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When you give your biometrics to Modi

It is amusing that Aadhaar has remained optional for the poor, and has become mandatory for people whose survival does not depend on the government

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

It is remarkable that Aadhaar and Al-Qaeda mean the same thing, which is “foundation". It’s even more remarkable that the sane and neurotic foes of India’s plan to give every citizen a unique identity, or an “Aadhaar number", who have tried to defame the programme in every way possible, have missed this tweetable fact.

There is some discomfort in the upper classes about Aadhaar. Even though the government does not wish to transfer money into their bank accounts or give them free quinoa and cashew nuts every month, it wants them to let it scan their eyes and take their fingerprints. In return they will get nothing; just a unique number that will reaffirm their existence and financial actions in government records.

When the Unique Identification programme was launched in 2009 during the Congress regime, everyone thought it was only for the poor. They would give away their biometrics to the government and in return receive a credible identity. They would find it much easier to open bank accounts, and the government would find it easier to distribute cash and grain to the rightful beneficiaries. But now the Narendra Modi government has made it mandatory for taxpayers to surrender to Aadhaar. In effect, all Indians, except Naga sadhus, will need Aadhaar.

People who fear Modi find this ominous. They say that the technology of Aadhaar makes it easy for a strongman like him to spy on his rivals and citizens. “The end of privacy," they write in articles that have Modi appearing to peer into your private lives.

Nandan Nilekani, the tech billionaire who launched the Unique ID programme and headed it until 2014, and who continues to champion it, told me in a phone conversation that the opponents of Aadhaar can be “divided into four gangs—‘the privacy’ gang; ‘the-rights-of-the-poor’ gang; ‘the oh-my-god-1984-has-arrived’ gang and ‘the Luddites’, who are scared of technology."

By virtue of being citizens, people surrender a lot of personal information to the government. Absolute privacy is a right that they give up when they choose not to live in the forests. What Aadhaar does is make it easy for the government to have a person’s surrendered life all in one place.

Recently, there was a spate of claims that the Aadhaar database was leaking information. That was not true though. A banking official had released the information, which was a criminal act. The fact remains that data can be stolen.

Closely tied to the privacy gang is the “Oh-my-god-1984-has-arrived" gang, which includes people who have actually read 1984 by George Orwell. Those who take Orwell very seriously recently found affirmation in whistleblower Edward Snowden and his revelation of a world where spying is a natural act of the state.

But then India does not need the Aadhaar system to be a surveillance state. It now has more efficient ways of spying through communication networks. I cannot substantiate this but I believe that the government illegally spies on inconvenient people all the time. Even the police, apart from visiting soothsayers, illegally eavesdrops on suspects to solve cases. Any device that is connected to the Internet is vulnerable.

Apart from this, the defence of Aadhaar has these common ingredients: No system is perfect but organizations that are accountable to the people and have a monopoly over their data have a powerful self-interest in guarding the information; in the modern world everybody is giving away their information, including their biometrics, to American tech companies and foreign governments anyway, so why must there be special suspicions over Aadhaar; it is true that American tech companies and foreign governments cannot coerce you to give away your data to them, but the Indian government is forcing taxpayers to enter the Aadhaar system to make tax evasion difficult. “There are 250 million PANs (permanent account numbers)," Nilekani says, but only about 40 million who file returns.

Encoiled within the privacy issue are reasonable and overblown fears. A strand of the hysteria does emerge from the self-absorbed, self-important quality of our times where people are in a quest for victimhood because there is no other tribute to themselves that is available to them.

The arguments for and against Aadhaar are subordinate to some overarching questions: Does Aadhaar improve the lives of those people who need the government for almost every aspect of their lives? And if it does, are the intellectuals, once again in their lifetime, sabotaging what is good for the poor because they do not like some elements of the reform? And is such sabotage, once again, couched as very serious social concern?

Of the four gangs, Nilekani has some regard only for “the-rights-of-the-poor" gang, which is led by activists like Aruna Roy, Jean Drèze and Nikhil Dey, who were the forces behind the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Their concern is that the requirement for Aadhaar would create a situation where some people would be denied their rights to welfare because they did not possess the Aadhaar number, or because of a malfunction of technology. Reacting to such concerns, the Supreme Court has stated that Aadhaar should not be made mandatory to receive benefits. Meanwhile, over the years, the processes of the Aadhaar system have been improving.

It is hard to ignore the possibility that some social activists would have seen Aadhaar as a direct threat to their turfs. One way in which rural activists tried to rebuke Nilekani was by reminding him how little time he had spent in the villages of India. “Even among them they would fight over who has spent more time in the villages. Spending time in the villages was some great marker for them," he says.

It is the way of the world that activists in the social sector dislike the philanthropy of billionaires, especially when they appear to accomplish things in years that activism has not for decades. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, is a victim of frequent activist condemnation.

It is amusing that Aadhaar has remained optional for the poor, and has become mandatory for people whose survival does not depend on the government, including me. I do not have an Aadhaar number because I do not wish to give the government more information than I need to. But, if the middle class claims that its hatred for Aadhaar is chiefly out of concern for the poor (please turn off the canned laughter, I can’t focus), it is useful for them to consider every Aadhaar enrolment as a vote of confidence. Over 1.1 billion Indians have enrolled. Only the power of word of mouth can create this level of acceptance. One can argue that the poor are not very smart, that they have been fooled by marketing. Or, maybe, the poor know things about themselves that others do not.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.

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