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"A democratic government should not undertake a project of the magnitude of Aadhaar from a platform of myths." Here, a woman shows her unique ID card. File photo: Sushil Kumar Verma - The Hindu.
The Aadhaar project, just as its failed counterpart in the U.K., stands on a platform of myths. India needs a mass campaign to expose these myths.
Two countries. Two pet projects of the respective Prime Ministers. Unmistakable parallels in the discourse. “The case for ID cards is a case not about liberty, but about the modern world,” wrote Tony Blair in November 2006, as he was mobilising support for his Identity Cards Bill, 2004. “Aadhaar…is symbolic of the new and modern India,” said Manmohan Singh in September 2010, as he distributed the first Aadhaar number in Nandurbar. “What we are trying to do with identity cards is make use of the modern technology,” said Mr. Blair. “Aadhaar project would use today's latest and modern technology,” said Dr. Singh. The similarities are endless.
Mr. Blair's celebrated push for identity cards ended in a political disaster for Labour. The British people resisted the project for over five years. Finally, the Cameron government scrapped the Identity Cards Act in 2010, thus abolishing identity cards and plans for a National Identity Register. On the other hand, India is enthusiastically pushing the Aadhaar, or unique identity (UID), project. The UID project has been integrated with the Home Ministry's National Population Register (NPR). The “National Identification Authority of India Bill” has been tabled in Parliament. Globally, observers of identity policies are watching if India learns anything from the “modern” world.
The experience with identity cards in the United Kingdom tells us that Mr. Blair's marketing of the scheme was from a platform of myths. First, he stated that enrolment for cards would be “voluntary”. Second, he argued that the card would reduce leakages from the National Health System and other entitlement programmes; David Blunkett even called it not an “identity card,” but an “entitlement card.” Third, Mr. Blair argued that the card would protect citizens from “terrorism” and “identity fraud.” For this, the biometric technology was projected as infallible.
All these claims were questioned by scholarly and public opinion. A meticulous report from the London School of Economics examined each claim and rejected them (see “High-cost, High-risk,” Frontline, August 14, 2009). This report argued that the government was making the card compulsory across such a wide range of schemes that it would, de facto, become compulsory. It also argued that the card would not end identity fraud in entitlement schemes. The reason: biometrics was not a reliable method of de-duplication.
The Indian discourse around Aadhaar is remarkably similar. Almost identical arguments are forwarded in support of the project to provide a population of over one billion people with UID numbers. I argue that Aadhaar, just as its failed counterpart in the U.K., is promoted from a platform of myths. Here, there is space for three big myths only.