The Aadhaar Card: India’s identity crisis

Last Updated: Sat, Oct 12, 2013 02:26 hrs

There are times when I think India would be best off returning to the days before industrialisation and development hit us – when we had earthen lamps and oil wicks, horse carriages and bullock carts, mud floors and hand-written registers (maybe fashioned from palm leaves) on which records were kept.

I think this when the entire state of Andhra Pradesh shuts down over the Telangana issue.

And I think this when someone who has stood in a queue to get her Aadhaar card from 7:00 am is told at 5:30 pm that she doesn’t exist.

I haven’t lined up for the Aadhaar card yet, and I’m hoping I will never have to. So far, I’ve heard several accounts from people, of their having spent an entire day running around, trying to prove they do exist. In many cases, their names didn’t show up in the census records, and that was all that mattered.

One wonders why Nandan Nilekani decided the country needed yet another form of identification – and why this card requires such sensitive biometric data.

The reason the government has come up with is that the Aadhaar card is the only foolproof way of making sure people don’t misuse the government’s subsidies.

When the Supreme Court on Tuesday continued to restrain the government from making the card mandatory for transfer of social welfare benefits to its people, the Attorney General appearing on behalf of the government said that gas cylinders were being distributed at a subsidy which costs the government Rs 40,000 crore.

There are two flaws in this argument. The first is that nothing in India is foolproof – I know someone whose neighbour told her she paid a tout a small sum to get her an Aadhaar card. If the neighbour is telling the truth, an Aadhaar card is yet another piece of documentation that can be bought.

The second is that, in order for the government to spend Rs 40,000 crore on subsidy, it would require all 1.2 billion estimated citizens to buy 9 gas cylinders a year at the subsidised rate. This logically cannot be happening.

As for the Aadhaar card itself, what troubles me is not just that the government will know more about us than Google does; it’s also the pointlessness of the exercise. Why should those who already have markers of their identity – passports, driving licences, ration cards, voter IDs and so on, have to stand in a queue for yet another marker of identity?

In a recent interview with Forbes India, Nilekani attributed the “success” of the Aadhaar scheme to the speed with which he proceeded. The same article quoted sources saying that Nilekani had confided in them that he had convinced the three people who mattered most – UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, her son and political heir Rahul Gandhi, and Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani.

The speed with which the system has been put in place belies the inefficiency of the process. This operates at several levels.

At the legislative level, the Cabinet has cleared the National Identification Authority of India Bill, which provides legal status to the Unique Identification Authority of India, and legal backing to the Aadhaar card.

But, while media reports have said it “seeks to define the penalties in case of misuse of data collected under the project”, there is no indication of how it will prevent the misuse; it is not even clear what these penalties are.

The other indication of inefficiency comes from the data collected from the UIDAI Technology Centre in Bangalore, and presented as a graphic in the Forbes India article. It states that the total enrolments received are 565 million, whereas only 430 million UIDs have been generated. The monthly enrolment is estimated at 30-35 million, with only 10 million authentications over the last five months. Why is there such a disparity?

The collection of biometric data has been outsourced to private contractors. But there are no safeguards in place for misuse of data either by these contractors, or by the government itself. If Aadhaar cards are to be linked to bank accounts, how dangerous will the availability of biometric data prove? And who will be held accountable?

There are other provisions which are even more troubling. The UIDAI says that people with no identity proof can be introduced by those who do have an Aadhaar card. Since the UIDAI is not restricted to Indian citizens, and is open to Indian residents, this could spawn a racket involving illegal immigrants.

Recent news reports have said Nandan Nilekani plans to contest in the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections on a Congress ticket. It may be argued that more than half of India has already voted for him. But most of those who have applied for the Aadhaar card don’t seem to know it is voluntary at the moment. Even more worryingly, it isn’t being treated as voluntary by some governments.

Ironically, the Aadhaar card aims at making financial transactions easier by introducing an electronic Know Your Customer service, which allows instant transfer of a user’s photograph, address and signature digitally. And yet, obtaining it involves standing in a queue all day long, at the end of which you may be told you don’t exist.

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The author is a writer based in Chennai.

She blogs at and tweets at  @k_nandini

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