Aadhaar and we the people of India

Much is being said about Aadhaar being a vicious project and one that tramples on Indian citizens. But is that the complete truth? It is a story about India that is being reported abysmally

Charles Assisi

[By Juda under Creative Commons]

Distance provides perspective. I figured that on the airplane back home to Mumbai earlier last week after a short trip through the Middle East. I was mandated to talk to a select audience behind closed doors about the India story.

The reason I was among those invited was because for two years now, my colleague NS Ramnath and I have been researching the ecosystem evolving around Project Aadhaar. Between us, we have interviewed multiple sets of people, asking questions like what does this mean for India, what may the geopolitical implications be, how should people think about it and why does it attract such fierce reactions from people? One of the outcomes of this research is intended to be the first in a series of books that Founding Fuel has commissioned.

On the back of primary research and conversations with people who hold diverse points of view, I felt compelled to assert when on stage that it is true that multiple hiccups in the project exist. For instance, there is much political bickering over which party must be seen as the one that gave legitimacy to Project Aadhaar. Then there are government departments falling head over heels to please those in power and make it mandatory that citizens link their accounts to this identity number, by a deadline that sounds out of whack, if they need uninterrupted access to services.

It is inevitable then that civil society raise its voice. In any case, making it mandatory violates the spirit of Project Aadhaar. It was rolled out as a voluntary project, in the sense that if you don't want to avail any subsidy from the government, you need not enroll for Aadhaar, and with the underlying assumption that your consent will be taken before your data is used. In eKYC, which was launched back in 2012, you have to give your consent for an agency to digitally access your demographic details (photograph, address, date of birth). The framework to extend this consent to a larger set of data, from a larger set of businesses/agencies is in the works. That is also why I believe the judiciary will step in at some point.

That is also what makes me optimistic about the outcomes of Project Aadhaar, and the precedents it can set for the world to follow on how must an individual’s fundamental right to privacy be protected in the longer run.

Why? Because when examined deeply, Project Aadhaar combines, on the one hand, the idealism of people like Richard Stallman, whom I have had philosophical differences with in the past, and on the other hand, the pragmatism of Linus Torvalds. Between them, they made open source software, collaboration and Linux palatable propositions. Google, for instance, has Linux at its heart and most mobile phones in the world are powered by Linux at their cores.

Men like Stallman have always argued that some things like art, music and software must be “free”. Free like freedom, not free like free beer—as he likes to put it. It took me a long while to wrap my head around his ideas.

It is much the same thing with Aadhaar and India Stack. That is why it was not difficult to figure why questions from the audience came in fast and furious. While there, I thought it was because they were stunned by the audacity of attempting to provide a unique identity to over 1.3 billion people. If I were an outsider, I would have felt much the same way too.

Before we dwell on the “India” story, what about the other story?

Most Americans I spoke with while in the Middle East—all of whom were from the diplomatic corps and CEOs of various entities—were terribly embarrassed about their president, Donald Trump. So much so that one of the key speakers who was part of the former President Bill Clinton’s administration, served as an advisor to former President Barack Obama, and is now part of a global lobbying group, went on to paint a dismal picture of the US. That is why he said he is among those who are at work to initiate impeachment proceedings around Trump’s presidency.

Then there is the China story. I continue to wonder: how does China continue to grow at a scorching pace? What can India do to catch up? Some Chinese officials and diplomats based out of Beijing condescendingly nodded their heads at my naivety for imagining all is well there.

In conversations over dinner, and on the sidelines, they suggested the China story is a hyped one. And that the truth does not get reported. The stories we read are on the back of numbers vetted by the state apparatus. I pushed some, whom I thought may be amenable to open up, and asked what they think real growth rates are like. Nobody seemed to know—but in their reckoning, China is in a recession. But no one is willing to say that in the public domain in as many words. Instead, it is couched as a question on whether or not China may be headed into one.

As for those in the UK and Europe, they seem utterly devastated at how things have come to such a pass. British diplomats articulated their concerns over how wretched the economy looks. And those from Germany and other parts of Europe suggested they had never imagined a time would come when Europe would reach such an impasse. They cannot comprehend why Indians want to migrate to their part of the world.

In the Middle East, where we were having these conversations, local diplomats thought it a good place to have a picnic. When heavy lifting is called for, the big boys from the White House swing into action and issue instructions on what is to be done. But everyone is acutely aware that they live in a filter bubble, and that the gleaming glass facades do not represent the political and economic morass the region has descended into.

