Thursday, 6 October, 2022
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‘The entire anti-poverty NGO industry has been Y2Ked by Aadhaar’

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Who is really affected by Aadhaar and who has a problem with it? Here’s the full transcript of the Facebook live with ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on the controversy.

When I wrote this piece, God Save India from Wine & Cheese – or Upper Class, Upper Crust Aadhaarophobes, I knew fully well that this is going to light a fire. In fact, the idea was to light a fire and to cause a debate – a debate that cuts across the two sides of the trenches.

Aadhaar is a very contentious issue, but it’s also a very interesting issue. Because it’s the only issue on which all those who would find everything about Republic channel abhorrent, find themselves in agreement with the owner of the Republic channel, Rajeev Chandrasekhar. This is the only issue on which people as far apart ideologically as the intellectual ‘chic’ Left, and Subramanian Swamy also agree.

So, this is an issue on which to create a debate, you have to speak the truth, and you have to not worry about consequences. Because when there is so much mythology being spread, somebody has to stand up. It’s a good idea, I’m not saying I have to be the only one, somebody has to stand up and say, “Hang on, check some facts!” Now, I know, that there are many doubts. I will now pick the first question, it’s not really a question, it’s a tweet.

Madhumita Mazumdar: If this is an occasion to repeat rather than revise the completely untenable arguments you made yesterday, who do you think would be interested? Who? The Nandan Nilekani press perhaps. Better luck next time.

Shekhar Gupta: Now first of all ma’am, if you have doubts on facts, please ask me, I will try and answer them. If I don’t have answers, I will say so. If I can’t convince you, I can’t change your mind. But you haven’t raised a question on fact, you’ve only talked about the ‘Nandan Nilekani press’.

That Nandan is one of our investors is a fact stated very clearly and explicitly on our website, along with all our other distinguished investors. We respect them greatly and also love them for the fact that they trusted us with their money, that they did take their money seriously. But, to say that this is the ‘Nandan Nilekani press’ – I would request you to please carry out a little fact check.  Look at the three or four news organisations most critical of Aadhaar. Day in and day out, again and again and again. I don’t want to name them, because it’s completely irrelevant who invests in which media – independent media – business in particular. But, the four organisations which are at the forefront of the criticism of Aadhaar, which mostly want Aadhaar destroyed, the largest single contributor to them – in some cases as investors, in some cases as donors is the Nilekani family.

Now, I’m not saying the Left is right or the Right is wrong, I’m just stating a fact to you. It is unfair, and below the belt, to say that anybody who has a different point of view belongs to a camp, because the facts are there for you to see, and I leave you to judge.

We have Anirban.

Anirban: The government has already been using PAN for bank accounts, why add the Aadhaar? If duplicate PANs are matched against the Aadhaar, then there are no bad PANs right? Why not ask banks to use a verified PAN?

Shekhar Gupta: It’s a long answer, I’ll try and make it short. India is a very under-banked country, so to say that only those who have a PAN number can have identity is very unfair.

Now, lately, because of Jan-Dhan, again a lot of people will jump because they will say, “Oh Jan-Dhan is a Modi government scheme!” Modi government has given impetus to the Jan-Dhan scheme, it’s actually the previous government’s scheme like Aadhaar. So because of Jan-Dhan, more people have got bank accounts, but still, a lot of India remains unbanked. And a lot of India does not pay taxes.

So, to jump straight to linking identity with a permanent account number of the tax department is to create an ‘identity elite’ in the country. Which means if you are Haves, among the various things that you have, you also have an identity card. The Have-Nots have no identity. So PAN is no answer to Aadhaar. Also, PAN can be easily duplicated.

In the pre-Aadhaar times, I could open 20 bank accounts. Shekhar Gupta, Chandrashekhar Gupta, maybe just a Shekhar Gupta-20-Accounts-in-20-banks, there was no way of tracking it. Every civilised country in the world has some way of tracking its citizen data.

Even Pakistan – I know it’s not the best example – but even Pakistan, for the longest time has had a National Identity Card. Somebody stops you on the street, they say, “Aapka Shanakhti Card hai kya?”. Americans have the Social Security Number.

India is the unique country where the citizen has no identity, and it becomes a curse for the poor Indian because if she needs something, particularly from the government, a poor Indian has to first go to a sarpanch, a deputy commissioner or an SD to say ‘Huzoor/mai-baap, yeh mera naam hai, yeh mere baap ka naam hai. Woh bolta hai pehle kissi se certify karwa ke lao aur phir kissi aur se certify karwa ke lao.”

