Not All It Could Be

There were doubts as to whether Aadhaar would work because of India’s patchy infrastructure. It eventually went on to provide identity to many, but faced challenges like enrolment errors and biometric recognition issues. Because it was mandatory linked to various services, the Supreme Court moved to restrict private sector access - significantly constraining its ability to function as a tool of transformation.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

When it was first announced, it seemed too ambitious to succeed. In a country where the infrastructure was patchy and largely non-existent, no one thought a digital project of its magnitude had any hope of taking off. Which is why, at the beginning, none but a paranoid few, really thought about the implications it would have at scale. But then, as more people began to enrol themselves into the system, we began to see what Aadhaar really had to offer. It gave people an identity — sometimes for the very first time — allowing those unremembered and unrecognized, access to a world they were previously denied.

As with all technology projects, eventually, bugs began to surface. Errors were reported during enrolment and the authentication system didn’t always work as advertised. As access to a whole host of other government services, such as the public distribution system and the supply of cooking gas, became contingent on Aadhaar authentication, those who fell victim to these errors suffered. Stories abounded about the exclusions that Aadhaar had wrought — tales of families driven to starvation because ration shops could not recognize their biometrics and of retirees left penniless because they were unable to access their pensions.

In time, Aadhaar, that was until then an entirely voluntary service, became a necessary precondition to having a bank account, a mobile phone connection and for the payment of income tax. It was the aggregation of all these narratives that eventually turned public sentiment against the project, calling the legality of the project into question before the highest court in the land.

In the end, the Supreme Court upheld Aadhaar, certifying its use for the identification of those entitled to avail of government services to be a reasonable and proportionate incursion into personal privacy that passed the threefold test laid down by the Supreme Court bench in its Right to privacy judgement. However, even as the project itself was upheld, key sections of the [[Aadhaar Act]] that allowed the private sector to access its authentication infrastructure were struck down, striking a serious blow to the government’s ambitious plans of using the irrepudiable identity architecture that it offered to serve as the authentication infrastructure for a nation looking to leapfrog out of its status as a developing nation using the power of population scale technologies.

In the eventful story of Aadhaar, this was the most ironic twist. Infrastructure of this magnitude could never have been built by the government alone. From its inception, Aadhaar was rightly conceptualized as a public-private partnership with the rails of the enrolment and authentication infrastructure being rolled out by private parties. By design, the ability to freely authenticate using Aadhaar held out the promise that [[kirana stores]] and small-time village entrepreneurs could use this technology to offer a plethora of digital services to their neighbours, bringing development to the hinterland far quicker than would have been possible if left entirely to the government. Now, that promise runs the risk of being set at nought.

The government scrambled together an amendment to the legislation hoping to set right through law the defects that the Supreme Court had pointed out in its implementation.

But no matter what it does, unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the identity infrastructure will ever be able to achieve the grand heights of its ambitious original vision.