A brief history of Aadhaar - How it went from being compulsory to being optional


This article tries to trace the history of the Aadhaar – the Indian biometric identity project. In the last six months or so the government seems to have softened its stand with regard to the compulsory use of Aadhaar. This article tries to trace the journey of Aadhaar from a simple biometric ID project to a ubiquitous necessity and then again to a simple ID card. Read on to know more.

In the last six months or so, the government has ended up acknowledging one of its major mistakes, though in a roundabout way. Perhaps it was the only way available because an open confession of its mistake would have been embarrassing for it. The issue discussed here is the amendment made to the Aadhaar Act. In particular, I am talking about the part where Aadhaar has been declared to be non-mandatory for opening bank accounts and new SIM card connections. Actually, the provision making Aadhaar voluntary had been in the making ever since the Supreme Court's landmark September 2018 judgment. An amendment to that effect was proposed in January this year, but the bill lapsed before it could be passed by the Rajya Sabha. Therefore an ordinance containing the same provisions was passed in March. By making the latest amendment (replacing the ordinance), the government has signaled the end of the days when Aadhaar used to be mandatory for each and everything under the sun.

A humble beginning

The journey of Aadhaar has been an interesting one. Collecting biometric data is generally looked at through suspicious lenses and even more so when the data has the potential to tumble into unsafe hands. Initially, the Aadhaar project was an infant. It generated a few headlines but was far from becoming the talking point that it became later on.

The Aadhaar project started when the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was formed in January 2009. One of the co-founders of Infosys, Nandan Nilekani was drafted into the new organization soon after. Initially, the goal was to collect the biometric data of as many people as possible within as less time as possible (although it has not been explicitly mentioned, the goal was probably national security rather than providing for welfare schemes).

When did Aadhaar become an identity marker for welfare programs? The beginning was made under Manmohan Singh's government in 2012 when a Direct Benefit Transfer scheme was launched with Aadhaar as a tool of identity verification. There were objections, quite justifiably, because there was no legislative backing to the actions of the UIDAI (which had been formed only through a notification of the Planning Commission). The issue came to a head when the Supreme Court said that no deserving person should suffer because of not having Aadhaar.

Winds of change

Times change and so do governments. In 2014, the ten-year-long rule of the UPA was replaced by the NDA which came into power on the back of an almost unprecedented mandate. When governments change there is a tendency for the new government to discard the schemes of the previous government and launch new schemes, with flashier sounding names. The Aadhaar project, however, was not discarded in this manner. The credit (or whatever you call it) for this has to be given to Nilekani himself who displayed an equal amount of willingness to work with both governments.

The next few years would be remembered as the period when Aadhaar truly grew into 'a giant' from 'an infant'. The government found that the earlier experience of Aadhaar based DBT helped the government in saving money and so it decided to expand the applications of Aadhaar with PM Modi and Finance Minister Jaitley putting their weight behind this project. The usefulness of Aadhaar as an identity verification was found to be useful for other purposes as well. In 2015, Digilocker was launched with an Aadhaar-enabled verification that enabled users to access their documents anytime, provided they had an internet-enabled device.

And then in March 2016, the government introduced the Aadhaar Act in the Lok Sabha as a money bill (if this wouldn't have been a money bill, the government would never have been able to get this passed in the Upper House of the Parliament). Debates and discussions followed and ultimately, a massive majority for the ruling party ensured that the bill was passed almost unhindered. Almost immediately after that, there were attempts to expand the scope of Aadhaar to include virtually each and every activity possible. From linking Aadhaar to bank accounts to using Aadhaar to get new SIM card connection, every process now needed Aadhaar. Aadhaar it seemed was not a simple proof of identity or a proof of residence but rather the very base of one's existence.

Why did we oppose Aadhaar?

Of course, there were objections to it. There were objections on a diverse number of grounds even as the proponents of Aadhaar began to give names to the opponents – names like 'privacy-wallahs' and 'Goebbelsian liars' were freely hurled by Nilekani and friends at anyone who dared to oppose the sprawling nature of the Aadhaar project. Activists for children's rights like Shantha Sinha opposed it because children were asked to show Aadhaar at the time of school admission (which was difficult for certain children who fled away from child labor and did not have necessary documents). Activists for the eradication of manual scavenging like Bezwada Wilson were concerned that the erstwhile manual scavengers might have their identity forever plastered through the medium of Aadhaar. Some pointed to the rudimentary state of technology available in most areas of the country, saying that the biometric data can never be collected with a hundred percent accuracy and thus there can be cases (there have actually been numerous cases) where fingerprints do not match and deserving people are left behind. Others raised concerns about the centralized nature of the database, saying that it can very well lead to the creation of a surveillance state undermining the values of the republic. At a fundamental level, the reaction of the people to the Aadhaar project was a reflection of the growing distrust against the state.

Perhaps the strongest concern was that of privacy. This was because out of the myriad number of agencies who demanded Aadhaar from the customer there was a chance that any number of them might end up leaking the data. It must be remembered that India did not have (and still does not have) any comprehensive Data Protection Law. Leaked data, as anyone knows, is a gold mine for hackers and only imagination can limit the number of ways that a hacker can use this data once he gets hold of it. And during 2016-17, we only had to grab a random newspaper and turn to any random page to get news of data leaks from Aadhaar.

And then the August 2017 and the September 2018 judgments of the Supreme Court ensured that the government could no longer continue with the agenda of making Aadhaar a compulsory requirement. The legislature humbly accepted the judgments by making amendments in the Aadhaar act in early 2019.

Conclusion

That is the story of how Aadhaar went from being a ubiquitous necessity to an optional requirement. Along the way, there have been other much-needed reforms. The latest amendment also talks about a Virtual ID that will be generated during each transaction (like an OTP) that will help in masking the actual Aadhaar number. Currently, the Aadhaar card is mandatory only for a couple of things (DBT, Income Tax Returns, and linking of Aadhaar with the PAN card). A more rational use can be expected in the next couple of years considering the last amendment made to the Act.


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