The team that first conceived Aadhaar, India’s biometric identification programme, would be a “trifle disappointed” with how the project has turned out to be. That’s according to Praveen Chakravarty, one of the original architects of the Aadhaar, who is now Congress’ data analytics cell chairperson.
“I say that because there was a very engineer’s view of Aadhaar back then, that Aadhaar was about efficiency, Aadhaar was about solving a problem and Aadhaar was going to make India better,” Chakravarthy told BloombergQuint in an interaction. “It has always been envisaged as a tool to improve governance efficiencies.”
When I look back and think of what the original design, goal or the ambition of the Aadhaar project was, I think it would be fair to say that the team would be a trifle disappointed.Praveen Chakravarty, Chairperson, Congress’ Data Analytics Cell
Chakravarthy added that the original team didn’t think as hard and deep as they should have about the social costs of Aadhaar.
Read the full conversation here:
How do you look at the Supreme Court judgment?
Praveen Chakravarty: The judgement is a very balanced judgement. There were some questions raised about Aadhaar in terms of its efficacy as a governance tool to improve efficiencies. The Supreme Court has clearly held that Aadhaar is indeed a good tool to improve efficiency in governance.
The Supreme Court has also said that may be there are some social cost to Aadhaar like cost of privacy, cost of exclusion and hence the Supreme Court has gone on to dilute some of the provisions that would have enabled organisations other than government organisations to use Aadhaar.
Aadhaar is essentially a technology tool to improve efficiencies. It improves efficiencies for government, if it can do it then it can also improve efficiencies for others, be it private sector, non-government organisations, non-profits, etc.
By distinguishing between the two, the Supreme Court has said that there are implicit costs of Aadhaar as a tool and we believe that democratically elected governments are better placed to bear those costs of privacy than the private sector which we perhaps don’t trust as much as we do. So, all it tells me is that, I hope the current government lives up to the tall expectations that the Supreme Court has set.
In the initial stages, wasn’t Aadhaar clearly seen as something which would be used by the private sector too and in that context isn’t today’s judgment a blow to that original thought?
Praveen Chakravarty: I don’t think that is true in terms of the fact that we did not know what Aadhaar was envisaged for or we do not know how to deal with it today. It has always been envisaged as a tool to improve governance efficiencies. There are costs of privacy. Choice is a very fundamental design in the way Aadhaar was originally thought of.
You can obtain, or if you want, you can get an Aadhaar and if you did not want then you did not have to get an Aadhaar. Aadhaar was never mandatory for enrolment at least when the UPA was in power. That is what the Supreme Court has upheld today.
This was in parts and not for government services and welfare and benefits?
Praveen Chakravarty: The part about the government welfare and benefits, if Aadhaar is a tool for efficiencies, then how does it achieve efficiencies? If I have to give out PDS and I do know that there are inefficiencies because of duplicates and ‘ghosts’, and if Aadhaar as a tool can remove those and bring in potential benefits of savings and efficiency, then it is logical to ask for Aadhaar as a requirement to avail those benefits and that is what the Supreme Court has said.
No citizen of this country was mandated to go register for Aadhaar if he or she did not need a certain benefit or a service.
But you are going to use Aadhaar for pretty much everything. Does it not seem that the citizen is not left with a choice ?
Praveen Chakravarty: That is true and that is where the Supreme Court judgement has come in. It says we accept the efficiency part of the argument. We do not accept the back handed mandatory nature of the program and that is what the Supreme Court has said that you can’t make it mandatory for everyone.
Leave that for a choice. If it is for efficiency, for purposes that you use, government taxpayer money for which is from the consolidated fund of India to improve efficiency then ask for Aadhaar and I think this is a very balanced judgement.
How do you think the initial team would react, looking at how Aadhaar has been put under scrutiny to such detail by the SC and not all of it has come out smelling of roses?
Praveen Chakravarty: I can’t speak for Nandan (Nilekani) or on behalf of any of the others specifically. I think it is fair to say that when I look back and think of what the original design, goal or the ambition of the project was, it would be fair to say that the team would be a trifle disappointed.
I say that because there was a very engineer’s view of Aadhaar back then that Aadhaar was about efficiency, Aadhaar was about solving a problem and Aadhaar was going to make India better.
You didn’t see the privacy concerns coming up back then?
There was lot of talk of privacy. The question is: did we think it was as big and important an issue? When I look back now, perhaps it was not.
When people would come and say that there are privacy issues or issue of social exclusion, which was big thing as some people where denied service because of Aadhaar, our response would always be that but it has saved so many crores of rupees and cost and saving.
But, the one person who has died of starvation has the same rights.
Praveen Chakravarty: Yes and we have certainly learnt that after demonetization. The means are as important as the ends. That’s the biggest learning for all of us from those initial days. You should not take away the fact that this is a remarkable and revolutionary project which can certainly deliver enormous efficiency benefits. We perhaps underestimated the social cost like cost of exclusion and the cost of privacy. And perhaps, that is what the Supreme Court ruling today told us that “ you guys didn’t think as deeply about these things as you should have.”
Do you think Aadhaar is really as safe as it is made out to be?
Praveen Chakravarty: I believe that Aadhaar is technologically safe and technologically fool-proof. This is entirely different from the social cost of Aadhaar, which is valid and legitimate.
