Foundational error

Limiting Aadhaar to those with citizenship papers would defeat its very purpose.

In a setback to the UPA's ambitious biometric-based ID plan, the Supreme Court has ruled that Aadhaar cannot be made compulsory for any public benefits or schemes, and that it can only be issued to those who can prove their Indian citizenship. The court was responding to a PIL that challenged Aadhaar's very validity. Many activists oppose it on grounds of privacy, the fear that it will be commercially usurped or potentially give the state too much power. Some claim a political agenda, saying it will blur the lines between citizens and illegal migrants. Others, including some within the government, have claimed it duplicates other identification efforts, or argue about its partnership model. The UIDAI bill has been held up by the standing committee on finance headed by Yashwant Sinha.

Meanwhile, the government has begun rolling it out on a voluntary basis, through executive orders. Though Aadhaar enrolment is technically optional, it is clearly conceived as the enabling architecture for the UPA's welfare programmes, and critical to its push for cash transfers. Though Aadhaar was planned as a demand-driven utility that would draw people in as its benefits were made manifest, it needs a certain scale to work which is why state agencies had begun linking services to Aadhaar for LPG entitlements and other payments. This would certainly be problematic if it worked to exclude people, instead of serving them. But the petitioners fail to realise that Aadhaar is not a covert plot. It is an entirely worthy effort to make government spending more accurate and honest, and give users a range of potential benefits.

The Supreme Court also missed the point when it spoke of the need to verify that those enrolled were citizens. Aadhaar is not meant to sift bona fide citizens from the others, but to to provide demographic and biometric information. It is meant to make it easier to access subsidies and benefits by removing the single biggest hindrance of implementation lack of ID. For many people, especially the poor, it can be a struggle to furnish documents of identity required by public and private agencies, with their elaborate verification processes. It would finally create a precise way to get social entitlements across, and be a full and valid proof of identity. It can be used for school enrolments, for rural banking, for MGNREGA payments, and much more it will make it impossible to inflate muster rolls or attendance registers, cut down leakage and corruption, and allow direct transfers to replace indirect benefits. Aadhaar needs a fair chance to work, stabilise, and demonstrate its game-changing uses.

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