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The Last Chance for a Welfare State Doesn’t Rest in the Aadhaar System

Boosting welfare is the message, which is how Aadhaar is being presented in India. The Aadhaar system as a medium, however, is one that enables tracking, surveillance, and data monetisation. This piece by Sumandro Chattapadhyay was published in The Wire on April 19, 2016.


Originally published in and cross-posted from The Wire.

Once upon a time, a king desired that his parrot should be taught all the ancient knowledge of the kingdom. The priests started feeding the pages of the great books to the parrot with much enthusiasm. One day, the king asked the priests if the parrot’s education has completed. The priests poked the belly of the parrot but it made no sound. Only the rustle of undigested pages inside the belly could be heard. The priests declared that the parrot is indeed a learned one now.

The fate of the welfare system in our country is quite similar to this parrot from Tagore’s parable. It has been forcefully fed identification cards and other official documents (often four copies of the same) for years, and always with the same justification of making it more effective and fixing the leaks. These identification regimes are in effect killing off the welfare system. And some may say that that has been the actual plan in any case.

The Aadhaar number has been recently offered as the ‘last chance’ for the ailing welfare system – a last identification regime that it needs to gulp down to survive. This argument wilfully overlooks the acute problems with the Aadhaar project.

Firstly, the ‘last chance’ for a welfare state in India is not provided by implementing a new and improved identification regime (Aadhaar numbers or otherwise), but by enabling citizens to effectively track, monitor, and ensure delivery of welfare, services, and benefits. This ‘opening up’ of the welfare bureaucracy has been most effectively initiated by the Right to Information Act. Instead of a centralised biometrics-linked identity verification platform, which gives the privilege of tracking and monitoring welfare flows only to a few expert groups, an effective welfare state requires the devolution of such privilege and responsibility.

We should harness the tracking capabilities of electronic financial systems to disclose how money belonging to the Consolidated Fund of India travel around state agencies and departmental levels. Instead, the Aadhaar system effectively stacks up a range of entry barriers to accessing welfare – from malfunctioning biometric scanners, to connectivity problems, to the burden of keeping one’s fingerprint digitally legible under all labouring and algorithmic circumstances.

Secondly, authentication of welfare recipients by Aadhaar number neither make the welfare delivery process free of techno-bureaucratic hurdles, nor does it exorcise away corruption. Anumeha Yadav has recently documented the emerging ‘unrest at the ration shop’ across Rajasthan, as authentication processes face technical and connectivity delays, people get ‘locked out’ of public services for not having or having Aadhaar number with incorrect demographic details, and no mechanisms exist to provide rapid and definitive recourse.

RTI activists at the Satark Nagrik Sangathan have highlighted that the Delhi ration shops, using Aadhaar-based authentication, maintain only two columns of data to describe people who have come to the shop – those who received their ration, and those who did not (without any indication of the reason). This leads to erasure-by-design of evidence of the number of welfare-seekers who are excluded from welfare services when the Aadhaar-based authentication process fails (for valid reasons, or otherwise).

Reetika Khera has made it very clear that using Aadhaar Payments Bridge to directly transfer cash to a beneficiary’s account, in the best case scenario, may only take care of one form of corruption: deception (a different person claiming to be the beneficiary). But it does not address the other two common forms of public corruption: collusion (government officials approving undue benefits and creating false beneficiaries) and extortion (forceful rent seeking after the cash has been transferred to the beneficiary’s account). Evidently, going after only deception does not make much sense in an environment where collusion and extortion are commonplace.

Thirdly, the ‘relevant privacy question’ for Aadhaar is not limited to how UIDAI protects the data collected by it, but expands to usage of Aadhaar numbers across the public and private sectors. The privacy problem created by the Aadhaar numbers does begin but surely not end with internal data management procedures and responsibilities of the UIDAI.

On one hand, the Aadhaar Bill 2016 has reduced the personal data sharing restrictions of the NIAI Bill 2010, and has allowed for sharing of all data except core biometrics (fingerprints and iris scan) with all agencies involved in authentication of a person through her/his Aadhaar number. These agencies have been asked to seek consent from the person who is being authenticated, and to inform her/him of the ways in which the provided data (by the person, and by UIDAI) will be used by the agency. In careful wording, the Bill only asks the agencies to inform the person about “alternatives to submission of identity information to the requesting entity” (Section 8.3) but not to provide any such alternatives. This facilitates and legalises a much wider collection of personal demographic data for offering of services by public agencies “or any body corporate or person” (Section 57), which is way beyond the scope of data management practices of UIDAI.

On the other hand, the Aadhaar number is being seeded to all government databases – from lists of HIV patients, of rural citizens being offered 100 days of work, of students getting scholarships meant for specific social groups, of people with a bank account. Now in some sectors, such as banking, inter-agency sharing of data about clients is strictly regulated. But we increasingly have non-financial agencies playing crucial roles in the financial sector – from mobile wallets to peer-to-peer transaction to innovative credit ratings. Seeding of Aadhaar into all government and private databases would allow for easy and direct joining up of these databases by anyone who has access to them, and not at all by security agencies only.

When it becomes publicly acceptable that the money bill route was a ‘remedial’ instrument to put the Rajya Sabha ‘back on track’, one cannot not wonder about what was being remedied by avoiding a public debate about the draft bill before it was presented in Lok Sabha. The answer is simple: welfare is the message, surveillance is the medium.

Acceptance and adoption of all medium requires a message, a content. The users are interested in the message. The message, however, is not the business. Think of Free Basics. Facebook wants people with none or limited access to internet to enjoy parts of the internet at zero data cost. Facebook does not provide the content that the users consume on such internet. The content is created by the users themselves, and also provided by other companies. Facebook own and control the medium, and makes money out of all content, including interactions, passing through it.

The UIDAI has set up a biometric data bank and related infrastructure to offer authentication-as-a-service. As the Bill clarifies, almost all agencies (public or private, national or global) can use this service to verify the identity of Indian residents. Unlike Facebook, the content of these services do not flow through the Aadhaar system. Nonetheless, Aadhaar keeps track of all ‘authentication records’, that is records of whose identity was authenticated by whom, when, and where. This database is gold (data) mine for security agencies in India, and elsewhere. Further, as more agencies use authentication based on Aadhaar numbers, it becomes easier for them to combine and compare databases with other agencies doing the same, by linking each line of transaction across databases using Aadhaar numbers.

Welfare is the message that the Aadhaar system is riding on. The message is only useful for the medium as far as it ensures that the majority of the user population are subscribing to it. Once the users are enrolled, or on-boarded, the medium enables flow of all kinds of messages, and tracking and monetisation (perhaps not so much in the case of UIDAI) of all those flows. It does not matter if the Aadhaar system is being introduced to remedy the broken parliamentary process, or the broken welfare distribution system. What matters is that the UIDAI is establishing the infrastructure for a universal surveillance system in India, and without a formal acknowledgement and legal framework for the same.