Pratyaya | Niraadhaar Noise

Let us stop spreading baseless paranoia about Aadhaar.

The Supreme Court on Monday said that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory to access government services. I haven’t read the order yet but there are many who argue that necessary legislation should be put in place before Aadhaar is linked to public services. If there is no proper legislative backing then there should be a stay on the entire process (of data collection). But it is not clear as to how courts can get into making policy choices.  Moreover, it is not as if the policy interventions by courts are consistent. A few months ago, the Bombay High Court, while responding to a PIL on bogus ration cards, said the following:

When Pai said that the government is short-staffed and has also been burdened by the new LPG scheme, the court stated that the government is also short of vision. “Link everything to the Aadhaar card and make one team to run it. No great changes need to be made, the state will have to only link the card to the other using a software,” the bench remarked.

While one court thinks Aadhaar should be used to eliminate bogus cards, the Supreme Court feels that it should not be made mandatory.

Identifying and targeting the correct beneficiaries is the core of any public distribution system. According to a study by IIM Ahmedabad, for every Rs 4 spent on PDS only Rs 1 reaches the poor and 57% of the PDS food grain does not reach the intended people. The leakage that can be attributed to bogus ration cards alone is 16.7%. The current PDS is dysfunctional and expecting it to deliver results is like flogging a dead horse.

Aadhaar is a mechanism designed to overcome the above described hurdles. It is merely an identification tool for delivery of public services and not recognition of citizenship. The advantage of biometrics in eliminating duplicate records is detailed by my colleague in Pragati . Even if a person registers at multiple centers, the de-duplication scheme can identity and flag these records based on biometrics. To build a system of this nature, it is essential to collect certain necessary attributes that can uniquely identify an individual. UIDAI hence collects fingerprints and iris-scan to generate a unique identification number for this combination. This number will be used for tracking the public services or linked to bank accounts for cash transfers.

Activism by creating distrust against the State by non-profit entities has become a fashionable mode of survival. There is an anti-privacy brigade against Aadhaar spreading paranoia that by collecting biometric information, the government is invading into our privacy. But the government more or less has the same information already with them. For instance, to lease a flat in Mumbai there is a registration process where finger prints, signature, photo identity and photo scan by their cameras has to done. A copy of the registration documents along with phone numbers and addresses of two individuals should be submitted at the police station. The government anyway has more information (and less efficiently stored) with them than that is being collected during the Aadhaar process. It is difficult to understand how one is a privacy violation and the other is not.

The Supreme Court’s decision to not make Aadhaar mandatory has been celebrated as a crippling blow to the government by the anti-privacy brigade. Nothing can be farther from the truth. There can be many ways by which a government can ensure that people get Aadhaar card. The opportunity/ transaction costs of not having Aadhaar can be made so high that people will eventually be forced to get one. For instance, our transaction activity is captured by cameras at all ATM machines and those who think it is a violation of privacy can always go to a bank and withdraw cash. But how many of those who shout about privacy from rooftops actually go to a bank to do simple transactions? Similar costs can be imposed for those without Aadhaar.

The Aadhaar is a much needed mechanism for identifying and targeting beneficiaries and it is here to stay. Instead of spreading needless paranoia we should strengthen this process, if required, through a proper legislative backing. Our energies should be in this direction.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.