The ambiguous stance of the UIDAI, which runs Aadhaar, and the government as a whole, on privacy issues over collection of biometric data, has not helped inspire confidence in the project. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
When it was first launched in 2009, Aadhaar signalled a promise to repair the corroded plumbing of India’s leaky public delivery systems. The unique biometric identity would help reduce duplicate and ghost entries in the list of beneficiaries of government schemes, and pave the way for direct benefit transfers to them eventually, the then government headed by the Congress party told us. The elimination of false claimants and a chain of government officials who administer public delivery systems would help cut down on corruption and enable the state to do more with fewer resources, we were told.
Eight years after its launch, and more than a billion Aadhaar registrations later, much of that promise remains unmet even as the project remains mired in a number of controversies. The Aadhaar project has survived a change in government but has met with a rising tide of questions from the Supreme Court, the national auditor, and from the civil society at large.
Why has the dream turned sour? A survey of the existing research on the subject suggests four key reasons. First, the Aadhaar project seems to have been launched and executed without adequate legal safeguards on the storage, usage, and distribution of data of citizens, and with limited scope for redresses. The risks of abuse have been constantly understated by policymakers. The ambiguous stance of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which runs Aadhaar, and the government as a whole, on privacy concerns, has not helped inspire confidence in the project.
Second, there does not seem to have been a rigorous attempt to perform an independent cost-benefit analysis either before or after the launch of the project. The results of pilot projects—which suggested several challenges—did not…