Anil, 26, works in my neighbourhood gym as a sweeper and cleaner. His 10-hour job involves wiping off the exercise machines, mopping the floors and washing out the shower stalls and the toilet. He’s among a team of others who clean up after the well-heeled members at the gym use its facilities. He’s on a contract that has no benefits such as medical or accident insurance or any form of job security. Each month he makes around Rs 8000, a sum of money that doesn’t travel far in Gurgaon. He bunks with eight other young men in a room that they rent in a nearby slum. Eight thousand rupees is what it roughly costs a month for a membership at the gym and ironically that’s what Anil and his colleagues who form the “housekeeping” team there make in a month. I asked Anil whether he has an Aadhaar number. He said, yes, he did. I asked him whether he thought it was of help. He thought for a while and then his eyes lit up as he told me how it had helped him get a subsidised cylinder of LPG that he and his room-mates now use to cook their simple meals instead of the kerosene stove that would smoke up their tiny room, hurt their eyes and make breathing difficult.

Aadhaar, India’s ambitious Unique Identification (UID) system, based on biometrics, and introduced in 2010, has enrolled around 1.19 billion Indians. That’s nearly everybody in India. In the beginning, the idea behind Aaadhar was that it would be a fool proof mechanism to check benefits fraud. Government subsidies and other benefits in a country as populous and poor as India are routinely siphoned out by layers of unscrupulous middle-men who take advantage of the lack of awareness and education, particularly among those who are underprivileged.

[caption id="attachment_24019" align="alignleft" width="381"] Bengaluru: Entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani and DCB Bank Chairman Nasser Munjee at the launch of an Aadhar based ATM in Bengaluru, on June 13, 2016. (Photo: IANS)[/caption]

Aadhaar, introduced by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) then headed by technocrat Nandan Nilekani, was aimed at righting those wrongs. And it did quite a bit of that—in India’s rural employment guarantee schemes, in disbursements of other government subsidies, and in detection of anomalies. Aadhaar seeding weeded out over 8.5 million fake ration cards in India’s massive public distribution system, which serves millions as a source of food but is riddled with inefficiencies and leakages. In another instance, Aadhaar verification led to the uncovering of a massive scam in India’s higher education system—it found that a tenth or nearly 130,000 college teachers actually did not exist.

The fact that a system such as Aadhaar, which relies on nearly fraud-proof biometrics to establish an individual’s identity has its benefits is undeniable and millions of people such as Anil, the gym worker, have benefited from it. But in country with a population nudging 1.3 billion, its implementation is fraught with risks. One such risk came to light at the very beginning of 2018. The New Year opened with a rude jolt for UIDAI. In a sting operation, Tribune, an Indian newspaper, claimed that it bought details of registered users on the biometric identification system from an agent who, for a piffling sum of five hundred rupees, offered access to the Unique Identification Authority of India’s database. The so-called agent also offered additional services such as printing out any Aadhaar card for an extra charge. This was serious. It meant that the Aadhaar system can be hacked and its “fool proof” security breached at will.

Curiously, the UIDAI while admitting the breach of security maintained that the biometric data of Aadhaar registered persons was still safe and that its technology made it impervious to hacking. If anyone can, at will, print out Aadhaar cards—which are prima facie the crucial document one needs to do things like opening a bank account, filing tax returns or claiming social welfare benefits—that defence by the authority is inexplicable and, in effect, quite meaningless. The debate over Aadhaar has many dimensions. The main opposition to it is that by compiling a database of personal details of its citizens, the government can access, use (and misuse) such data, thereby, infringing their right to privacy, a right that has been deemed by the apex court of India as being a fundamental one. Aadhaar began as a voluntary scheme. An individual was free to decide whether he/she wanted to provide biometric details such as iris recognition and finger-prints to get an Aadhaar number. However, more recently, the government made it mandatory for individuals to link or provide their Aadhaar numbers if they wanted to file their tax returns, open bank accounts, use their mobile phones, and even buy tickets to travel on the government’s railway network.

This has led to vociferous opposition to such directives and litigation. The government is faced with cases that challenge its mandatory orders and some of those key ones will come up for hearing in February. The Tribune’s revelations, however, come as a massive blow before those are heard and the judicial system decides on them. But the key lessons that the authorities need to learn are the following. Few will dispute the professed benefits of Aadhaar: to prevent fraud and ensure fair access to things such as pension schemes, and provident funds for employees; to ensure opening or operation of fake bank accounts; to minimise or eliminate siphoning away of government subsidies from those who they are intended for; and so on. The problem is in its implementation. The Tribune’s expose was not the first instance of a breach of security in the system. Data breaches have occurred over the past year in banking, telecoms and other services. In Delhi, for example, it is estimated that more Aadhaar numbers have been issued than the official census ratified population of the city state.

