The Supreme Court recently said that the Aadhaar card was not mandatory for any of the governmental schemes, nor should the details be shared with any agency without the consent of the individual concerned. It has, however, not questioned the relevance of the scheme.
Headed by Nandan Nilekani, in a serious bid by the government to ensure delivery of its subsidy schemes to the marginalised, the identification scheme organised by the Unique Identity Development Authority of India (UIDAI) is bound to prove to be a game-changer for over 1 billion people in India.
Established vide a notification issued by the Planning Commission in January 2009 to provide a unique identification number to all residents in India, and maintain a database for ready access by authorised parties or agencies, it issued its first number in September 2010, reached 100 million by November 2011 and the tally stands today at around 350 million.
In the process, it has also got mired in controversies by powerful agencies such as the National Population Register under the home ministry, which saw its turf being encroached upon.
Unfortunately the public has not fully appreciated the basic principle underlying the scheme — providing a unique identity and nothing more. As the name suggests, this uniqueness is created based on the biometrics (fingerprints and iris scans), demographic data (name, date of birth, sex, address) and, optionally an e-mail ID and phone number.
The place of residence does have relevance in the scheme of things. Instead of wasting months on verifying the proof of residence by employing a huge army of police personnel, the UID number is issued by the central database, and is liable to be cancelled in case it is found that any document submitted is false.
Importantly based on this unique ID as the foundation stone, the Centre, as well state agencies, could devise schemes incorporating this in their separate databases for e-governance initiatives, bank’s KYC (Know Your Customer), passport details, etc.
Aadhaar’s e-KYC also allows for instant transfer of a user’s photograph, address and even signature scan to a bank opening the account, making it possible for even the poorest to avail of secure paperless financial transactions electronically.
Cutting out the middle man, by DBT (direct benefit transfer) into the individual’s bank account, preventing impersonation or a person claiming same benefits more than once, are some of objectives and this basic premise still holds good, in spite of the recent Cobrapost revelations in the media.
Unless various subsidy schemes are phased out in the near future, as estimated savings of 12 to 15% in annual subsidy bill is certainly not to be sneezed at. There is no denying the fact that this mammoth venture will prove to be a game-changer for India, which any party will be thankful for in executing the Herculean task of delivering social justice.
The most important fallout of the scheme is that in the very near future ‘Aadhaar’, instead of being a card, could become a platform for universal identity, allowing private app makers to use it for authentication for any commercial deal, somewhat on the lines of the social security number in the United States. It would also ensure a sustainable source of non-government revenue (fees from private players for authentication and e-KYC), making it less of a financial burden on the state exchequer.
(RC Acharya is a former member, Railway Board. The views expressed by the author are personal.)