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The Aadhaar Challenge

THE ASIAN AGE. | ANUPAM SARAPH
Published : Aug 5, 2018, 6:29 am IST
Updated : Aug 5, 2018, 6:30 am IST

In an India where every government document had to be attested by a gazetted officer, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme.

TRAI chairman R. S. Sharma
 TRAI chairman R. S. Sharma

Instead of examining the harm caused to the country by Aadhaar, R.S. Sharma asked the public to demonstrate the harm it can cause to him. When public officials think about private interests being harmed before protecting public and national interests, they fail to protect either. Mr Sharma’s Aadhaar Challenge has exposed the corruption of public policy by self-interest.

On July 28, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) chairman R.S. Sharma put out his Aadhaar number on Twitter and challenged anyone to harm him.

Mr Sharma’s ‘challenge’ underlines not just his ignorance about Aadhaar but also his indifference to public interest, governance, financial integrity of the economy and even national security. Given that he was the director general of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) during the conception, design and early implementation of Aadhaar, it is a damning testimony to the project, to put it mildly.

The Aadhaar that Mr Sharma helped build is a twelve-digit number associated with biometric and demographic data that the UIDAI doesn’t certify. It doesn’t verify whether the biometric and demographic data belong to a real individual, whether any individual who filled up the form was identified by a UIDAI official, whether real and verified documents were used as proof of identity (PoI) and proof of address (PoA), or even if any of the data captured is true and correct. The UIDAI doesn’t even have any information about the actual PoI and PoA documents used. In fact, the UIDAI doesn’t even verify if the enrolment operator was even in the village or town where enrolments happened. The UIDAI has never undertaken an audit of its Aadhaar data.

In an India where every government document had to be attested by a gazetted officer, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Biometric and demographic data submitted by private operators to the UIDAI is suddenly being used to replace legally valid, legitimate identification documents issued and certified by government officers. Once the Aadhaar replaces existing documents, it causes unprecedented harm to the country as there is no way to distinguish real individuals, on-boarded through careful legal process by government officials, from those added through the Aadhaar database.

Senior bureaucrats who realise this for the first time, are utterly shocked. They have never realised how the Trojan Horse of Aadhaar got into their department or ministry. An uncertified biometric or demographic has no legal value and causes incalculable harm to the country.

The biometric, Mr Sharma and his then-chairman Nandan Nilekani told us, is unique. Neither explained why you need a number to retrieve the data if the biometric is unique. The biometric query should have resulted in a unique record being retrieved. The UIDAI confirms that the biometric can’t retrieve a unique record. In fact, they don’t even know how many unique biometrics exist in the entire database. Astonishingly UIDAI’s affidavit to the Supreme Court in the WP 494 of 2012 and associated matters indicates that at least 600 crore Aadhaar numbers out of 1,200 crore have never been used to authenticate any transaction ever. Clearly, there is no merit in any claim that the biometrics can be the basis for unique entries in the Aadhaar database and the Aadhaar database is free from ghosts and duplicates. From the looks of it, at least 600 crore numbers in the database are ghosts and duplicates.

Mr Sharma’s Aadhaar challenge is the shocking irresponsibility of a public official who sidesteps the questions of the national interest and validity of using the Aadhaar for anything at all. It is indifferent to the harm and implications of using — and replacing — legal and valid IDs issued by government officials with an uncertified, unverified, unaudited and non-unique number.

Mr Sharma’s Aadhaar challenge highlights his non-comprehension about the harm caused by using Aadhaar in government databases on our sovereignty, democracy and republic; our national security; the integrity of our financial transactions and economy; ensuring good governance; and eradicating corruption.

Is there no harm when a nation cannot distinguish its own from imposters? How then can it protect its sovereignty, democracy and republic? After Aadhaar, government departments and private service providers have stopped recognising those whom they knew for decades. This is just like AIDS where the body fails to distinguish the self from non-self and destroys itself. What national or public interest is served in infecting the nation with this disease? What national and public interest is served in protecting the disease as the nation dies a painful death?

It is astonishing that Mr Sharma has failed to reflect on the objections and concerns that the Reserve Bank of India raised to his letters, during his tenure as the DG of UIDAI, to the then RBI governor, Dr Duvvuri Subbarao. Mr Sharma and Mr Nilekani had pressured the RBI to enable Aadhaar as the KYC to open bank accounts and to allow eKYC to allow opening of bank accounts in the absence of the customer solely on the basis of such ridiculous Aadhaar data. Neither he nor the UIDAI have studied, understood, cared or taken responsibility for the consequences they unleashed. If the Airtel Payments Bank alone having opened 37 lakh bank accounts that received `167 crore of LPG subsidy is a matter for concern, then the doubling of bank accounts and doubling of deposits, in just the first five years of use of Aadhaar to open bank accounts, should be a matter of alarm and investigation. No one knows whose money sits in these accounts and who regulates these accounts opened on the basis of uncertified, unverified, unaudited and non-unique numbers.

It is amazing that Sharma is unable to notice the harm that neither the finance ministry nor any other ministry knows who the beneficiaries of government benefits and subsidies are. Even today they continue to claim that uncertified, unverified, unaudited and non-unique numbers have identified and eliminated duplicates and ghosts in non-existent databases.

Does Mr Sharma fail to see the harm that the taskforce on Direct Transfer of Subsidies under the chairmanship of Mr Nilekani of which he was a member caused? Since June 2011, this task force unleashed UIDAI’s colonisation of every relationship and department that delivers subsidies or benefits even though the UIDAI takes no responsibility to ensure the delivery of service. Isn’t it harm, Mr Sharma, when you destroy governance by allowing third parties like the UIDAI and NPCI, who have no skin in the game or consequence of their action, to corrupt the relationship between the people and their government or service providers?

Evidently, Mr Sharma also fails to recognise the harm of exclusion caused to hundreds or crores of people as Aadhaar colonises and corrupts existing databases. Mr Sharma fails to recognise the harm caused by UIDAI by putting at least 85 lakh persons to civil death until 2016 by disabling their Aadhaar. Mr Sharma fails to realise the harm of corruption as, according to Mr Nilekani, Rs 95,000 crore were transferred through Aadhaar payments to uncertified, unverified and unaudited accounts in the last financial year itself.

Mr Sharma, the Aadhaar challenge is not about what harm exposing your Aadhaar number will do to you. It is about ending the harm that the Aadhaar has unleashed on the country and its people. It is about ending the harm caused by colonising, corrupting and destroying people’s relationships with their government and their service providers.

Dr Anupam Saraph, PhD, is a Professor and Future Designer

Tags: trai, uidai, rs sharma, aadhaar challenge