"If Nandan is really interested in helping the poor, he can very well deliver truckloads of rations to their doorsteps tomorrow!" snapped a Supreme Court advocate known for his civil rights work, when he heard that I was volunteering for the Unique ID project. That was back in 2009 when the project had hardly begun, but the gentleman had already made up his mind that its mission was to dismantle our welfare programs. His unexpected retort had come as a wake-up call to me, for I had taken for granted that those who presume to speak for the poor would be the first to welcome an avowedly pro-poor project.
Little did I know then that civil rights activists would launch a scathing and sometimes coercive campaign to scuttle Aadhaar. They soon dominated the public discourse, evoking nightmare scenarios of massive data misuse by the state. They framed the debate as Nilekani-the-corporate-honcho vs. we-who-know-the-poor-better, effectively silencing those who favor the project. Sadly, they even misled the Parliament on key features of the project such as costs and reliability of biometrics.
Several respected civil society leaders joined in over time, citing data privacy and other concerns. While some declared the project a threat to welfare programs, others suggested a vast conspiracy by the government ("UID is a front for state surveillance"), or betrayed their own biases ("Eligibility is the problem, not ID"), or simply trivialised the project ("UID needs PDS more than PDS needs UID"). The project quickly became hostage to civil society's welfare politics - NO to targeted PDS, NO to cash subsidies, NO Aadhaar for MGNREGS, and so on.
As a civil society supporter of the project aptly observed, it was an uneven contest between the fears and suspicions of a vocal few vs. the rights of silent millions to be acknowledged and served by the state. Unfortunately, the not-so-civil campaign of the vocal few also meant that the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) hastily abandoned its early efforts to reach out to civil society.
Two and a half years down the road, the government has strongly reaffirmed that Aadhaar will be the backbone of its welfare reforms. The UIDAI is piloting real life applications of Aadhaar, such as opening accounts for the unbanked; direct fund transfers to beneficiary accounts to cut down corruption by middlemen; reining in black market in cooking fuel supply; etc. The naysayers have hardly made a dent on Aam Aadmi's perception of Aadhaar or her appetite to enroll in it. Barring operational hiccups in restarting field work, and expected challenges of working with the National Population Register (NPR), the project appears to be on an irreversible course towards its next milestone of 60 crore enrollments by early 2014. (The other 60 crore enrollments are the responsibility of NPR.)
In other words, Aadhaar is here to stay; and there is little doubt that over time it will accomplish its key objectives of creating a reliable and portable national ID system and helping rein in fraud in public subsidies. But fulfilling its oft-stated mission of including the ID-less (i.e. those who don't have acceptable personal documents) is bound to be much more challenging.
The UIDAI is already on the back-foot with the Home Ministry on its initial efforts to enroll the ID-less; so it is highly unlikely to go out on a limb to include the homeless, nomadic and denotified tribes, internally displaced peoples, migrant workers, etc. as it had originally intended. (This was confirmed by its recent "refresh strategy," which places further restrictions on the use of Introducers to enroll the ID-less.) The NPR, on the other hand, does not even claim to reach out to the ID-less, other than stating that it plans to enroll all "usual residents." Quite the contrary, its plan to display lists of residents in public places to invite "claims and objections" from the public could easily lead to exclusion of groups that are often seen as outsiders.
That is why I strongly feel that this is the time for civil society groups who work with poor and marginalised communities to break their self-imposed silence on Aadhaar and intervene proactively on behalf of their constituencies. They can do so by seeking (and even demanding) meaningful partnerships with the UIDAI and the states to enroll them; by acting as social auditors to monitor Aadhaar's progress towards inclusion, and report on its usefulness (or hindrance) to the poor; and by envisioning Aadhaar-based applications for advocacy on their behalf. They can also closely monitor the NPR's "social vetting" process to ensure that it does not lead to exclusion.
The UIDAI, on its part, must acknowledge that it can't promise on the one hand that everyone has the right get Aadhaar and on the other hand place insurmountable hurdles to enroll. It must signal its seriousness about inclusion and data privacy, and respond positively to any fresh overtures from civil society. And, it must expand (not shrink!) the Introducer concept - which could very well raise the hackles of the Home Ministry yet again! ThinkUID.org, of which I am part, has made specific suggestions in this regard in a recent letter to Nandan Nilekani.
As for civil society leaders who have opposed Aadhaar, their constructive engagement with the government has been crucial to bringing about landmark social legislations such as MGNREGS, RTI, RTE, and soon Food Security. They must apply the same standard of constructive engagement on Aadhaar and acknowledge that their endorsement is critical to the success of the project vis-à-vis the ID-less.
At the end of the day, they mustn't be seen as letting distant fears and conjectures forestall the only initiative to come by in decades that promises to drastically change the way we manage our public subsidies. Instead, they can bring their considerable experience to bear in shepherding a national data privacy law tailored to our unique circumstances.
There has been much hype both in India and abroad about Aadhaar being a 'game changer.' For it to come even close, all the key players - government and private agencies providing public services, the business community, and the civil society - must first be on the same playing field and must be together willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a government determined to reform its welfare programs. The project will be a true game changer only when a majority of our poor and ID-less have been Aadhaar-enabled, have access to formal financial services, and can look forward to receiving those welfare benefits that have long eluded them on account of being non-existent in the eyes of the state.