From the day that you envisioned private operators becoming a part of the enrolment process, what could have possibly been a red flag?
Praveen Chakravarty: I challenge the fundamental premise that private entities are far more susceptible to corruption and devious means than public entities.
I don’t think that is true at all. This is not a question of private versus public; it is a question of some people misusing the enrolment process and other don’t because the counter factual question to that would be: had we not indulged private entities and only done it through public, are we saying that there was going to be no theft and enrolment errors?. Of course not.
Were you okay with the linking of Aadhaar to bank account forcibly?
Praveen Chakravarty: Opening a bank account with an Aadhaar because of KYC process takes five minutes versus five days. There is clearly productivity gains for everybody to see. So, why would anyone not be okay with this? It is not so much about giving me your entire life’s history and then we will open bank account. It was entirely about efficiency. Five minutes versus five days, the data is secure, it is technologically foolproof, then it comes out to be about efficiency gains. We perhaps didn’t think as hard and deep as we should have around social cost.
If you could go back in time, what would you put on the agenda of the next meeting in hindsight of everything that has developed in last many years?
Praveen Chakravarty: Don’t roll out Aadhaar until we have a law.
Will that be the biggest regret?
You can’t fault us for not trying. We tried. We had a draft law, a draft privacy law. It wasn’t in our domain or scope to get a law passed. We were not elected representatives. But, when we put out a draft, it was rejected by the standing committee chaired by Mr Yashwant Sinha of which Mr Piyush Goyal was very vociferous opponent of the project.
I am very glad to see that Piyush has been jubilant over the Supreme Court judgement over Aadhaar since we used to have long arguments about this. We tried. You can’t fault us for trying. We did not have a majority.
If the Congress party comes to power tomorrow, what will they change about the current Aadhaar Act?
Praveen Chakravarty: We had lots of reservations about who can use Aadhaar, for what it should be used and in terms of who can appeal. The Supreme Court has done well to strike all of it. The Supreme Court has done well to dilute it down. A joint secretary level officer being granted exceptions to access Aadhaar data in the interest of national security, we thought it was very wide and large and the Supreme Court has struck that down.
The BJP and NDA say that they were the ones who made sure that the Aadhar is in everybody’s life. They say that this is a vindication of their push and of their trust in Aadhaar considering that government services can now use Aadhaar if they include any payout from the consolidated fund of India. Meanwhile, the Congress is not clear what they brought Aadhaar for and are opposing for the sake of it.
I am not here to do political point-scoring. It is wrong to say that the Congress does not know what its stand is on Aadhaar. The Congress party’s stand on Aadhaar is clear which is for efficiency benefits in government programs. You talked about coercing people to go and get and Aadhaar, for example, to obtain a mobile phone connection or bank account, and that is what set off this fire storm and the supreme court has come down heavily on it. There is something in it for everyone to dip into.
Can an Indian citizen get by without an Aadhaar card?
Praveen Chakravarty: The whole point of Aadhaar was to change everybody’s lives. Perhaps, it has not changed much from yesterday to tomorrow. But if you look at it as India pre- Aadhaar and India post-Aadhaar, there have been some significant changes. If your question is: can an Indian citizen live in India without an Aadhar? Perhaps no, because I hope everyone is a decent tax paying and law-abiding citizen, in which case you need an Aadhaar. By restricting Aadhaar from private use but by making it mandatory for filing taxes, you have pretty much said that everyone should get an Aadhaar. I concede. That’s the Supreme Court’s verdict.
Aadhar’s use has spread so quickly that in effect, the Supreme Court has tried to put the genie back into bottle.
Praveen Chakravarty: It is my view that whatever the Supreme Court ruling was, it should have been regardless of how many people have Aadhaar. The conceptual understanding of Aadhaar in terms of its benefits and cost should not change the fact that so many people have Aadhaar. In economics, we call it ‘sunk costs’. So, sunk cost are sunk and that should have been irrelevant to the judgement. I hope that is indeed the case. How many people have Aadhaar should not have any bearing on the ruling of Aadhaar. Does it violate privacy, fundamental rights of Indian citizens.
The Congress has been behind a lot of the protest against Aadhaar in its current form. Is this something that the party will let go?
The Congress party’s opposition and the case that it took up in the court was Aadhaar being passed as a money bill and being legislated as a money bill. We continue to believe that that was wrong. We have one dissenting judge call it as a fraud on the constitution with very strong words from Justice Chandrachud.
Even the other four judges who delivered the majority verdict in the Aadhaar as a money bill part have gone on to say that the speaker’s decision to categorize that as a money bill can be subject to challenge and that was one of the two questions which were asked because the ruling party said that the speaker’s decision is binding and final. The court, even in its majority, has said that it is subject to judicial review. So, we continue to insist that Aadhaar as a money bill was a back handed way of bringing an important bill such as Aadhaar on the law of the land. Whether we challenge it or not, we will wait and see. So, that is the only opposition the Congress party has
So, is the option still open?
Praveen Chakravarty: We will have to wait and see. Aadhaar as a money bill is very different from Aadhaar as a tool for improving government welfare efficiency.
(This story was first published in Bloomberg Quint and has been republished with due permission.)