When NS Ramnath and Charles Assisi were researching and writing their book, The Aadhaar Effect: Why the World’s Largest Identity Project Matters, the debate around Aadhaar was loud and polarised. Much of that has quietened down after the Supreme Court judgement—which came in just after the book was published—on the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar Act, 2016. Yet, there are several misconceptions and not many know the real story of “why this identity project matters”.
A power-packed panel threw light on some of these issues at the formal launch of the book at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in Delhi on January 11.
Along with the two co-authors, the panellists included
Ram Sewak Sharma, the chairman of TRAI and former director general of UIDAI
TN Ninan, chairman, Business Standard
Parth Shah, founder president of the Centre for Civil Society
Shakti Sinha, director of NMML, who moderated the panel.
There has been much criticism around exclusions, overreach by mandatory linking of Aadhaar with all kinds of services, and privacy.
The team that worked on Aadhaar worked with two hypothesis, says RS Sharma: that large numbers don't have a verifiable identity document, and there are leakages in the benefits programmes.
Aadhaar is built as an identity platform. It did only two things: it created a unique identity for people, and provided online authentication that x is x. Which domains will use that service was not controlled by UIDAI. Exclusion does not come from Aadhaar per se, but from its uses, Sharma explains.
“Identity is an essential part of any service delivery domain,” he adds. “With Aadhaar we wanted to create just an identity platform. Others can ride on top of it. (For example) for driving licence you need the identity and the certificate that this person can drive.” This platform can be put to multiple uses where it is beneficial. It is scalable infrastructure. “Whether it is mandatory or which sector will use it, is a public policy question,” he says.
Parth Shah adds, the title of the Aadhaar Act itself is very clear on what Aadhaar is supposed to be, its purpose, and where it can and cannot be used. “The policy was clear at least in the letter of the law, but the politics was not”, hence the pressure to link Aadhaar to various services.
TN Ninan pointed to the larger story that is developing around India Stack. This is the bunch of tech platforms—the national payment platform (UPI), eKYC, DigiLocker, etc. These tech platforms can be used by businesses to reach out at levels we have not been able to reach before. They allow for a non-asset-based, flow-based credit system that small enterprises could now use to get loans. With this system you can deepen the credit market quite dramatically.
“If we can create an array of technology platforms—and Aadhaar is a foundational tech platform in that respect—then you are creating the base for fresh businesses to start off and prosper and also reaching out to the levels of the population which have been outside the market in many ways,” Ninan says.
India Stack is already doing this to an extent, but “the real applications are yet to begin”, says Sharma..
On the concerns around privacy, Sharma says, “When you link Aadhaar, the UID system does not know what you've linked it for. It is one way linkage. The bank account knows your Aadhaar number, but your Aadhaar doesn't know your bank account number. That federated data structure was deliberately created to avoid profiling and mega data stores.”
Yet, we needed the privacy and the data protection law long ago, says Ninan.
It calls for an urgent public policy debate on the kind of checks and balances required.
Such a complex project requires people who understand the different dimensions of the project and its implications, adds Shah.