You have to live, see, the problems poor people have when they do not have an identity to understand what Aadhaar means to them.

B.L. Khatri: Has Aadhaar successfully plugged the leakages via Direct Benefits Transfer and actually enabled the government to save huge amounts of taxpayers money?

Shekhar Gupta: This is a matter of debate, but the only thing on debate is how much savings have taken place? The fact is, that a lot of savings are taking place and I will tell you how. 

There was a lot of leakage in fertilizer subsidy in India. Two things have been done, again, Mr Modi’s critiques jumps saying… oh just because Mr. Modi takes credits that he has done it but it is actually something that the previous government started. Again, Mr. Modi has given it impetus. The neem coating of urea whereby urea can’t be diverted. But the second thing is today that somebody buying a subsidized fertilizer, increasingly all states haven’t yet implemented it but it’s moving now, they pay the full price but the subsidy amount comes into your bank account as a direct benefit transfer and those bank accounts are linked to Aadhaar.

So, you cannot have duplicate accounts or double accounts or triple accounts and so on. So, there even people who may want to buy fertilizer or LPG or any of these subsidized commodities without on principle want to get subsidy can buy them at the full price and in any case no body can sell it.. you can always get around something. Six sigma in life only exists in textbooks. You know, in a million operations, one will go wrong. But you can find an exception. But, generally, it is much tougher to steal on government subsidies and that’s a big benefit. It’s not a partisan thing. UPA started it, NDA has taken it forward.

Satyam Malviya: Can the debate on Aadhaar be discussed among the rural or poor citizens? Did the government come up with pros and cons to explain Aadhaar in rural areas like the  Beti Bachao campaign?

Shekhar Gupta: I don’t think Aadhaar is quite connected with Beti Bachao but the fact is we saw UP elections recently. One of the things that the BJP greatly plugged for themselves was the LPG Ujjwla Direct Benefit Transfer Scheme, which is linked to Aadhaar-linked bank accounts where subsidies are transferred directly to people’s account. At this point 10 crore, or more than 10 crore Indians have Aadhaar-linked LPG accounts. I haven’t seen them. If you have seen them rise up in revolt anywhere, please do point it out to me, I will send reporters to cover it.

Just because there are glitches, there will be glitches and there will be exceptions and there will be problems as the The Tribune reporter has pointed out. Frankly, The Tribune reporter should be sent a gift by the Aadhaar authorities for pointing out loopholes in the system which they should plug. They should not be fighting The Tribune reporter, they should be thanking her. There will be glitches, there will be problems. It’s a huge new system but ultimately it comes to the same question of throwing the baby out with the bath water. You have to treat the two differently.

The fact is that in large areas, till I last checked I think yesterday, at the close of banking hours, Rs 89,000 crore has been transferred through direct benefit transfer of subsidies into Aadhaar-linked bank accounts. It is not a small amount, and because these are small amounts per person, it involves a lot of fellow citizens. So, these are important points that you have to keep into account.

Rajiv Chawla says that Modi was against Aadhaar then it was a problem. When Modi used it in the best possible way, which UPA could not, then it is a problem. All mobiles netizens are more prone to hurting privacy law of the land. But you have problem with Aadhaar only?

Shekhar Gupta: Well, I agree partly with your question and that is unfortunately the nature of our politics that when you are in the opposition, you oppose everything. We are talking at a point when the Modi government has just liberalised FDI in retail. So, they are taking one step after the other to a stage, where I guarantee to you, they will open up FDI in multi-brand retail.

When UPA was opening FDI in multi-brand in retail, Mr. Modi, Sushma Swaraj and all of the BJP said, ‘East India Company was coming into India and India was going to be colonised’. What have they been doing since then? They have been slowly bringing FDI in India. Today they have made 100 per cent FDI in single brand retail through automatic route, which means tomorrow IKEA coming and setting up huge showrooms in India does not need anybody’s clearance.

