Why critics of Aadhar are terribly, terribly wrong?
Of lately, I’ve read a lot of articles being written by prominent members of our society criticizing the government’s move to make Aadhar mandatory for Bank Accounts, linking them to PAN Cards and for receipts of key public services delivered by respected government agencies. After careful examination of the literature on this subject, I realized that it did merit an alternative view to be presented since these members of our society hav always advocated for freedom of expression. I write in hope that they will receive this article with the same spirit.
Though, I am not of the opinion that the government may be free from public scrutiny or criticism. In fact, any government or any democracy functions much better when subject to public scrutiny or criticism as it enables the government to do course corrections as and when required. However, I find that criticism of Aadhar is based on mere beliefs, inherent biases and hysteria rather than cold facts.
In fact, I would also go further and say that the concerns of the critics are in no way the concerns of the poor and the downtrodden. In fact, they represent the concerns of the middle class and the affluent sections of the society. Though, some articles have articulated how the rich can ignore the need to get Aadhar which ensures they retain their “right to privacy” as against the poor who need to get Aadhar to receive public services; they’ve forgotten that linking Aadhar with Banks and PAN Cards is UNIVERSAL. This makes this argument of theirs fall completely flat.
So broadly, what are the concerns that these people have? Let us look at all of them, one by one.
Surveillance by the Government
This argument is that by effectively requiring Aadhar for paying of taxes, mobile phones etc, the government has made Aadhar which was originally “voluntary” as mandatory. This they say would enable the government to cross-reference all transactions that an individual would undertake and they argue that such surveillance would result in “totalitarian regime” in India.
To this argument, I would just like to retort by saying that in a country where cash dealings are massively prevalent and so is evasion of taxes, are we trying to suggest that the “status quo” is fine?
Building a digital network like Aadhar will ensure that all tax liabilities on part of citizens are adequately fulfilled by such cross-referencing. Resisting this seems to be like advocating for “status quo” or in effect, saying that Aadhar is bad because we don’t want the government to see where, how and how much do we spend so that they can’t ask us why we didn’t pay our fair share of taxes.
Right to Privacy and Data Security Concern
Now the concern regarding a right to privacy is something that seems largely irrelevant in the context of 21st Century as Smart-Phones with GPS and mobile internet services allow corporations to process data as per their own “Privacy Policies”. In fact, Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google once famously and accidentally mentioned in an interview and me quote,
“We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about”
Now I am not justifying this in any way. We do have a fundamental right to privacy. But then, what constitutes that right is still required to be debated, discussed and deliberated. To say that Aadhar is bad because we have a Right to Privacy is hysterical. Aadhar just contains our Biometric and Retinal data along with our demographic data. Now, that data thus needs to be adequately protected and there needs to be a proper framework to outline the uses of this data by different corporations and agencies for specified purposes under specific conditions.
Having said that, these factors in no way provide for a reason to not implement Aadhar or to stop the process of the Aadhar reforms. It must be mentioned that Aadhar is an unprecedented digital reform that can fundamentally transform the nature of transactions making them a whole lot faster, less costly and much more secure.
Once linked with banks, given the biometric and retinal data, Aadhar with mobile internet, smartphones and mobile banking can integrate people who do not know how to operate mobile or digital transaction using credit cards to the digital payments ecosystem by biometric payment gateways. Such gateways at such a large scale are not present in any economy and Aadhar makes it possible for India to undertake and nurture the next revolution in digital transactions. This revolution in making transactions safer, faster and cheaper will lead to a long-term growth of the Indian Economy.
Thus, the arguments against Aadhar are at best an argument against Technological Advancement that will help India grow faster and arguments against technological advancement have been presented time and again and Indian evidence suggests that these arguments are largely and mostly motivated by the biases that the people who present them have rather than well-formed facts based apprehensions.
I would also like to highlight a very important issue aside from the issue of technological advancement. This issue is of accountability of public spending. Too often it has been highlighted that India’s spending of subsidies is not targeted and subject to massive leakages. Now this issue is about accountability of public spending. The entire system of subsidy leakages thrived for several years and thus, money was spent without realizing whether it was benefiting those who needed the subsidy the most.
Aadhar, when linked to delivery of public services makes it easier for the government to provide a better targeted subsidy delivery system through the direct bank transfer policy. This has resulted in unprecedented savings by reduction in the leakages within the delivery system. Nandan Nilekani has given an estimate that the Government of India saved $9 Billion by using Aadhar. The world bank puts this figure at $11Billion annually. The Government of India has also provided a similar estimate.
This money is money that belongs to you, to me and to each and every citizen of India. This money is collected from tax-payers for the wellbeing of us and for the state to discharge its functions as a welfare state. With savings of such a huge amount, the government can undertake numerous social programmes to improve the life of a significant proportion of the population. The money saved can also be used to provide livelihood opportunities to the poor and try to uplift a major share of population from abject poverty.
This greater question of accountability of public finance can be of immense significance. In the greater interest of collective social wellbeing by better spending of public finances and reduction in leakages, should not we forgo our right to privacy, partly as per the laws and regulations being framed regarding the same?
It is evident, that in greater collective interests, citizens are subject to forgoing their rights. We even forgo our rights to numerous things when we decide to abide by laws to ensure that there is peace and harmonious existence in the society. If my right to privacy, going to result in leakages in public subsidy delivery system that may result in a child dying due to lack of adequate medical health or a hunger, then should I argue for that right and disregard the right of that poor child to his subsidy? Remember, the Government only has limited resources at its disposal but is ethically bound to provide numerous services and thus, it must optimize its resource expenditure and avoid leakages wherever possible. This is what the government is trying to do with Aadhar so we must ask ourselves, why are we resisting it?