Multiple fissures between various kingdoms exist, power struggles between them have to be mediated upon, economic battles are being fought in the region, and new sources of revenues for each kingdom must be thought up because oil wells have practically dried up.

That is why many seemed most curious about India and what I had to say. On the one hand, their newspapers are gushing about “this thing you guys are implementing called Aadhaar and India Stack”. Then on the other hand, reports emanating from India argue it is part of a larger conspiracy on part of the Indian government to “snoop on its citizens”.

Aadhaar and India Stack as reported from India is also a badly reported story

What sense are they to make of it?

My submission is this. That, much like my understanding of what a lovely place the US and Europe is basis rosy pictures painted on multiple media platforms, Aadhaar and India Stack as reported from India is also a badly reported story.

If people at the top of the pyramid can benefit from technology, so can the poor

By way of example, many critics argue the system isn’t a perfect one. They point to the denial of benefits to the poor—as recent cases in Jharkhand highlighted—and place the blame squarely on technology. If it leads to the conclusion that there is no place for technology in government subsidies and benefits, India will be the loser. If people at the top of the pyramid can benefit from technology (who among us will say no to online banking, credit cards, mobile phones, Google maps, all of which were built on a digital infrastructure called internet) so can the poor. Aadhaar is a digital infrastructure, upon which solutions can be built to provide benefits to the poor. The focus should be on better solutions, and not on saying no use of digital identities (and technology in general).

Some critics argue that while use of Aadhaar is fine for subsidies, there is no case for linking it to PAN cards. I would argue that both are connected. Enhancing state capacity to implement a progressive tax system also gives it additional resources to spend on safety nets for the poor.

Unlike most developed democracies where every citizen is conferred with a unique identity, like a Social Security Number (SSN), for instance, in the US, the Indian system is such that people can acquire multiple identities.

Those who live in India One can acquire multiple identities. One of the many outcomes is unreliable data

If perspective may be needed, it is entirely possible to subvert the current ecosystem and tax assessees can acquire multiple Permanent Account Numbers (PAN). Incidentally, those who are taxed live at the top of the economic pyramid in India. They live in a country called India One with a population of 180 million people on the outside. But because those who live in this country can acquire multiple identities, one of the many outcomes is unreliable data. Add to this ingenious accounting practices and people can get away without paying taxes. An undesirable outcome of this is a low tax base. By the government’s admission, the latest numbers have it that a little over 22 million people filed tax returns in India. How, and where, did the others disappear?

It doesn’t stop at that those living in India One get away without paying taxes. They exploit loopholes in the system to acquire multiple identities to appropriate benefits that may otherwise accrue to those who really need it and live in India Two and Three.

It is entirely possible that somebody appropriated the identities of those in Jharkhand and kept the subsidies that were due to them. Our ground reporting has shown this is indeed possible. Officials on their part can go the extra mile and throw every rule book to cover their backside.

I can go on and on—but to plug leakages of these kinds, the surest place to begin with is to confer every citizen with a unique identity that cannot be duplicated and that benefits be transferred directly.

That said, it is also inevitable that when technology is deployed at such scale, some will get excluded. Those who have worked on the system ground up are cognizant of these issues and are at work to plug the loopholes and will follow Moore’s Law—that technologically-driven systems will improve exponentially every 18 months. This law has stood the test of time for 50 years now.

Then there are those who argue that while Aadhaar may be a good way to deliver subsidies, what is the case to link it to PAN cards? I think both are connected. Enhancing state capacity to implement a progressive tax system gives it additional resources to spend on safety nets for the poor.

This is a model of development unique to India and one that is evolving

To that extent, the conversations Ramnath and I have had suggest that this is a model of development unique to India and one that is evolving. The significance of the data it generates must be looked at through the eyes of an underprivileged Indian citizen.

As for the much-amplified debate around privacy, these are stories that come without an understanding of the technical architecture of the project. Here again, Ramnath and I believe the regulatory authorities and the Supreme Court will intervene and cut past the bluster. I’ll come to that in a bit and try to illustrate why they must do it urgently. Government departments must be reminded they are in office to run a marathon for the people of India—and not a sprint to please those in power.

The economic case for data

The American model of wealth creation is capitalism. Here winner takes all. But it is a brutal one that leaves those at the middle and bottom of the pyramid to fend for themselves. To give the system credit though, this economic system has created spectacularly successful entities like Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google (or the FANG quartet, if you will) and Uber. The problem with this system now though is that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few.