So, its unfortunate but it’s a fact of life that in Opposition you oppose every idea of the ruling government, good or bad. When you come into power, you implement them. A good example is the nuclear deal. The nuclear deal was termed a sellout. We were about to become a colony of the Americans and what happened? When the Modi government came in the BJP, in fact, picked up the thread even more enthusiastically. The problem with Aadhaar is now, Aadhaar is suffering a double whammy. When UPA wanted it, BJP opposed it. When BJP started implementing with greater vigour, then the Congress party or many of the larger ecosystem around Congress party has started to attack because they cannot handle the fact that Modi has run away with their idea and made great success for it. So there’s a little bit of sour grapes there. But the fact is this is the nature of our politics. It’s not going to end soon.

Next question from Nikhil, who I suspect is the same Nikhil who is my producer of Walk the Talk at NDTV. So, hi Nikhil.

Nikhil: Isn’t it a question of better operating techniques and accountability rather than imposing a ‘scheme’ to declare innocent citizens as criminals? Why should Aadhaar be mandatory? Why should I give my permanent passwords, fingerprint and iris scan to the government which can abuse them?

Shekhar Gupta: Now you ask many questions. First of all, nobody is declared a criminal for having or not having Aadhaar. You can decide not to have Aadhaar. The question is:  should it be compulsory for government services , delivery of government services and subsidies where the poor are concerned, or should it also be compulsory for your bank accounts, paying taxes etc. where the non-poor are affected.

The Supreme Court can decide tomorrow that this (Aadhaar) is not compulsory. I might not have an argument, in fact, I don’t have an argument with that. I just have an argument with the idea that we guys are so wise that we know this is a mortal threat to India, the biggest threat since the bubonic plague, which was banished a 120 years ago. So, beware of this. And, since you are not so sensible, I will save you. Arrey… Leave it to people na.

I have sympathy with the idea that it should not be compulsory. Alright. Don’t make it compulsory. Don’t make it mandatory—and there is a good chance that the court may say that—but don’t deny it to the rest. Because you think it’s a bad idea that is, if I may say so, an undemocratic, patronising, elitist, ‘wine and cheese’ thought. That is what the vast majority of Indians, I promise you, are going to accept.

Rajul Mishra: If I need Aadhaar to get passport, will it become a citizenship registry?

Shekhar Gupta: No, the law is that Aadhaar does not confer citizenship on you. The test for citizenship in India is complicated as well as simple. So if there is an illegal immigrant, say, in Assam, where the new NRC is now being constructed, somebody can say here is my ration card, here is my passport, here is my Aadhaar card, as one more evidence of the fact that I have been a citizen of this country for such a long time. But the test for citizenship is more complicated.

See what’s happening in Assam; people who have joined the Indian Army, served 27-30 years are also having their citizenship questioned. So just having one document in India does not confer citizenship on you. Unfortunately, in India, citizenship is very complicated. That’s also because of the neighbourhood in which we live, the complex history of the Partition and also the special relationship we have, say with Nepal and other countries in the neighbourhood. That’s a different debate altogether.

Joginder Rawat: Why Aadhaar is so necessary if PAN card is already given to IT or bank?

Shekhar Gupta: Once again, my friend, in a country of 134 crores, only two-and-a-half crore pay tax. So, does it mean that those who are paying tax will be superior citizens, that they will have an identity and this sexy card, whereas all the rest of India floats around waiting for their sarpanch, district magistrate or commissioner’s rubber stamp saying this person is a bona fide citizen of India or a resident of this village. It doesn’t work like that. Tax is one thing, identity is something else.

Sharad Gupta: But with Aadhaar linked to all bank accounts, wallets, insurances, credit cards- doesn’t it give the government the power of a single switch to cut off any single citizen who is not in favour of the government of the day? They got a thousand trolls for every normal citizen who speaks against or ‘not for’ the establishment. It is no longer about them getting after few in the media who are not sold out to the parties in power. Now they don’t spare common citizens for speaking their mind. Tomorrow they can freeze all our accounts, wallets and cards and bring us to heal? So Aadhaar is fine, as a unified identity, but why link to all mobiles, accounts, cards, wallets, insurances? And why force it with a threat?

Shekhar Gupta: Again, valid point. And again, I am not heartbroken if the Supreme Court says tomorrow that Aadhaar is not compulsory. But as far as I am concerned, my view is that Aadhaar is a convenience for both sides. Aadhaar is a convenience for the government, and Aadhaar is convenient for the law-abiding citizen because many crimes can be committed in your name by forging your identity today. All of us have any number of parody accounts in our name, which are run on social media and are run so realistically.

