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Rahul Jacob: The Aadhaar tragedy

Rahul Jacob  |  New Delhi 

Rahul Jacob

There has been a recent surge in very satisfied customers at Food World supermarkets in Bangalore who praise the staff for being efficient and professional and for the fact that long queues are non-existent. Food World has not cracked a new retail management code. Rather, this is an innovation in governance: these customers are people with ration cards who have been able to buy inexpensive rice, wheat and sugar at the stores, thanks to a new Karnataka government initiative. They cannot help counting their blessings, because they are accustomed to government-run ration stores.

This Indian Express report came just a few days after news last week that Aadhaar is likely to be transferred to the home ministry to ensure that those with Aadhaar cards are bona fide citizens. This is a backward step, a reversion to the mindless turf battles of the Congress-led government where P Chidambaram's home ministry questioned the need for Aadhaar using similarly warped logic. Aadhaar was always about transferring benefits to those below the poverty line in an efficient and transparent way. It could have worked like the United States' social security number. The pilot programme involving transferring cash to the accounts of Aadhaar users to compensate them for buying gas cylinders at open-market prices worked well, despite some teething problems and having been rushed through. That is about the only litmus test that ought to matter.

As with any project that is revolutionary, Aadhaar would have hit roadblocks. Yes, there would have been implementation problems in its completely online system, because internet connectivity in many parts of rural India is a problem. And not just in our villages: on Tuesday, a demo by Google of the new range of voice commands for smartphone users foundered because the internet connection went down - in the ballroom of The Oberoi in New Delhi. There was, in any case, an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, inspired by the Aadhaar rollout seeking to provide, say, Bluetooth access to people in villages powered by solar energy to get around the connectivity problem and help people open bank accounts. Of course, in this country with more than its fair share of people scamming the system, the definition of who was poor would have been abused. Nor should anyone be excluded from legitimately receiving benefits just because they did not have an Aadhaar number. These are all reasonable objections and in the full glare of public scrutiny, Aadhaar would have had to deal with them.

But the home ministry makes none of these objections. It proposes to put the names of those with Aadhaar numbers on neighbourhood noticeboards and then invite comments on whether they are citizens or not. This Kafkaesque approach, called "social vetting", sounds just a little impractical. (Memo to my neighbours: you may not know me because, like most people, I am in the office much of the day, but please vouch for the fact that I do strange aerobic exercises in the park in the morning.)

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would seem just the sort of party that would embrace Aadhaar. Every other page of its manifesto makes some reference to changing governance in this country. "Our government will be a government of the poor, marginalised and left behind", it says, in a prelude to its promise of delivering poverty alleviation programmes through "convergence, transparency and efficiency". On another page, it promotes e-governance for being "easy, efficient and effective". Among the most energetic states in Aadhaar enrollment and experimentation in the past few years have been the BJP-ruled ones such as Gujarat and Jharkhand (which was later under President's rule).

Given all this, why is there no discernible difference in the positions of the BJP-led government towards Aadhaar and the dysfunctional approach of Mr Chidambaram under the United Progressive Alliance? The common thread is that, as Sir Humphrey Appleby often reminded us in the TV series Yes Minister, governance often has little to do with the people. Then there is a problem peculiar to Lutyens' Delhi: most of the people who offer loud opinions have staff to do their shopping and have never been anywhere near a supermarket or kirana store, let alone a ration shop. Those of a more conspiratorial bent believe there is an industry of smartcard providers eager to benefit from the vacuum created by disabling Aadhaar. The BJP manifesto also offers clues in a section labelled "External Security - Its Boundary, Beauty and Bounty". It promises "punitive measures to check illegal immigration". This is laudable, but is it not then inconsistent to also be allowing unilateral entry to Bangladeshi trucks as the commerce department is planning to do, even if that furthers the cause of our $5 billion in cross-border trade?

What Aadhaar sought to do was create a system where the, erm, "bounty" of subsidies was redirected from unscrupulous middlemen to the rightful beneficiaries. Instead, in the real and imaginary battle against Bangladeshi immigrants, we are now apparently prepared to throw out a biometric system that has enrolled about 639 million citizens at laser speed so that we can continue to dehumanise hundreds of millions of India's poorest citizens by making them queue and beg and petition for the paltry benefits the state sends their way.

Twitter: @RahulJJacob

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First Published: Wed, June 25 2014. 21:44 IST