Last week Narendra Modi’s government quelled concerns over the Aadhaar project. Not only did Prime Minister Modi rule out any merger (or scrapping) of Aadhaar, he also directed officials to speed up the enrolment process. The direct benefits transfer (DBT) project, which was being rolled out through the Aadhaar platform also has to be expedited. It is being joked that Aadhaar has received more support from the current government than from the Congress led regime which fathered it.
But, this is where the Modi government has to exercise caution in not repeating its predecessor’s mistakes.
Instead of pulling out all stops to get cracking at Aadhaar once again (which is expected post Modi’s vote of confidence), the government needs to first step back and look at all the structural issues concerning the project. After all, these are the very concerns which led to the current mess.
First and foremost, the legal sanctity of Aadhaar has to be established. The National Identification Authority of India Bill has been pending for several years now. This is the same piece of legislation on which the BJP leader Yashwant Sinha chaired Parliamentary Committee had serious objections. The Modi Cabinet needs to quickly debate the Bill and pass it as soon as possible before any more fingers are pointed at the legality of the programme that is still run by an executive order.
As it details and debates the Bill, the current procedure followed by UIDAI in enrolling the citizens needs to be closely scrutinized. If there are any short-comings because of which the system is being gamed, those gaps need to be filled 'now'. It will be advisable to further strengthen the enrollment process but the government has to ensure it doesn’t come at the cost of excluding the genuine. While it studies the UID architecture, it is important to draw clear lines between the home ministry’s National Population Register project and UID project. The two warring agencies will be at it again unless their roles are clearly defined. Both can coexist. Let UID cover all residents and NPR should tell us who is a genuine citizen.
The pending court case in the Supreme Court needs to be closed sooner than later too. In its earlier order, the court had said that no resident should be denied government services due to unavailability of Aadhaar. As the new government revives old schemes which were linked to the UID number, this order is bound to weigh on the minds of the bureaucrats. The sooner the government clarifies its stand on making Aadhaar mandatory for government services, the better.
The genesis of the court case lies in the past government’s rush to link Aadhaar with possible government welfare payments without studying the ground realities. This government will do better to draw up a priority list of schemes that will gain the most out of being linked through the UID number. And the list needs to be rolled out on the basis of priority. It is a good idea to link Aadhaar with marriage registration, but lets open more bank accounts and streamline most leaking subsidies first. Ensuring that there is enough penetration of the number where these schemes are introduced and people are reasonably educated about the project and its use would also be the start point for the second phase of the DBT.
However, before any of that happens, the government needs to speed up the Privacy Bill. Once financial transactions, welfare payments and myriad authentication services are rolled out through the Aadhaar platform, there are bound to be concerns about misuse. The government needs to pre-empt such scenarios and bring out a solid legislation on privacy and data protection to deal with such issues.
Lastly, all this has to be done in a short period of time. The country has lost enough resources while the previous and the current government flip-flopped on this project of national importance.