Why should civil society – which presumably has public interest in mind – want to junk a programme that the government asserts was created for inclusion, better delivery of public goods, and for innovation that will help society at large?

The answer to these questions lies in the stories of social sector activists and technologists, and how they came together to fight what they believe is one of the biggest wars of our times.

Identity or identification?

“When I first read about Nandan becoming the chairman of UIDAI and his vision to give an identity for every Indian, I felt happy. At that time I believed it will empower people,” Usha Ramanathan, one of the most vocal and earliest critics of the project told us. “I had seen how providing an identity to the poor could help them. It happened with the voter ID cards. So, in the beginning I was all for it.”

“Later, UIDAI had organised an event in Bengaluru. They invited academics, researchers, and activists to explain the project. Nandan Nilekani gave us a presentation on their vision for UID, and listening to that, it became clear to me that it was not an identity project. It was an identification project. It was right there in the name, Unique Identification Authority of India.”

“An identity project would give power to the people, it will empower the poor by giving them an identity. An identification project empowers the state. That’s a big difference,” she said.

We met Ramanathan at India International Centre in New Delhi one early morning in June 2017. She introduced herself as a “Khan Market Liberal”, a lighthearted reference to Nilekani’s description of the critics a couple of months earlier. At the cafe inside, she suggested we sit away from the other members to ensure our recorder doesn’t inadvertently catch their conversations.

Ramanathan is one of the most prominent voices in legal research. After studying law at Madras University, the University of Nagpur, and Delhi University, she immersed herself in the intersection of law and society. Earlier, among other things, she had worked on security and welfare laws to improve the lives of beggars. She had also lent her support, expertise, and voice to some of the defining cases of civil society, including the Bhopal gas disaster, the campaign against Narmada valley dams, and slum eviction in Delhi.

For a long time, she used to go around on a scooter. She still doesn’t carry a mobile phone. It’s not that she doesn’t like technology. As she once explained, “For me, when it comes to any technology, the question is whether I will be using it or whether the technology will end up controlling me.”

Her concerns about Aadhaar stem from the same question. Over the years since her first insight about the project – that it is not an identity project, but an identification project – she found that the actions of the government and UIDAI had only justified her concerns. “It was sold to us as if it was voluntary, but now, it has in effect become mandatory. It was sold as a cure for all the problems facing the country, but the government hasn’t honestly answered questions about its impact,” she told us.

The jholawala economist and his friends

Jean Drèze, who now teaches economics at the University of Ranchi and has co-authored books with Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, has been a vocal critic of the project right from the word go. To slot him as an academic who studies development economics would be unjust to what he believes in and what he does.

The son of Belgian economist Jacques Drèze (whose contributions include a classic and one of the most widely cited papers on equilibrium), Jean did his PhD in India and eventually took Indian citizenship. Even back in 1979, he lived in a slum in Delhi to better understand the people he was researching on (perhaps making him the poster boy for the diehard do-good, jhola-sporting activist). It’s a method he persists with till today, and that has ingrained in him a deep respect for the poor.

After 15 years of research on hunger and famines, one is perhaps entitled to feel like an “expert” of sorts on these matters, he wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly. “Yet I did not always find myself better equipped than others to understand the practical issues that arose in this situation. At times, I even felt embarrassingly ignorant compared with local people who had little formal education but a sharp understanding of the real world. Some of them were curious about my collaborative work with Amartya Sen (who had become a household name in India after winning the Nobel Prize for Economics), but when I tried to explain to them the main insights of this work, they were not exactly impressed. It is not that they disagreed, but they just thought that the basic message was fairly obvious.”

He doesn’t stop himself from showing his connection to the real world. Once, in 2009, during an interview at NDTV studios, he brought a food basket, and while making his argument, pulled out an overripe banana, an egg, and a packet of milk, and spelt out the cost of each to underscore his point that getting nutritious food is expensive for the poor, and even for the middle class.

His was also an influential voice during a good part of the UPA regime under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The UPA was dependent on the Communist Party during its first term, and the common minimum programme leaned heavily on development and inclusion. Drèze was a member of the National Advisory Council, and he practically wrote the government’s employment guarantee law, which assured at least 100 days of employment for the poor. What Drèze brough to the table was research, action, and influence.

His concern about Aadhaar was that it was trying to fundamentally disrupt the social security system that was emerging, not by itself, or by the benevolence of the government, but by back-breaking activism on the ground by generations of social workers. Going through his early criticism on Aadhaar suggests that it was twofold. One was that a disruptive initiative such as Aadhaar could lay waste the years of work building networks, legislation, and institutions – and replace it with a cash transfer programme. Two, it was in effect laying out a red carpet for corporate interest.

A 2010 piece he wrote captured his concerns. The real game plan, for social policy, seems to be a massive transition to “conditional cash transfers” (CCTs). There is more than a hint of this “revolutionary” plan in Nandan Nilekani’s book, Imagining India. Since then, CCTs have become the rage in policy circles.

A recent Planning Commission document argues that successful CCTs require “a biometric identification system”, now made possible by “the initiation of a Unique Identification System (UID) for the entire population...” The same document recommends a string of mega CCTs, including cash transfers to replace the Public Distribution System.

