The Aadhaar of Unfairness

The following article was written by Sangeeta Delampady, a young political activist based in Bangalore.

It is not a rarity these days to receive frequent text messages asking for the linking of Aadhaar to a bank account or a mobile number. The government has been asking us to link this universal ID to various utilities. It has become voluntarily mandatory for every single citizen to link Aadhaar to several services so as to avail the required facilities without interruption or disconnection. Aadhaar has been hailed as a one-step, or to be precise, one-fingerprint solution for all our needs. This 12-digit number is supposed to make our lives convenient and give an identity to those who do not have any ID-related document. But is that really the case?

Unlike what is being claimed by the government and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), Aadhaar is not the magical solution, is very unreliable and the list of problems caused by it never seems to stop growing longer. To begin with, people have not been getting their rations due to biometric authentication failures. The poor, the bedridden, the handicapped, widows, the elderly, and daily wage labourers are the ones in need pension benefits and rations the most to survive, but Aadhaar has hit them the hardest, with cases of death out of starvation due to unavailability of food grains and pension. Santoshi Kumari, an 11-year-old, died after not having eaten for 10 days, in Simdega district, Jharkhand, a few months after her family’s rations were cancelled. Shakina Ashfaq, 50, had not eaten for 5 days and was denied food rations for November, because she was too paralyzed to be taken to the ration shop. Biometric details fail to register for the manual labourers and the elderly. OTP, power and network failures don’t help in any way and therefore require a person to wait longer for the grains while skipping work and wages.

Aadhaar just isn’t satisfied with ruining lives of the poor, and is continuing to spread its wings far and wide. The HIV patients and sex workers find the usage of Aadhaar very risky, keeping in mind how our society can be rather appallingly judgmental and discriminatory. HIV sufferers have been dropping out of treatment programmes, fearing Aadhaar data leaks. The hijras require Aadhaar for begging permits. Aadhaar is mandatory for mid-day meals. Scholarship schemes cannot be availed by a student who doesn’t produce Aadhaar. Admissions into many primary and secondary education institutions now require Aadhaar. Tuberculosis patients have to “furnish proof of possession or undergo Aadhaar authentication to receive benefits”, says the government. Disability allowances have been denied to those without an Aadhaar and were denied Aadhaar no matter their struggles to get to the Aadhaar centre. Leprosy patients are led to begging. Karnataka has decided to make Aadhaar mandatory for organ donations. A few hospitals have made Aadhaar mandatory. Newly-born, minutes-old babies get Aadhaar, even before they get their birth certificates or hugs from their mothers.

When new-born babies can get Aadhaar, who else can’t? The UIDAI issues this number to residents. Aadhaar card can be accepted as “Proof of Address and Proof of Photo-Identity for availing passport-related services”, according to the Passport and Visa division of the Ministry of External Affairs. Citizenship is a requirement to get the passport. Recently, a Bangladeshi in Ajmer and 3 Pakistani nationals in Bangalore were caught with Aadhaar cards. How reliable is this Aadhaar system?

There has been a recent case of Airtel’s eKYC licence being temporarily suspended by the UIDAI after receiving complaints from many Airtel customers about their LPG subsidy being transferred to their Airtel payments Bank accounts, the creation of which was done without their informed consent, instead of the bank accounts where they normally used to receive it. Even though UIDAI has now given a conditional approval for using Aadhaar to verify mobile subscribers till January 10, the eKYC licence of Airtel payments bank is to remain suspended until an audit report is received. But then Princewaterhouse Coopers India happens to be one among those that have been assigned to conduct the inquiry and audit. A researcher, Anivar Aravind, has pointed out that this happens to be the same audit firm that had failed to prevent Aadhaar number leaks.

Unlike the claims made by the government about the results of Aadhaar usage being rather favourable, a study by S. Ananth of Institute for Development and Research in Banking Technology says that “the benefits to the consumers have been mixed, with not much benefit to those in the last mile.” Even though there was a fall in failure rates in July 2017, a reduction in the number of authentications could be seen in the same period. The researcher further observes that “the failure rate is highest in the districts which are known to have high levels of migratory labour. Similarly, the authentications and failures are highest when a large number of people are present in the villages”. The quality of the biometrics is unknown, because of manual ‘overriding’ of the system by the employee at the enrolment centre to capture biometrics after three failed attempts. This could cause trouble to citizens by leading to ‘identity denials’. A study by the Global Subsidies Initiative, a part of International Institute for Sustainable Development (a Canadian agency), says that “the government actually incurred a loss of Rs. 97 crore” instead of Rs. 14, 672 crore, like what the government claims.

Furthermore, the UIDAI claims, in its website, that the “captured data is encrypted” and “Aadhaar enrolment system is secure”, while the government websites have been leaking Aadhaar data (including phone number and bank accounts) in an unchecked manner due to poor security. Technology has helped in the replication of fingerprints and making of fake Aadhaar cards, fortunately for the fraudsters. One needs to know that whereas one can change passwords and PIN numbers numerous times, if they get compromised, fingerprints are for life. Once compromised, it permanently remains compromised. And then, whatever information that’s connected to your Aadhaar is no longer safe.

While on the topic of information, easy access to data, thanks to anything and everything in our lives linked to Aadhaar, aids mass surveillance. Our privacy is at risk. Every move will be watched. This becomes a tool of control, to curb disobedience or to silence dissent. Anything one does could be used as a reason to deactivate one’s Aadhaar without prior notice. Once a person’s Aadhaar is disabled, everything else linked to it becomes invalid and s/he becomes a criminal.

Was it not known earlier about the dangers of Aadhaar? The UIDAI was established under the UPA government back in January 2009 and our current Prime Minister had once tweeted on 8 April 2014, “On Aadhaar, neither the Team that I met nor PM could answer my Qs on security threat it can pose. There is no vision, only political gimmick.” But who is promoting the same ID now?

Given these points, the introduction of Aadhaar has only made people’s lives harder. In a country where people already starve to death, is it fair to take away their access to food? How on earth is it voluntary when the biometric details of disabled persons or minutes-old babies are taken? Where is the consent? Do they pose any threat to the government? Does the UIDAI and the government even care about the unheard voices? Do we care? If we don’t, there might come a day when we are no longer free.

Sangeetha Delampady