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Friday, December 4th, 2020

The Making of Aadhar: The World’s Largest Identity Platform : A Book Review By V.Srinivas

- V.Srinivas - 


Today it is difficult to envisage life in India without an Aadhar number. Shri Ram Sewak Sharma’s leadership has ensured that India shows the world how Identity Projects are done and other services built on the identity infrastructure. It is a truly “Make In India” story as solutions were designed and implemented in India. Aadhar remains the foundation of a citizen’s empowerment, and the book reiterated that the citizen’s needs are first and foremost.

The book provides the reader several insights into the remarkable success story of Aadhar, that has withstood many battles and legal scrutiny. The book presents a story of optimism, resilience and deep sense of commitment for improved service delivery. It fascinates the reader about the remarkable possibilities of a paperless digital world to the most marginalized sections of society.

The UIDAI was created as a “Unique Public-Private Partnership” with an organizational strength of 1331 posts. Several distinguished IAS officers served with passion, commitment and drive to make the UIDAI a reality, in addition to officers from other services. A number of members came from the private sector. An ecosystem of alliances was forged, as the UIDAI became a melting pot of government, private sector, civil society and academia. The UIDAI was a huge learning organization, without rigid hierarchies and divisions to ensure that government and private sector worlds worked together.

The UIDAI decided only to issue a Random Number and Not a Card. The decision to issue a random number as Aadhar reduced costs and enabled inclusion of the poor. It was smarter than a smart card. Quite unique in conception, the random number of 12 digits could accommodate upto 100 billion numbers !!! The Aadhar number was not easy to guess and even if the number was available it could not be directly used. Besides Aadhar is for a lifetime, and the number remains with the individual even after death. The UIDAI collected minimal information and the information collected was not used for any other purposes. In many ways the UIDAI became the trusted third party to authenticate identities.

The roots of Aadhar envisaged that the Unique ID’s should be given to BPL families to better manage the benefits and subsidies administered to them. The UIDAI was designed for one million authentications per hour and it was decided that failure to authenticate should not lead to denial of service. In January 2020, the authentications every month were around a billion. Aadhar became an example for many countries looking to India for replication of their identity programs.

There were innovations in enrolment – use of enrolment agencies where payments were based on successful generation of Aadhar for enrolments done. Post enrolment innovations included dedicated upload systems, for delivery of real time reports. There was emphasis on quality control at the back end with verification of biometric exceptions. The innovations post Aadhar generation included e-aadhar and checking duplicate Aadhar issuance.

The Aadhar faced a complex range of legal, institutional and civil society challenges and  immense scrutiny regarding its impact on the individual’s “right to privacy”. Several critical articles in leading newspapers appeared and PIL’s filed in the Supreme Court of India. The Aadhar was a random number with no intelligence, with minimal data collection and stringent data sharing policies. Data Privacy under the Act is the responsibility of the Authority. The Right to Privacy as a fundamental right was adjudicated by a 9 Judge Bench and then the Aadhar related petitions were adjudicated by a 5 Judge Bench. The Supreme Court said that Aadhar empowers the marginalized to avail the fruits of government welfare schemes.

The UIDAI’s engagement with civil society was based on an outreach plan with several rounds of meetings for consensus building. The critics said that biometrics were unreliable, database insecure, technology was untested and de-duplication not needed. Further civil society said no savings were envisaged and the cost projections of NIPFP that Aadhar costs Rs. 14000 crore was under stated. Civil Society Organizations maintained that Aadhar is illegal, unnecessary, the ghost beneficiaries were exaggerated and Aadhar implementation could result in the exclusion of beneficiaries and end of welfare schemes. Today most of the arguments have been unfounded with nearly 50 percent of poor people using Aadhar to access rations, MGNREGA payments, social pensions and bank accounts reposing a lot of trust in the system.

Aadhar touches the most fundamental of human values: our need for an identity. In comparison to Aadhar, the Electoral Voter lists and NPR provided a lot more information. Despite this, there was widespread panic that emanated from a story about a CSC manager selling credentials for Rs. 500/-. The author explains that data linking by seeding Aadhaar with different databases is intended to prevent leakages in delivery of subsidies and entitlements by elimination of duplicates. He further emphasizes that authentication footprints do not constitute surveillance and disclosure does not increase vulnerability.