Then there is capitalism of the kind practiced in Western Europe. It tries to walk the middle path between naked capitalism on the one hand and social markets on the other. On paper, all of us like it. But it cannot be scaled. Basis trips through Western Europe and multiple conversations with friends with whom I spend time when there, I have witnessed first-hand the exasperation writ on their faces at the kind of taxes they pay. When past their prime, in their reckoning, what the state provides them by way of welfare isn’t in line with what they spent busting their backsides off. If they’d done as much time in the US, they’d have paid far less in taxes, and may have been better off.

In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, a part of the world through which I have again had a chance to travel through extensively and interact with people, I have friends who live a brutal life. When looked through their eyes, the Western European model looks like a good one. Work five days a week, get paid leave, the state takes care of you when unwell, and life is good. On their part, the Americans who live at the middle and bottom of the economic pyramid seem to concur too.

But when looked at from the eyes of the Chinese authorities, models like these work in the US and Europe because the governments there deal with barely a few hundred million people at most. They have no clue what it is like to manage a country that has in excess of a billion people.

In their mind, to get things to work in China, everything must be imposed. That is why they issue orders without any qualms. The authorities there thought the American quartet of FANG and Uber are not good for China. And that they must create their own ecosystem and narrative to dominate the world. The outcome is a model that has created formidable creatures like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT). It is now a trinity that is challenging FANG.

As for Indians, another bunch of over a billion people, they seem to look like poor cousins who see the FANG quartet and the BAT trinity as creatures worth emulating. But like I said earlier, the FANG quartet was created in a free market where winner takes all. And the BAT trinity is imposed on the back of orders.

Emerging evidence suggest both are flawed. In a country like India where the population is as dense as it is, inequality as high, and the political system is a democracy, neither will a winner-takes-all-model work nor can a top-down approach be imposed.

Consider the constraints, to begin with, from a geopolitical prism. The FANG quartet and Uber in the US are private enterprises. It is inevitable then that the winner keeps all. This includes the platforms they build, the data that emerges from it, all value that accrues out of it—including the money and the data that resides on it. It is a free market. In a BAT trinity, the state decides and the masses comply. So, both of these are options that don’t sound viable.

But India seems to be uniquely placed in that civil society is loud and vibrant. It is also uniquely placed in that it will not allow any private enterprise to dominate public discourse—nor will it allow the state to impose its authority on the people.

Between these two stories, there is another narrative taking shape. It traces its roots to the idealism of Stallman, the pragmatism of Torvalds and lessons learnt from mistakes made in the US and China. The outcome of which is a model called India Stack, of which Aadhaar is one component.

To understand what India Stack means, imagine a lovely highway. If the government builds one, that development around it will happen is inevitable. To drive a vehicle on it though, you need to have a licence. In much the same way, India Stack is a digital highway. How you choose to build a business on the highway is open to your imagination. To use this highway though, you need a unique identity—and that is your Aadhaar number.

The intent behind building his “digital highway” is because unlike other parts of the world where “highways” exist to deliver public services and goods to people, what exists in India is something that is either broken or non-existent. To get 1.3 billion people into a formal economy, plug leakages of all kinds, and deliver seamless services, smart solutions lie in adopting the digital route.

Now, the thing with all platforms (or highways, if you will) built using digital technologies is that it is prized because it contains data about people. Minus data, it is worth nothing.

India Stack's framework is unique. It allows citizens to own their data and port it from one platform to another

What has gone unreported about India Stack is that this framework is a unique one. It allows citizens to own their data and port it to another “highway”, or from one platform to another—an idea that no private entity or government is comfortable with. Not just that, business models are being tested around this idea—all of which are uniquely Indian ones and can be exported to other parts of the world.

We, the people of India

What lends legitimacy to this platform now is that the Supreme Court of India has ruled that privacy is a fundamental right of every Indian citizen. If the architecture of India Stack, of which Aadhaar is the unique number you are identified by, is followed in letter and spirit, this is an easy order to comply with.

By way of example, let’s say, you apply for a loan. The bank doesn’t know your name. Why does it need to know you name after all? All it needs to know is whether you are eligible for a loan or not. To do that, it needs to access some documents and your credit history. Convention has it that your presence is needed at the bank and documents be presented.

In the proposed dispensation, only a number needs to be presented at the bank. This can be sent digitally and you may permit the bank to see the documents it may need to view to examine your credit history. If they think it good enough, they can go ahead and process your application. You have the latitude to offer your document to multiple banks at once as well so they can bid for your business. Process done, you can withdraw permissions for them to look at your data again.

What India has to now decide is that if privacy is indeed a fundamental right, then if I decide to move from, say Facebook, to some other platform, can Facebook retain my data from the past? If Indian authorities rule that Facebook (or any entity for that matter) cannot retain my data from the past, and that it belongs to me, the business models of these entities will have to be re-looked at. As things are, it is built on the back of what it knows about me from the past.