The objective of having a fool proof authentication of identity is not what should be disputed. Several developed countries have (equally many do not) a centralised system of identification but to work fairly and non-intrusively, they have strong privacy protection safeguards. In the aftermath of the recent breach of its system, UIDAI may brazenly claim that its core biometric database is secure but if more instances such as the Tribune expose surface–and they could–those claims will seem hollow. The only course of action that could redeem UID’s objective and put it back on the rails would be to completely overhaul its infrastructure, plug all its vulnerabilities, address valid concerns about privacy violations, and then re-boot it once again.

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All you wanted to know about Aadhaar

What is Aadhaar? Aadhaar, which means foundation or basis, is the name for unique identification numbers (UID) issued by a statutory body to every resident of India. The objective of Aadhaar is to create an easy, cost-effective proof of identity that is hard to duplicate and eliminates fake identities. It proves identity, not citizenship. Aadhaar is issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). The UIDAI was created by a notification of the Planning Commission on January 28, 2009. The UIDAI got statutory backing when the Aadhar Act was passed by Parliament in 2016, though even that has been legally challenged.

Why is it needed?

Multiple government-issued documents proving identity—ration card, driving licence, passport, Permanent Account Number (PAN)-had led to a situation where duplication and forgery had become common. More importantly, and the primary reason for Aadhaar, the long road to beneficiaries of government subsidies and services was beset with corruption and leakage. One of the government’s major missions is the JAM plan for financial inclusion of the masses: linking millions of zero-balance Jan Dhan accounts that have been opened for the poor with Aadhaar numbers and Mobile numbers so as to effect direct transfers of subsidies and benefits. Over the years, Aadhaar has become linked with scores of government schemes, including LPG subsidy and mid-day meals for children in government schools. In 2009, Aadhaar was thus envisaged as a tamper-proof unique identity for every resident, the biometric component of the enrolment—iris  and fingerprint scans—making it unique and solid. Aadhaar now covers 99 per cent of the Indian population, and is the largest and most sophisticated programme of its kind in the world.

 So what’s the problem?

The Aadhaar initiative has three major problem areas, and these are the major issues that will now be resolved by the Supreme Court :
  1. Compulsory nature: Why must there be a mandatory scheme for the government to fulfil its statutory and social responsibilities?
  2. Privacy and threat of surveillance: The linkage of Aadhaar to bank accounts, mobile numbers, income tax filings among a host of other government services and schemes raises the issue of violation of privacy and surveillance of individuals. In other words, if the government has its way, everything an India resident does can be known to those with access to the UIDAI database. The potential for misuse is huge.
  3. Data theft concerns: What if the repository of all things Aadhaar is hacked? In the information age, data is the new currency, and such incredibly detailed and authentic personal data a goldmine. What if the private firms involved in the data collection leak it, or worse, sell it?
Other issues pertain to linkage of Aadhaar with PAN, upheld recently by the Supreme Court with some relaxation for those yet to get Aadhaar, and the challenge to the Aadhaar Act being passed as a money bill, which is a matter with the apex court now.

What’s happening in the Supreme Court?

A number of petitions have been filed against the Aadhaar scheme and now the law since 2014. These pleas, 22 of them, have been bundled into one case which will now be heard by a Constitution Bench, starting later in November. The Aadhaar petitions say the use of biometric information is a violation of physical and informational privacy, that Aadhaar’s mandatory nature restricts the freedom of citizens, and that the law backing the scheme is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has delivered judgements and made observations on some aspects of Aadhaar in recent years. Here are some of the key ones: September 23, 2013: In an interim order, the Supreme Court says the Aadhaar numbers cannot be made mandatory for availing the benefits of government services and subsidies. August 11, 2015: A three-judge bench says Aadhaar enrolment must be voluntary, restricts its use to only Public Distribution System (price-controlled rations) and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (cooking gas) distribution. September 14, 2016: Restraining the Centre from making Aadhaar number a mandatory requirement for the purpose of grant of scholarships, Supreme Court reiterates that Aadhaar could not be made a mandatory condition for any government scheme. June 9, 2017: The Supreme Court upholds the validity of an Income Tax law amendment linking PAN with Aadhaar for filing tax returns and making Aadhaar or Aadhaar enrolment slip compulsory to apply for a Permanent Account Number (PAN) card. It does, however, issue a ‘partial stay’ on a proviso which mandates that those who do not link Aadhaar with PAN by July 1 would invite automatic invalidation of their PAN. June 27, 2017: The Supreme Court refuses to pass an interim order against a Central government notification making Aadhaar mandatory for availing benefits of various social welfare schemes. August 24, 2017: The Supreme Court rules that the right to privacy is a fundamental right under the Constitution. A nine-judge Constitution bench headed by Chief Justice J.S. Khehar rules that “right to privacy is an intrinsic part of Right to Life and Personal Liberty under Article 21 and entire Part III of the Constitution”. The government will now have to convince the court that the right to privacy is limited only by fair, just and reasonable “procedure established by law”.

