February 09, 2014

Camouflaging Aadhaar's Neo-Liberal Objectives1

R Ramakumar

IS Aadhaar compulsory? If so, what is its legal basis? Without Aadhaar, can one buy subsidised cooking gas? What is the government's policy on this? In fact, the UPA government’s response to these questions is marked by “intentional ambiguity”. Ambiguity is intentional because the intentions of the government are completely different from what it proclaims; hence, the ambiguity maintained is deliberate. The UPA government's strategy of “intentional ambiguity” regarding Aadhaar has had elements of obfuscation, misinterpretation, inconsistency and dishonesty. The first attempt of the government at obfuscation was on the relationship of Aadhaar with the home ministry’s National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC). The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was conceptualised in the mid-2000s as a technical agency attached to the home ministry. The UIDAI was to de-duplicate biometric data of citizens collected under the Multi-purpose National Identity Card (MNIC) project and link it with the NRIC. Registration into NRIC was compulsory after the passage of the Citizenship Act of 2003 (there is no place for biometrics in NRIC under the 2003 Act and the CPI(M) has taken a clear position on this, but let us defer that discussion). However, when established in 2009, UIDAI was attached to the Planning Commission with a proposed “developmental” objective. Yet, the National Identity Number in the NRIC and Aadhaar were nothing but the same. A strategy was then evolved with two objectives: (a) camouflage Aadhaar’s unceasing security dimension, and (b) ensure faster enrolment into the UIDAI database. Thus, officially, the government held that Aadhaar was voluntary. On its website, the UIDAI still introduces Aadhaar as “a voluntary service that every resident can avail irrespective of present documentation”. In practise, the policy took a different trajectory. First, in the same breath that it denied any security dimension to Aadhaar, the UIDAI piggybacked on the home ministry and designated the census commissioner as its registrar. Thus, whoever enrolled into the NRIC automatically received an Aadhaar. Secondly, the UIDAI attempted to cajole public service providers to make service provision contingent on the submission of Aadhaar. For such public services, the UIDAI had a name: “killer applications”. In 2010, a UIDAI document argued: “every citizen must have a strong incentive or a ‘killer application’ to go and get herself a UID, which one could think of as a demand side pull”. Over time, leading proponents came out clear on the government’s real intentions. At Davos in January 2011, Montek Ahluwalia spoke most directly: “we will simply make it compulsory for those benefiting from government programmes to register for the UID number”. The same month, Nandan Nilekani made a daring attempt to sanitise the term compulsory: “yes,(Aadhaar) is voluntary. But the service providers might make it mandatory. In the long run I wouldn’t call it compulsory. I’d rather say it will become ubiquitous”. In what was a reactionary spin on the rights-based framework, Nilekani stated in November 2012: “if you do not have the Aadhaar card, you will not get the right to rights”. Obfuscation was giving way to misinterpretation. There was a method behind the mad hurry to force enrolment. Elections were drawing close and the government needed to showcase one application that effectively “leveraged Aadhaar”. Further, the prime minister was eager to expedite the use of Aadhaar in social sector schemes to further targeting and cut fiscal deficit. For the prime minister and the UPA government, the DCT scheme is an instrument to qualitatively restructure the social role of the Indian State – from a “direct” provider to an “indirect” provider of goods and services. With the DCT scheme, the government wishes to end the public and subsidised supply of food, fertilizers, LPG cylinders and kerosene. Instead, these subsidies are to be monetised and transferred to the beneficiary’s bank account. Thus, the claim goes, corruption and leakage in the supply chains of subsidised goods can be eliminated. The theoretical ground for this strategy was laid in Chapter 2 of Economic Survey 2009-10: “A common mistake is to suppose that a subsidy scheme has to be coupled with price control. This is typically a slippery slope…. Hence, prices are best left to the market. If we want to ensure that poor consumers are not exposed to the vagaries of the market, the best way to intervene is to help the poor directly instead of trying to control prices.” Thus, the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) programme in the provision of gas cylinders was chosen as the prime “killer application” for Aadhaar. There were smaller killers too: for not having Aadhaar, post-matriculation scholarships were withheld for dalit and adivasi students; provident fund transactions were disallowed for salaried employees; salaries were not paid to government employees in Maharashtra; even marriage registrations were disallowed in Delhi. For the future, the option of cash transfer was kept open when the food security act was passed. Scared, people ran from pillar-to-post for Aadhaar. A delighted Nilekani declared that Indians had “voted with their feet” for Aadhaar. Having forced more people to enrol, the government billed the DBT programme as a “game-changer”. However, UPA’s ministers themselves openly differed on the utility of the scheme. On December 22, 2012, P Chidambaram claimed that the DBT scheme was “pure magic”. Just two weeks later, Jairam Ramesh disagreed; DBT was an “experiment”, and not any “jaadu ki chhadi” (magic wand), he said. By then, however, public anger was building up. More people began to detest the imposition of indirect compulsoriness. Threats posed by the project were being discussed on a wider scale. But most importantly, enrolment of residents, generation of Aadhaar and the seeding of Aadhaar into bank accounts were all proceeding awfully slowly. Gas agencies regularly harassed consumers with threats of ending subsidised provision of cylinders. Members of parliament raised the issue in parliament. On May 8, 2013, planning minister Rajiv Shukla assured: “Aadhaar card is not mandatory to avail subsidised facilities being offered by the government like LPG cylinders, admission in private aided schools, opening a savings account etc.” Still, there was no end to harassment by gas agencies. On August 23, a Rajya Sabha member pointed to the inconsistency in the government’s actions. Shukla replied: “it would not be made mandatory. It is not mandatory. If any public sector is doing it wrongly, we will correct it”. The relief lasted just four days. In a shocking act of dishonesty, the ministry of petroleum and natural gas issued a notification on August 27 titled “Aadhaar mandatory to avail LPG subsidy”. This notification literally turned the idea of voluntariness on its head. It stated that voluntariness applied only to the purchase of cylinders at subsidised prices, and not to the purchase of cylinders itself; even without Aadhaar, consumers could continue to buy cylinders at the non-subsidised price. At this point, concerned citizens approached the Supreme Court. In an interim order on September 23, 2013, the Court directed: “no person should suffer for not getting the Aadhaar card in spite of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory”. Yet, consumers continued to receive text messages from gas agencies demanding Aadhaar numbers. On January 22, 2014, the Madras High Court had to intervene and restrain gas agencies from such insistence. On January 30, Aadhaar-linkage to gas subsidy was put on hold and referred to a committee, while compulsoriness was to continue for all other schemes. Questions of voluntariness of Aadhaar remain, and “intentional ambiguity” continues. Why this intentional ambiguity? In my view, the government sees Aadhaar as the fulcrum of a larger neo-liberal transformation of its social policy. It is the government’s commitment to neo-liberalism that has manifested in its practise of compulsion by stealth. The outcome has been a rapid erosion of public confidence in the project and the credibility of the government.