In a debate on the Aadhaar Bill, commentators from academia and civil society will weigh in on issues around potential benefits and privacy concerns.
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Every developed country has some sort of identity registration (example, Social Insurance Number, Social Security Number etc.). One could ask: then what is wrong with India having Aadhaar1. Given the informal state of Indian economy, biometric identification makes sense. It does seem like a good tool for transferring government benefits. It may even be a tool to loosen the stranglehold of the local elite by reducing the dependence of the local population on them for receiving legally entitled benefits.
Yet, given the state of our privacy laws and our public institutions, many thoughtful people have strong reservations about Aadhaar. Could it be used for mass surveillance? Is it needed? Does the money bill2 that made it statutory have enough safety features built into it? Doubts linger.
We believe that it would be timely to get people who are likely to have thought about these issues to comment on them. We feel that there would be greater clarity in asking people to answer the same questions with specific answers. The participants of the debate are: Raju Rajagopal
(Former Civil Society Outreach Coordinator, Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), Jean Drèze
(Visiting Professor at Allahabad University and Honorary Professor at the Delhi School of Economics), Bharat Ramaswami
(Professor of Economics at Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi Centre), and Reetika Khera
(Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi).
Responses to the following questions will be posted on I4I over the next few days:
1. The government already has the means to collect a lot of information on citizens (example, phone conversations and logs, credit card transactions, income tax records, bank account details, etc.). Conversely, there are many activities which happen under the radar (example, cash transactions, informal sector employment, etc.). What kind of information gathering powers will Aadhaar confer on the State over and above what it already has? Can you give specific examples of incremental power?
2. The Supreme Court verdict that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory to receive benefits reflects the concern that it may increase exclusion errors, either by leaving people out of the net or through technological malfunction. Is this a serious concern?
3. On the other hand, supporters express the hope that Aadhaar will reduce inclusion errors and corruption by eliminating ghost beneficiaries, say in schemes like MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). Are there substantial benefits to be reaped on this account?
4. Most advanced economies have had some version of UID for a long time, example, the Social Security number in the US, the Social Insurance Number in Canada, etc. This is recorded not only in interactions with the State (example, tax filing) but also in many kinds of non-governmental transactions (example, college admissions or property purchase). Yet, it is arguable that these nations have not become police States, occasional abuse notwithstanding. If privacy concerns in India are justified, is it a reflection of the trust deficit in government specific to India (or poorer countries more generally)? Or do you think schemes like UID inevitably lead to a surveillance State anywhere in the world?
5. Can something like UID be created without compromising privacy beyond acceptable limits? If so, how should the Aadhaar Bill have been written? What are its specific and avoidable weaknesses?
- Aadhaar or Unique Identification number (UID) is a 12-digit individual identification number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) on behalf of the Government of India. It captures the biometric identity – ten finger prints, iris and photograph – of every resident, and serves as a proof of identity and address anywhere in India.
- Money bills can be introduced and passed only in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Indian Parliament).