Read at Lokmarg

Constitution Bench to hear Aadhaar petitions

How many government schemes are linked to Aadhaar now?

Well over a hundred at last count, though the rush to link Aadhaar with services and government schemes is on hold now that the apex court is dealing with it. Aadhaar is needed or linked to:
  1. Proof of identity to obtain documents and services like passport, driving licence, railway tickets and concessions, open bank accounts, getting a landline or mobile phone connection, obtaining insurance.
  2. To help clean up electoral rolls
  3. To file Income Tax returns
  4. Maintain a provident fund account, and to invest in mutual funds
  5. Digital payment platforms: Unified Payment Interface and BHIM app introduced by the government
  6. Direct transfers of subsidies to accounts of beneficiaries
No less than 92 Central government schemes run from 19 ministries are part of the direct benefit transfer mechanism (DBT), the first major Aadhaar initiative. These are:
  • PAHAL, the Hindi abbreviated name of the government scheme that directly transfers LPG subsidy to accounts of beneficiaries.
  • Cash transfer for food subsidies
  • Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or MGNREGS, a social security measure that seeks to generate employment and provide the right to work.
  • List of Centrally sponsored schemes linked to Aadhaar:
  • Indira Gandhi National Disability Pension Scheme
  • Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme
  • Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme
  • Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme
  • Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (Grameen)
  • BSR Doctoral Fellowship in Sciences
  • Dr. S. Radhakrishnan Post Doctoral Fellowship In Humanities
  • Emeritus Fellowship
  • Kothari Post Doctoral Fellowship in Sciences
  • National Research Professorship
  • Ishan Uday Scholarship Scheme for North Eastern Region
  • National Eligibility Test-Junior Research. Fellowship
  • P.G. Indira Gandhi Scholarship for Single Girl Child
  • P.G. Scholarship for Professional Courses for SC or ST candidates
  • P.G. Scholarship for University Rank Holders
  • PG Scholarship for GATE qualified PG Students
  • PMSSS for J and K Students admitted in rest of India
  • Post Doctoral.Fellowship for Women
  • Post- Doctoral Fellowship for SC or ST Candidates
  • Pragati Scholarship for girls Diploma Institutes
  • Pragati Scholarship for girls in Degree Colleges
  • QIP for faculty deputed for PhD studies at QIP centers
  • Saksham Scholarship for differently abled students of Degree College
  • Saksham scholarship for differently abled students of Diploma Institutes
  • Scholarship To Universities /College Students
  • Swami Vivekananda Single Girl Child Scholarship
  • Artistes Pension Scheme and Welfare Fund
  • Financial Assistance for the Cultural Function Grant Scheme
  • Financial Assistance for the development of Buddhist / Tibetan Organizations
  • Financial Assistance to Cultural Organization
  • International Cultural Relation
  • Production Grant
  • Repertory Grant Scheme
  • Scheme for the Award of Fellowship to outstanding persons in the field of Culture
  • Scheme for Scholarships to Young Artistes in different cultural fields
  • Tagore National Fellowship for Cultural Research
  • Maternity Benefit Programme
  • Inclusive Education for Disabled at Secondary Stage
  • National Means Cum Merit Scholarship
  • National Scheme For Incentive For The Girl Child For Secondary Education
  • Maulana Azad National Fellowship
  • Merit Cum Means Scholarship For Minorities
  • Post Matric Scholarship Scheme For Minorities
  • Pre Matric Scholarship Scheme For Minorities
  • Housing Subsidy To Beedi Workers
  • Housing Subsidy To Iron/Manganese/Chrome Ore Workers
  • Housing Subsidy To Lime Stone and Dolomite LSDM Workers
  • Rehabilitation Assistance
  • Scholarship To The Children of Lime Stone and Dolomite LSDM Workers
  • Scholarship To The Children of Beedi Workers
  • Scholarship To The Children of Cine Workers
  • Scholarship To The Children of Iron/Manganese/Chrome Ore Workers
  • Stipend to children in the special schools under the National Child Labour Project
  • Stipend to Differently Abled Candidates under Scheme of Vocational Rehabilitation Centre
  • Stipend To Trainees Under The Scheme Of Welfare Of SC/ST Job Seekers
  • Post-matric Scholarship for Persons with Disabilities
  • Pre-matric scholarship for Persons with disabilities
  • Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship for students
  • Scholarship for Top Class Education
  • Janani Suraksha Yojana
  • Aam Aadmi Bima Yojana
  • Life Insurance-linked with Jan Dhan Yojana
  • Assistance for procurement of modified scooter
  • Assistance for purchase of Tool Kits
  • Assistance for treatment of cancer and dialysis
  • Assistance for treatment of listed serious diseases
  • Interest subsidy on home loan upto max Rs 1 lakh
  • Prime Minister Scholarship Scheme
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