If information from the Internet is any proof then 111 crore of 125 crore Indians have been issued Aadhaar cards. Meanwhile, the media has reported unfortunate cases of starvation deaths of poor people after having been denied subsidised ration due to their failing biometrics or non-availability of Aadhaar cards. A Google search indicates that India has an estimated 78 million homeless (including 11 million street children) people, an estimated 276 million people living below the international poverty line $1.25 per day (in purchasing power parity terms) while over 104 million senior citizens (over 60 years) with fading biometrics face problems of living in Digital India. Also vulnerable are pensioners or the sick whose biometric authentication “fails” during the annual pension life certificate requirement.
This article delves at options available to make life simpler for about 450 million (assuming half of them have problems in getting Aadhaar due to having no address proof or with failed fingerprint biometric authentication) vulnerable people living in Digital India.
At the outset, I must admit that I do support the Aadhaar card (it does have a role to play in national security during this period of global transnational terror, counterfeit currency trickling in from Pakistan and for tackling the menace of black money) and am aware that the Supreme Court is examining the issue of “privacy and data leakage” while the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has recently come out with an “additional layer of security” to prevent data leakage, i.e. “fusion facial recognition in conjunction with one time password (OTP) or with biometric functions (finger prints and or retina scan)” for authentication beginning July 1, 2018 so as to provide “major relief” to senior citizens who have problems of fading biometrics, and are particularly vulnerable as Aadhaar is (or may be, depending on the Supreme Court verdict) linked to pensions, hospital admissions-cum-discharge, bank accounts, mobile phones, fertiliser subsidy and ration cards.
Media reports have also indicated that some cremation grounds and cemeteries have asked for Aadhaar card of the deceased before carrying out the final rites.
Aadhaar is a biometric (finger print and retina scan) card system. Neither is it a smart card (with a chip) like our debit or credit cards nor is it a combination of the more versatile biometric (thumb print only)-cum-smart card with a chip like the Ex-Serviceman Contributory Health Scheme (ECHS) card being used by military veterans. After some discussions with people working at Aadhaar centres, I discovered that to make an Aadhaar card it requires, at least, 20 per cent “capture” of all 10 fingers of an individual along with retina scan of both eyes and the photograph. It is obvious that the quality of equipment used for this “biometric data capture” plays an important role as do data transmission by Internet, followed by data storage in a secure data bank and data retrieval when needed.
I further learnt that to get a “reliable authentication by finger print” all the time, the initial “fingerprint data capture” while making Aadhaar must be above 50 per cent, thus even though a person has an Aadhaar card (with 20 per cent data capture), his fingerprint authentication may fail when needed (due to fingerprint data capture being less than 50 per cent); presently, banks, hospitals, ration shops, hospitals, mobile phone shops, etc, only have “fingerprint” machines and not the expensive retina scan machines and certainly not the prohibitively expensive facial scan machines. A recent TV show discussion indicated that “facial recognition” machines have been installed at an airport in the UK and apparently one such machine costs Rs 2 crore and initial trials had shown failure rates of about 30 per cent though with advancing technology this situation will definitely improve.
Assuming that the Supreme Court rules in favour of the continued usage of the Aadhaar card, what are the interim solutions to provide “relief” to the weaker sections of society till such time that Aadhaar can be made completely “safe and usable”? First, assuming that uninterrupted electricity and Internet is available, it is obvious that the equipment used for initial data capture, data transmission, data storage and retrieval must be urgently upgraded to the latest global standards. Second, free Aadhaar cards (along with bank accounts) need to be given to the poor and homeless using the nearest post office or bank as “address proof” till such time that all have a roof over their head, by 2022, as promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For those living below poverty line (and unable to own a mobile phone for OTP, etc) and relying on subsidised food ration shops, the old system of book-keeping along with a digital photo of the individual taken along with his ration card (and Aadhaar card, if held).
For the ageing and increasing number of senior citizens who become more and more vulnerable due to failing health, fading biometrics and collapsing family support systems, the government (and hospitals, banks, pension disbursement authorities, insurance companies, etc) should, apart from “OTP”, consider the old “written forms for annual pension life certificates” or taking a digital photo of the individual with Aadhaar card. Another option would be to automatically issue an “Aadhaar smart card with chip” (easy authentication of identity by a special card reader with a screen display of the individual’s photo, date of birth, visible identification marks, height, colour of hair and eyes) to senior citizens and to those people whose finger prints get worn out due to hard manual labour.
To conclude, implementation of all the above proposals may not make Aadhaar “foolproof” in a diverse, over-populated country like India and their maybe some “misuse” by a few but it is still worth making life easier for the vulnerable sections of our society and should be given the same priority as needed for cyber security to prevent leakage of data. Aadhaar is needed but it must be user-friendly and inclusive and given a higher priority than the proposal to make Bengaluru airport as India’s first “biometric recognition walk through airport”.