The highly ambitious biometric identity project known as Aadhaar (Hindi for “Foundation”) has been developed within India with the aim of giving everyone residing in the country a secure identity that can be definitively verified. Proponents of this vast project see it as the foundation – Hence the name, perhaps – for a new era in which India becomes a truly developed and progressive country. This kind of thinking has ensured that Aadhaar has been warmly commended by leading decision makers, financial experts and regulatory bodies around the world. In this list of Aadhaar’s admirers, Bill Gates takes an honoured place alongside the likes of The Economist and the World Bank. Given all of this, why are some people still so stubbornly opposed to Aadhaar? Part of the answer is surely that Aadhaar was always likely to be resisted by ideological extremists and, more obviously still, by people with a vested interest in the persistence of the kind of corruption and wastefulness that secure biometric identification would greatly reduce.
Critics of Aadhaar need to reflect on a few fundamental questions. The first issue is simply that India, which has been a “developing country” for so long now, needs to take the final step and become a developed country instead. Obviously, this cannot happen unless the living conditions of the marginalized section of the community are significantly improved. How can this be achieved, though, if benefits and aid intended for the poor are instead diverted into the coffers of fraudsters? A system of secure biometric identity like Aadhaar is needed to make sure that the help reaches those who need it. Aadhaar will contribute to this objective by systematically removing opportunities for corruption at every level.
The benefits and risks of technological and social change
Another vital advantage of Aadhaar registration is that it enables Indians living in more remote locations to access banking facilities. By making it possible for these people to get proper loans from real banks, Aadhaar will save them from having to pay the extortionate interest rates that have been imposed on them by local money lenders. Now that India has managed to roll out Aadhaar registration so widely, the opening of banks accounts and the acquisition of SIM cards have become straightforward and affordable for many who were previously excluded.
When we talk about any extensive process of technological and social change – and Aadhaar is surely one of the biggest – we always need to avoid exaggeration, sensationalism and scare-mongering. Otherwise, our discussions will generate more heat than light, as the old saying has it. With this in mind, let’s remind ourselves, for example, that although the Aadhaar project has suffered some minor data leaks, the essential fact is that the biometric data that is central to the whole project remains secure. New technology usually brings some risk. The real question to be asked is whether low levels of risk are outweighed by the great levels of social progress that a project like Aadhaar can bring to India. I think you know the answer to that one!