The debates over Aadhaar, GM crops, vaccines etc. show an uncanny consensus across the political divide on the role of govt as gatekeeper of science and tech.
I think of myself as a techno-optimist. But all technologies come with their own limitations. Biometrics are no exception.
But the debate over Aadhaar reflects the prevailing social and political polarisation in the country.
The critics of the UID wield it to assault the government, its ideology, politics and policies. The proponents of UID see in it a final solution for most, if not all, the ills of society.
The irony is that both sides seem oblivious to the fact that they are in the same political corner. Both agree that the levers of government ought to be harnessed to impose their particular agenda on hapless citizens. And, so while the debate rages on, the government keeps expanding its hold over citizens.
Efficiency vs equity
Advocates of Aadhaar begin their efficiency argument by pointing to the futility of escaping the embrace of technology in the modern age. What is left unsaid is that technology in the hands of government is very different from those operating in an open and competitive market. Technologies and inventions do not flourish in a controlled environment.
Critics of Aadhaar stress the question of equity, and highlight the frequent reports of deprivations and even deaths, caused by denial of entitlements because of some problem with Aadhaar-based verification. But they ignore the deprivations and deaths due to apathy and callousness of the government, long before the advent of Aadhaar. To them, the legitimacy of the state flows from its ability to provide such services to the people, particularly the poor and the needy.
Both sides avoid questions such as: Should the government be in the business of service delivery or distributing subsidies? Is that really the best way to ensure welfare of citizens? Can corruption be really eliminated by adopting technology, stricter monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, rather than changing the incentive structure that has made rent seeking inevitable?
No magic bullet
The proponents of Aadhaar cloak their defence of technology wrapped up in modernity. But no technology is a magic bullet. When a bulk of the population makes a living by physical labour, fingerprints are inherently unreliable, while access to iris identification is very limited. The problem of Aadhaar is compounded by the issue of unreliable connectivity needed to verify the identity.
Governments in India, and many across the world, have a history of trying to predetermine technology, and failing spectacularly. Decades have been lost in misguided efforts to develop technologies either on the grounds of import substitution, job creation or ‘Make in India’. This has resulted in companies, in the private and public sector, sheltered from competition, perpetuating exploitation of citizens, while profiting from poor quality and high prices.
Despite the poor track record, the debates over Aadhaar, genetically modified crops, vaccines, and others, show an uncanny consensus across the political divide on the role of government as the gatekeeper of science and technology.
Everyone in India has some kind of identity document. A biometric identifier could be just one more addition to that range of instruments.
But UIDAI is a government monopoly, like a telephone service provider, which after failing to provide basic telephony, is now promising to offer mobile phone services to consumers who have no other choice.
A biometric identifier, like Aadhaar, could compete with others and win the confidence of the people based on its versatility and utility. For instance, the requisite information could be stored in a smart card in possession of each person. A card reader where identity needs to be verified could read the information, and authenticate the biometric signature of the person presenting the card, without storing or worrying about connectivity.
If the connectivity and access issues are resolved, the basic data could be held in servers, where any service provider could instantly verify the identity of a person, without any need to store any of the data locally. These would greatly prevent the possibility of misuse.
Ethics of governance
Notions of a welfare state in pursuit of equity, and distributive justice in pursuit of equality, have been eroding the ethical underpinnings of a limited government.
Aadhaar is only a manifestation of this erosion of governance ethics. Citizens are being asked to be transparent and accountable to government, rather than the other way around.
Some have argued that it is futile to object to the extraordinary transgression of the state on citizens’ rights and privacy. Aadhaar, with its multi-dimensional linkages, has the potential to enable the government to monitor and search a citizen’s transactions and interactions without any legal safeguard, such as a warrant.
Constitutional safeguards become critical precisely to stop such blanket transgressions, more so for the poor and disadvantaged who can afford no other forms of protection except the law.
This would be a tragic surrender of constitutional restraints on governments, allowing the state to hold every citizen guilty unless proven innocent.
Citizens are not the property of the government to identify and account for, but are the real sovereigns and the government is their servant.
Barun S. Mitra is founder-director of Liberty Institute, New Delhi