One of the most important governmental initiatives of the 21st century, Aadhaar is a 12 digit unique-identity number issued to the Indian residents based on their biometric and demographic data. The data is collected by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), a statutory authority established in January 2009 by the Government of India. The system is recognized as the world’s largest biometric identification scheme. A resident Indian can apply for the Aadhaar number and card by submitting an existing proof of identity (passport, PAN card, driving license, etc.) and proof of address (phone/ power bill, bank statements, etc.) and by undergoing biometric profiling (fingerprints and iris scan) at any Aadhaar center.
Benefits of Aadhar
One of the biggest benefits of having the number is that it provides a single view of beneficiary data and information and aids in streamlining policy decisions for the government. Benefits under various government schemes can be transferred directly to beneficiaries. It has also been asserted that the Aadhar can help curb illegal black money transactions. Easy filing of Income Tax returns, a quick opening of bank accounts, easy linking of voter cards, obtaining passports and digital life certificates, efficient disbursement of pension and Provident Fund and obtaining LPG and other subsidies are some of the major advantages of Aadhaar. It helps the government in eliminating duplicates and fake beneficiaries reduces the cost and effort involved in identifying individuals and brings in transparency in the implementation of its schemes. Extending the scope of Aadhaar to a system which facilitates automated analysis and planning can potentially lead to far-reaching benefits.
Criticism of Aadhaar
Critics of the Aadhaar scheme have focused on privacy concerns, security of the database and on the legality of making Aadhaar mandatory. This legality is a question today before the Supreme Court considering that making it mandatory for government benefits and services could deny non-Aadhar holders access to them, which they are entitled to get otherwise.
The intention behind the scheme was to ensure that these benefits could be availed by labourers and poor people. However, it fails to take some factors into consideration. Some of these individuals often do not have clearly defined fingerprints because of excessive manual labour. Weak iris scans of people with issues like cataract have also posed problems. In many cases, agencies have refused to register these people for the benefits, which defeat the very purpose of the Aadhaar.
It has been alleged that the data aggregation is sometimes conducted in a disorganized manner, resulting in various claims of information breaches. Personal data that is misappropriated during the collection stage will enable third parties to misuse confidential biometric and demographic information. As Aadhaar numbers are also used by defence and security personnel, any breach in the database could magnify the threat to national security interests. There have been instances where details of card holders have been easily accessible online. Critics have also questioned linking of mobile telephone numbers and bank accounts when other means of updating databases could have been created.
It has been argued that the collection of identity data without adequate safeguards interferes with the fundamental right to privacy protected under Article 21 of the Constitution. Article 21 guarantees right to life and personal liberty. The Supreme Court, in August 2017 ruled that all Indians enjoy a fundamental right to privacy, a right that is protected under this Article. The Court stated that privacy is a natural right, inherent to a human being and that it is not bestowed upon an individual by the State, nor capable of being taken away by it.
While the Aadhaar scheme has greatly assisted the government with direct transfer of benefits, the fact that it covers more than a billion Indians without any adequate privacy safeguards is a bit worrisome and it is clear that the authorities must formulate stricter privacy control on the data collected. Only then can the Aadhaar be considered as an effective tool in transparent government machinery.