If the backroom boys have their way, India’s public services as we know them will soon be history, and every citizen will just have a Smart Card – food stamps, health insurance, school vouchers, conditional maternity entitlements and all that rolled into one. This approach may or may not work (that is incidental), but business at least will prosper. As the Wall Street Journal says about the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (which is a pioneering CCT project, for health insurance), “the plan presents a way for insurance companies to market themselves and develop brand awareness”.

Another equally powerful voice in the National Advisory Council was that of Aruna Roy. Roy is a former IAS officer and co-founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) along with Nikhil Dey. Roy, Dey, and their colleagues kick-started the Right to Information (RTI) and employment movements in India. And their concern about Aadhaar was similar to Drèze’s – far from empowering people it could become the most powerful tool to disempower people.

On a visit to the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru in 2010, Dey gave a sense of how he looked at MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and RTI, which incidentally throws light on the reasons for his discomfort with a centralised, digital initiative like Aadhaar. MGNREGA and RTI, he said, represented a switch in power relationships in the society.

MGNREGA allows every rural Indian to demand work, and they would get it in 15 days. It’s a move from a legal system where the government was dishing out things, to a system in which people can demand entitlement and government is accountable for it. Once that’s in place, people will figure out a way to audit and account their entitlements.

One common refrain among many who have worked with the poor is the way they used walls as a tool. Every detail is painted on the wall for everyone to see. In Rajasthan for example, MKSS got the details of MGNREGA workers and the amount they received painted on a wall, reducing the chances of the agents siphoning off a part of wages. Transparency makes feedback loops work stronger. (If you recall, in Nigeria, the simple act of publishing in newspapers the amount spent on schools resulted in less leakage.)

To Usha Ramanathan, Jean Drèze, Nikhil Dey, and others, the big apprehension was that Aadhaar did not switch the power from the state to the people, like MGNREGA or RTI did, but it gave more power to the government. Those who ran the government, the bureaucrats and the politicians, held the digital switch that could provide or deny entitlements to the poor.

Those who were worried about the risks of Aadhaar were concerned about these twin issues: that the government would push Aadhaar in various schemes to citizens, and at the same time, create infrastructure compelling businesses to try out Aadhaar and related technologies. They were marketed as if they would empower the citizens and consumers. But the result could be quite the opposite.

But these early opponents of Aadhaar would get support from a least expected quarter – from Bengaluru, metaphorically speaking.

Seeds of exclusion

Reetika Khera is an economist very much in the mould of Jean Drèze, in that her research involves feet on the ground. Like many activist-academics, she puts her research ahead of personal comforts. One evening, she was at Amnesty International’s offices in Bengaluru. It was 4:45 pm, and she still hadn’t had her lunch. Someone managed to pack her something from a cafe nearby. Peeling her eyes off the computer screen long enough to thank her profusely, Khera had her “lunch”, eyes back on the screen, working the keyboard with one hand.

In 2013, when A Babu was the collector of East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh, Khera went there to study a pilot project involving the use of Aadhaar in the PDS. Babu was piloting an end-to-end computerisation of PDS at the time. Instead of having to present a paper document or a smartcard at the shop, users could authenticate themselves by providing their Aadhaar numbers and biometrics. If the fingerprints didn’t work, they could use mobile OTPs. It took about a year of ground work to launch the pilot.

During her visit Khera found some things that she liked – the computerization of the back end, and the ePOS terminals. However, she also found many of the problems that would haunt the other projects in other cities. People were not too excited about the change – the earlier method took less time and was not dependent on technology. Some of the Aadhaar numbers were not linked to the existing database. One lady missed out on ration because she could not authenticate herself. The ghosts that were found could have been found through a door-to-door survey rather than biometric deduplication. In short, she was fine with computerisation, but not with Aadhaar.

Aadhaar supporters argue that technology will improve, that designers learn from past mistakes and things tend to get better. Asked if she found things improving on the ground, Khera replied in the negative, pointing out to exclusions in Rajasthan, Jharkhand, and other places. (In September 2017, 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari died of hunger because she was denied ration as her Aadhaar was not linked to the system.)

However, towards the end of 2013, the same year that Khera studied the East Godavari pilot, it seemed as if the civil society had won a resounding victory over government imposition of Aadhaar. The UPA government could not pass a law to back Aadhaar. A standing parliamentary committee report submitted by former Finance minister and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha adequately reflected their views. The government had put a stop to the LPG DBT scheme (though it was not because of the efforts by Drèze and fellow activists, but because of lobbying by Kerala LPG distributors).

And BJP, which seemed to be gaining ground every passing day, driven by the charisma of Narendra Modi, was roasting the government in its election campaign on account of Aadhaar. Nilekani, who stood for elections on a Congress seat from Bangalore South constituency, lost to his BJP rival.

Excerpted with permission from The Aadhaar Effect: Why The World’s Largest Identity Project Matters, NS Ramnath and Charles Assisi, Oxford University Press.

The Aadhaar Effect is the first in a series of books from Founding Fuel on themes important for those in leadership roles.