetence of government agencies will end up compromising citizens’ privacy even if there is no mala fide intent. So, critics argue that the government should press the pause button on Aadhaar till we have laws in place. Supporters say that we need privacy laws irrespective of whether we have Aadhaar or not. By focusing only on Aadhaar, critics take the attention away from bigger threats to privacy that come from tech giants such as Google and Facebook. Some have also argued that privacy is the concern only of the rich, and the poor are more concerned about getting access to food, healthcare, education and finance.

How do we take it forward?

There is always a trade-off between privacy and convenience. However, few would argue against the basic principles such as notice, disclosure, and restrictions on purpose (Justice AP Shah listed nine principles in his report). They apply to all. However, it’s not just about the law. We also need to invest in technology and digital risk literacy to uphold privacy. As in the case of implementation, there is a huge scope for critics and supporters to work together.

Aadhaar is a simple idea—give every Indian resident a unique identity—and it has far reaching consequences. That so many stood in long lines to get Aadhaar (even long before the government started linking it to various programmes) can be considered a vote for the idea. However, as the scope expands, there is also a need for debates and discussions that go beyond the binaries.

Arun Maira, in a recent piece on technology and democracy, wrote: “Some people believe that technology can provide the solution for democratic decision-making. When everyone has a smartphone, all can give their preferences on any issue with the click of a button. Thus, they say, governments can easily determine what the people want.

“However, for direct democracy to work, those called upon to vote on an issue must understand the implications of the decision proposed. They must be explained these implications in terms they understand. And they must be willing to give their time to understand these implications, and not merely vote for what they instantly like.”

This kind of understanding demands what Maira calls democratic deliberation. It’s about having a process for people with different set of ideas to come together to express them and to listen to other points of view.

Often, a platform like Twitter is ill suited for discussions such as this (as my friend found out). But as a society, we need to find out ways to have such discussions sooner than later.

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About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Journalist

NS Ramnath is a senior writer and part of the core team at Founding Fuel. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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