In any case, these days the sense of humour is so poor that most people can’t even figure out what’s a joke and what is not a joke. I said something yesterday, obviously as a joke, I now have to qualify a joke as a joke, that I am so sorry I used a wine and cheese metaphor on a day when lots of establishments in Khan Market are being sealed or demolished, so what will happen to the famous ‘Khan Market consensus’ (my friend Ashok Malik’s immortal description). But I found that’s some people thought I was actually apologising, and I have to even apologise for a joke that was too subtle.

Look if a government has a lot of power, it can cause any citizen a great deal of harm. To protect a citizen from the government, citizens need institutions and institutional mechanisms. That’s why you have the courts, election commission etc. Otherwise who will save anybody from majoritarian excess in a democracy. A government can switch off accounts through your PAN cards also, but the fact is banks are different entities, phone companies are different entities. No government can disenfranchise a citizen under law.

If the government wants to be really bad, it can get somebody shot and killed in a fake encounter, or arrested under NSA, as governments have routinely been doing. But this is not a movie, this is real life. The government has no power to switch you off. It can misuse a power, but it can misuse a power any way to do anything. And that has to be countered through institutional mechanisms, and through public opinion.

Vikram Katiyal: What is the legal course of action if my personal data gets leaked?

Shekhar Gupta: If your personal data is leaked, even today, without a privacy law, you have good case to sue the Aadhaar authority for a sizeable compensation but I do believe and I do hope that a privacy law comes. India needs a privacy law, Aadhaar or no Aadhaar. I hope when that law comes, it is a comprehensive law, so that it is not only about data leakage; it also protects an individual’s privacy in other areas.

For instance, it has to draw some limit on sting operations. We have seen lately so many tapes turn up involving one public figure or the other in consensual sexual situation with an adult woman. All this is happening because there is no privacy law. So, I hope the privacy law goes into such areas, truly protects a citizen’s privacy, and also stops all entrapment operations.

Remember the Tehelka story, which was not sufficiently reported, but deserves more attention? They used commercial sex workers to trap serving army officers, and those army officers were then punished by the Army. A media organisation using commercial sex workers to trap serving army officers, where no deal was done, is a case of entrapment. I am also hoping that the new privacy law that comes also protects citizens from entrapment. Remember, I use that word. If it is not there in the law, some of us will complain about it.

Aniket Mahure:  Aadhaar was started by the UPA but the implementation of it was effectively run by the NDA. Is there a difference in implementing things in public interest in changing governments. Is the one who implemented it right better?

Shekhar Gupta: I think Aadhaar is UPA’s greatest missed opportunity. It was their one big idea, it started happening in time for them and then some of the same people, who are now opposing Aadhaar opposed it. They are well meaning people who believe in the physical touchy-feely sarkar. People who think that unless there is a babu or a munshi and a clerk who is giving stuff to a citizen, and until someone is watching it, they cannot be sure. It is like “all change causes trouble.”

When we shifted from our Ambassador cars to new cars, where we didn’t have to change water in the radiator every three days, it took some time to get used to it. So, technology does worry people and the reduction of human interface does worry people. I am weighing my words carefully, but what Aadhaar has also done is that it has greatly, rudely and brutally, and I would say, wisely disintermediated the entire poverty NGO industry which acted as intermediaries between the government subsidies and its recipients. Now they are not needed, because there is this funny number, and I think that galls a lot of people. One, that how will the poor manage without my protection and second, what do I do now.

Once again, I am choosing my words carefully, but I am not known to mince my words. The entire anti-poverty NGO industry has been Y2Ked by Aadhaar, and they have to now find a new business model. I do not mean business in a negative sense, I know that they mean well by the poor. So, they have to now develop and evolve new ideas to work with the poor, of empowering them, and to help them make their lives better; because a lot of what they thought they would do better is now being done enormously better.

It is not being done perfectly, some of them will now start finding flaws in Aadhaar-based delivery or Direct Benefit Transfers—these are strong ideological issues. Should there be Direct Benefit Transfers? Is there something called merit-based subsidies or are all subsidies merit-based? Should I also get cheap LPG or petrol? These are matters of debate that go on. This debate has now come up in UK with Corbyn, it is a debate that took place in the US sometime back. Now the US is not debating very much, except for Trump’s tweets.

Having said that, these NGOs are run by very good people, well meaning people. But some of what they were doing has become outdated. It has been Y2Ked. So, they have to now reinvent themselves, their agendas, and other activities.

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