Reflections

India’s Aadhaar lays foundation for an era of efficiency

Flickr photo courtesy of Shashi Kant Sharma

Last week, I was pleasantly surprised to read that India has started enrolling its residents into Aadhaar, a biometric database of fingerprints and eye scans that assigns an identification number to each of India’s citizens. It issues a unique number to everyone, including rural farmers out in India’s most isolated villages. This way, the poorest of India’s population can sign up for a cell phone, open bank accounts and can still be eligible to collect welfare benefits when they relocate. The magnitude of the project is such that it’s 12 times the size of the U.S Visit database, which contains data of about 100 million visitors to the U.S., according to a New York Times report.

Sure, the registration process poses a logistical nightmare, and U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in the past has expressed concern that it may provide a prime opportunity for terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Taiba group to infiltrate the system or manage to get fake ID numbers issued the them.

At the most basic level, it’s the sheer task of enrolling billions into the system by which I’m impressed. If done successfully, it will give India unparallelled bragging rights in global IT spheres. Already, it’s obvious that the project is generating industry interest, as the country’s top IT companies have signed up for a piece of the pie. Once completed in the next 10 years or so, Indian IT firms will have compiled a new set of knowledge with which to tackle the most complicated computing hurdles, if they hadn’t already.

So Secretary Clinton’s concerns (WHICH COMPANY IS PROVIDING THE BIOMETRIC COLLECTION DEVICES, STORAGE, AND MATCHING DATABASE EQUIPMENT?) can be quelled by the fact that some of the brightest minds from India’s Silicon Valley are working on the project.

But it’s not just U.S. officials who are worried by Aadhaar’s scope. In fact, within India, Aadhaar has received much criticism in recent months, with which I disagree. I think this is an overdue undertaking to finally help thwart corruption and bridge certain gaps across some of the nation’s socioeconomic strata, putting India a step closer to becoming that world superpower that it’s fated to be.

First, critics argue that Aadhaar will actually undermine India’s welfare system, saying that because citizens’ bank accounts will be linked to the database, the government will simply provide direct cash transfers for those who are eligible for benefits, while abandoning in-kind services like handing out grain.

Perhaps. But the current system is obviously not working anyway. Lydia Polgreen has reported for the New York Times that the system is already so inefficient that “warehouses overflow with rotting grain despite malnutrition rates that rival those of sub-Saharan Africa, and much of it is siphoned off to the private market long before it reaches hungry mouths.”

At least with Aadhaar, there won’t be any middle men hindering the poor’s access to these benefits altogether or mismanaging its distribution. There’s less cumbersome paperwork to get caught in, no one to payoff. It’s swift, direct, and hassle-free.

And what I like most is that this system could even lay the foundation for efficiency for issuing other kinds of government documents and services, which currently take months to procure:

“Programmers worked out how Aadhaar’s open software architecture could be used to build an ecosystem like the ones Google and Apple created, embedding the number in every aspect of life. That could eliminate trillions of pages of bureaucratic paperwork, remnants of the License Raj, the old system that governed India’s closed economy. Indians face obstacles almost every time they ask anything of their government — a driver’s license, subsidized grain, a birth certificate. Digitizing these systems would eliminate countless opportunities for graft.”

I’ve seen first-hand how red tape strangles operations at government offices in India. I’ve heard horror stories from my dad and grandmother about how hard it’s been for them to get basic documents like a birth certificate for my grandmother, who was born in an era when no such documents existed, or a property deed, from officials who made them go in circles.

It’s one of the reasons my dad has said he never expects me or my sister to live in India— there’s too much bribery and bureaucracy to get anything done promptly.

Second, some argue that Aadhaar’s comprehensive identification system could threaten citizens’ privacy in a country where privacy protections are already weak. Personally, I would rather have a system that’s overly watchful than one that’s overly wasteful— and I believe a lot of people in India would agree at this point. Just the support anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare drew for the LokPal bill in recent weeks is proof that this generation of Indians seeks accountability in its government, and Aadhaar is going to help India achieve that.

Overall, I think Aadhaar’s benefits outweigh its potential hazards. Perhaps those who raise “concerns,” that it could backfire are likely worried they’ll no longer be able to collect bribes or steal citizens’ benefits the way they have for decades.

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