Aadhaar: How Did We Throw The Baby Out With The Bath Water?

The biggest regret expressed by Ram Sewak Sharma in the book ‘The Making of Aadhaar’ is the limitation on the usage of Aadhaar. Peculiarly, I share this regret. Consent-based widespread commercial use of Aadhaar could have been a truly fundamental change. How did even staunch supporters of Aadhaar turn against it? That is a book…

10 May, 2021 Opinion, Governance
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The biggest regret expressed by Ram Sewak Sharma in the book ‘The Making of Aadhaar’ is the limitation on the usage of Aadhaar. Peculiarly, I share this regret. Consent-based widespread commercial use of Aadhaar could have been a truly fundamental change.

How did even staunch supporters of Aadhaar turn against it? That is a book that will have to be written once we are at a reasonable distance from this bit of contemporary history.

While most would find ‘The Making of Aadhaar’ a bold narrative by a career bureaucrat, from my perch I find it polite and politically correct and yet eminently readable.

On the cover is an endorsement by the late Pranab Mukherjee. After all, the story of Aadhaar is as much about the undercurrents between him as the Finance Minister and Chidambaram as the Home Minister that polarized into the pro-Aadhaar and pro-NRC (National Register of Citizens) camps.

Aadhaar rubbed salt in the wounds caused by Finance Minister Mukherjee’s mismanagement of the Indian economy. That the then Secretary of Banking was micro-managing banks with a circular a day and forcing Aadhaar upon them, amongst various other things, did little to help. UIDAI was subsequently seen as a proxy to derail Ministry of Home Affairs projects. The fault-line developed with no reconciliation attempted between the NRC and Aadhaar at the outset, furthering these suspicions. Chidambaram was quite vocal about his opposition to Aadhaar at the time. It was only later, when he rightly got back into his chair at the Ministry of Finance and could hammer out a reconciliation and address turf issues and financial prudence, did he support Aadhaar. He saw the benefit of Aadhaar for Direct Benefit Transfers and Financial Inclusion.

This turf war between the Ministry of Finance-backed UIDAI and the Chidambaram-run Ministry of Home Affairs saw a meeting of the minds between Dr. B.K. Gairola, then Director General NIC, and Mr. C. Chandramouli, then Registrar General of India, a very upright and competent bureaucrat who handled the NRC project and felt that was the right way to go.

Gairola viewed the private sector with high suspicion. Nandan Nilekani coming from the private sector was chipping away at the supremacy of the National Informatics Centre (NIC). Gairola used the name of a political family often. This created an impression of a parallel chain of command and gave him firepower within the system.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, with R. Chandrasekhar at its helm, was the other important stakeholder. The ministry was obviously unhappy with the fact that UIDAI was a part of the then Planning Commission and not a department under their jurisdiction.  While they would not oppose Aadhaar, the support for the project was perfunctory. Principally, Chandrashekhar was a great champion of public-private partnership and pragmatic enough to accept that in the face of a severe lack of state capacity, enlightened self-interest from the private sector was the best we could deal with. He understood and appreciated this new construct in the government.

CERT and the security establishment had their own reservations related to choices of technology, security, and privacy issues. Both Nandan Nilekani and Ram Sewak Sharma would have had a tough job charting these very choppy waters.

At this juncture probably the support of Sam Pitroda for Aadhaar and his very strong relationship with Dr. Gairolla would have also come into play to help the project move along. That both Nandan and Ram Sewak Sharma were far more receptive to plurality of views while at the helm of UIDAI also helped, and provided a periodic pressure valve for the noisy democracy to let out its steam.

In contrast to the narratives blaming civil society for the hiccups along the way, the biggest challenge to Aadhaar actually came from within the government, which set the stage for the eventual judicial clipping of its wings. ‘Making of Aadhaar’ touches upon the internal battles cursorily and the role of civil society at length.

Civil society predominantly mobilised post Ram Sewak Sharma moving out of UIDAI. Officers who followed him were a bit like bulls in a china shop, completely convinced about the use of state power to trample all dissent. Bravado and gloating are not hallmarks of good governance under any circumstances. Neither are blatantly untrue statements and technological manipulation of the system. The Draconian persona running Aadhaar at this stage rubbed off on their own image on Aadhaar and its possibility of misuse. Enter civil society. Some well-meaning, some habitual protesters and others simply lobbying for businesses that would hurt if Aadhaar were to be commercially implemented.

A crackdown on all forms of dissent to Aadhaar followed. This was entirely a bureaucratic effort and had no political blessings. The communication and the body language were all wrong. Statements, such as “Let that journalist go to his child’s school and explain why his papa’s name needs to be changed?”, created a sense of national outrage.

This perhaps is a milder example from a very long list of actions that one would not consider exemplary bureaucratic response to dissent. These actions amplified people’s latent fears manifold. They convinced the public and the courts of the need to limit the usage of Aadhaar. They had stopped unbridled power in the hands of the bureaucrat without realising that the baby was being thrown out with the bath water.

The lesson learnt, or the lesson lost, is that meaningful dialogue with the correct stakeholders is vital in a participatory democracy. You cannot pretend to engage only with the people who are visibly a part of the same ecosystem to create an echo chamber. The result will always be push back and everyone loses.

Aadhaar is a watershed development in our lifetimes. No other single initiative has sped up India’s Digital Journey as much as this one step. Restricting the commercial use of Aadhaar is a national loss. Perhaps with time all of us will get together to review the same this and correct whatever we can salvage.

A large part of the blame for throwing this baby out with the bath water lies with the inept handling by the bureaucrats at UIDAI after the departure of Ram Sewak Sharma. The newer lot hopefully will undo the damage. There are many parallel narratives. I am certain that this book is not the last word on the subject. In the meanwhile, do buy and read the book; it will most certainly be a valuable addition to any library.

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