The Aadhar in its initial years faced several existential crises. The UIDAI was at loggerheads with the National Advisory Council, the Home Ministry, the Finance Ministry, the Planning Commission and Parliament. The comments said “you have no authority to do it”, “you cannot do it” and “it is not worth doing”. The root of the battle was that the MHA was the designated agency to undertake the ID project as the RGI was in the process of creating the NPR. It was only after 100 million citizens were enrolled did the UIDAI receive MOF approval. There were issues with the Planning Commission also. The Prime Minister’s support for Aadhar offered the ray of hope for Aadhar’s survival.

The Aadhar came Alive once success stories in using Aadhar for delivery of services became visible. Aadhar enabled applications have become absolutely essential to identify and authenticate the person in India’s digital world. To sign a document in a digital world, to get a copy of the driving licence, to get a utility bill, to make a payment – there are aadhar enabled APIs for all these – eSign, Digilocker, Bharat Bill Payments Systems and UPI respectively. The first big impact of the Aadhar was seen when the Aadhar Based Biometric Attendance System (AEBAS) was introduced in Delhi on October 1, 2014. It demonstrated that the authentication requests could be responded to in seconds using light weight, inexpensive systems.

The next big step was Digital India – an initiative that the Prime Minister has taken personal interest and appreciated the role technology has played in governance. JeevanPraman, the Digital Life Certificate – the biometric authentication of pensioners – was launched a week from conceptualization. The online registration at hospitals was launched on July 1, 2015. I have vivid memories of the passion and the drive that went into the Digital India launch, with several rounds of preparatory meetings.  The AIIMS model was replicated in hundreds of other public hospitals since. Online Registration System has one of the largest digital foot prints of Digital India projects, and the precursor of the National Digital Health Mission. The Digital Signature Certificates, the secure digital key used to create the signatures was issued by the certifying authorities and has become almost universal in nature.  The Digital Locker – Private Space on Public Cloud has over 33 million users and stores 3.7 billion documents.

Soon thereafter, several advances were made in using the Aadhar Platform. The Aadhar based eKYC was possible, the National Payments Corporation of India built the Aadhar Payments Bridge (APB) to channelize government benefits and subsidies to rightful hands. The linking of Aadhar to Bank Accounts became a reality and both MGNREGA payments and the NSAP benefits could be transferred to bank accounts using the Aadhaar Payments Bridge. Today not only the RBI but also the IRDA, the PFRDA and SEBI have adopted Aadhar for their services. In 2016, TRAI and DOT permitted Aadhar based e-KYC for acquiring new subscribers. States adopted Aadhar based service delivery systems with Andhra Pradesh being amongst the first State to demonstrate the efficacy of Aadhar for PDS/ Pension/ MGNREGA disbursement. The MOPNG successfully adopted Aadhar for LPG subsidy and the scheme was implemented in 291 districts of India.

The development of India Stack has enabled many paperless and cashless services to be delivered to India’s citizens. The 2015 Economic Survey supported the JAM trinity solution to ensure targeted delivery of subsidies for PDS, kerosene subsidies. The Government’s move towards DBT has enabled huge transfers of money using Aadhar seeded digital platforms. The benefits using Aadhar have been quantified as Rs. 90,000 crore every year, resulting from the massive improvements witnessed in targeted deliveries.

Shri Ram Sewak Sharma has been a tireless crusader for Aadhar. He has fought a number of battles that needed to be fought and won, and established the resilience of Aadhar ensuring that it found universal acceptability. It can be said that Aadhar and post Aadhar solutions have impacted the lives of ordinary citizens making processes simpler. Aadhar has ensured that ghosts and imposters have been eliminated from the system. The breadth of Aadhar based service deliveries will only increase in the coming years. The impact has already been breath taking.

A thoroughly enjoyable read.

_________
 

The author : Shri Ram Sewak Sharma is an IAS officer of 1978 batch, retired as Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and was the first Director General of UIDAI.

Dr. Sharma has successfully implemented large scale IT projects of which Aadhar is a shining example.

He is an engaging speaker, forthright in expressing his opinions that frequently appear in newspaper columns.

 
The book reviewer :  is an IAS officer of 1989 batch, currently serves as Additional Secretary to Government of India and Director General of National Centre for Good Governance.

He is an author of 2 books, “India’s Relations with the International Monetary Fund 1991-2016 – 25 years in Perspective” and “Towards a New India - Governance Transformed 2014-2019”. V.Srinivas is a senior civil servant, an academician and institution builder par excellence.
 
 
Book -  “The Making of Aadhar: The World’s Largest Identity Platform” Authored by Ram Sewak Sharma
 
Published by Rupa Publications
 
The cost of the book : Rs. 595/-
 
 

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