To cite another instance, if you own a fitness tracking device and you stop using the device, the device will not just have to stop tracking your activities, but must hand over your data from the past as well to you. It will then know nothing about you. This is privacy in its purest sense.

On his last visit to Bengaluru, when Bill Gates heard of this, he remarked, “This can kill Facebook.”

When articulated in as many words, the idea sounded unsettling to the Americans, alien to the Europeans, and had those from the Middle East wondering whatever may the implications of all this be.

I had to leave it at that as an Indian, I stand at an inflection point. Because the issue on hand here is, while the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of privacy as a fundamental right, there is no taking away from the fact that much work remains to be done.

You and I live in the Wild West and much of our future depends on what call the regulatory authorities take

By way of example, as things are, you and I live in the Wild West and much of our future depends on what call the regulatory authorities take. If some more perspective may be needed on why this is the Wild West, the other day, for instance, I saw an ad by a leading financial services company that has just gotten into offering personal loans as well. Until now, it has done very well for itself. The ad claimed if I share my Aadhaar number with them, it can check the backend and tell me in an instant if I am eligible for a loan or not. No paperwork.

This sounded very disconcerting. All my research has suggested Aadhaar has a very narrow scope. It is a “foundational identity number”. All it does is to tell the other party “I am whom I claim to be”.

It contains no other information. If they want more details about my name, address, gender and date of birth, they can ask me for those details. I may consent to allow them to view that data stored in an electronic locker called the DigiLocker for a specific period of time. But they cannot download the data, copy it, or disseminate it. That is how India Stack is architected. So, if anybody suggests they can tell me I am eligible for something basis my Aadhaar number, either their promise is a false one or my research is off the mark.

Curiosity got the better of me and I clicked the link. A page opened that asked for my mobile number. A one-time password (OTP) was sent to authenticate if the number indeed belonged to me. That done, a page opened up that prompted me to share personal details like where do I live, how much do I earn, and other such assorted things. I filled in some random details.

When done with sharing, a minute or so later, a screen popped up to suggest I am not eligible for a personal loan. Fair enough. I’m not eligible. That is the company’s call.

But the larger question here is: what happens to the data it collected about me, from me? It went beyond prompting for my Aadhaar number. Instead, it used my naiveté to use Aadhaar as a tool to willingly part with details about me it may otherwise not have access to. There was no caveat or fine print on what the company plans to do with the data. Will it trade in the data?

Turns out, it already has. A few hours later, a direct sales agent (DSA) representing a large private bank called me on my mobile phone to pitch a personal loan. And ironically enough, another DSA representing the bank I have my primary account with called to offer me a personal loan and a pitch to open an account as well. The offerings they had were tailored basis the data I had shared a while ago.

Surely this is proof that my data has been “traded” in violation of the spirit of Aadhaar and India Stack? Regulatory authorities must grapple with the issues on hand. Can I sue the firm that traded my data?

That is why I am keen to hear what the final report of the Srikrishna Committee has to recommend. Ramnath and I believe this report will find its way to the Supreme Court, which in turn may have to rule on the fine print.

There is much at stake here and I desperately want the Supreme Court of India to rule in my favour. I don’t want my fundamental right to privacy to remain just on paper. I want to have the latitude in a democracy to move the court and sue an entity that traded my data for a few pennies in the open market. It has compromised me.

Between the Srikrishna Committee and the Supreme Court, I hope they will protect my rights as a citizen of a free country. If they do that, it will have a significant bearing on not just protecting my fundamental rights as a citizen, but to business models that will emerge out of India.

Even as all of these conversations carried on, I had my eye on the gentleman who had delivered the address about Trump’s shenanigans. He was surrounded by many who wanted to talk to him. On his way out, I managed to follow him through the lobby, introduced myself and asked if I may have a word with him. He heard me out for a while, the implications of Aadhaar, the potential of India Stack as a threat to the FANG quartet and its potential implications on big American businesses. I thought I could hear something go off in his head. He got the import of what I was trying to say.

He gave me his business card with his co-ordinates on it, introduced me to his press attaché and suggested we speak on the phone at a later date. This is the kind of thing that has much at stake for too many people across the world. Fingers crossed, the Supreme Court will rule in favour of the people of India.

(This is an updated version of an article that was first published in Livemint. Republished with permission.)

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He also wrote a weekly column under the slug Life Hacks in Mint, India's most influential business newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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