The Government Should Set Aadhaar’s Parent, UIDAI, Free

An unshackled UIDAI could be a big-ticket reform capable of providing ‘minimum government, maximum governance’.

4 min read
The Aadhaar Act 2016 not only provides legal backing to the UIDAI but provisions for distancing it from the government, making it a statutory authority. (Photo: iStock/ Altered by <b>The Quint</b>)

The progenitor of Aadhaar, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), was born out of the 2009 wedlock between the government and free enterprise, personified by Nandan Nilekani. The union proved a prolific procreator, producing a billion Aadhaars in less than seven years. Freedom, autonomy and enterprise are intrinsic to the UIDAI’s DNA. The relationship – to retain its potency – must now ride the seven-year itch, known to propel a desire to unshackle, to be free and unattached.

The 2016 Aadhaar Act not only provides legal backing to the UIDAI, but provisions for distancing it from the government, making it a statutory authority. Much depends on how the arrangement is configured. There is a case for the government to provide UIDAI the springboard to remain airborne instead of grounding it to business as usual. This will be mutually beneficial to the partners, government and enterprise, as it must be for a relationship to endure with vigour and purpose.

Benefits of Virtual Citizenship

All is not well. A proxy indicator of the malaise is that the UIDAI does not attract talent anymore from within or outside the government. It is fast becoming another government office. As a hub of innovation, these are ominous developments.

Aadhaar is India’s passport to the digital world. Connect with a phone, pay with an electronic bank account, and authenticate with Aadhaar. This three-number magic, trishul or JAM trinity (Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar and Mobile number), empowering a billion persons, makes India the first country in the world to have universal citizenship of the virtual world.

Even today, there is absolutely no government service, passport included, for which a physical visit to a government office is not required or that is more efficient than what e-governance is capable of delivering. The UK has just announced at-home visa service in India on the strength of biometrics.

(Photo Courtesy: <a href="">Aadhar Card Kendra</a>)
(Photo Courtesy: Aadhar Card Kendra)

Empowering a Billion People

  • Aadhaar Act 2016 has provisions to distance it from the government, making it a statutory authority.
  • The UIDAI no longer attracts talent and is on the verge of becoming another government office.
  • Universal citizenship of the virtual world, granted via Aadhaar along with JAM trinity, has empowered a billion citizens.
  • Aadhaar, combined with an army of start-ups, provides India the comparative advantage to lead the information society.
  • More needs to be done in terms of the UIDAI emerging with path breaking ID-based applications.

Utility for Public and Private Sector

It’s all a question of redesigning public and private processes of conducting work/business. The start-ups of the world, demystified, are doing just this. Aadhaar, combined with an army of start-ups, provides India with the comparative advantage to lead the information society. This is a critical headstart which should not be lost by framing UIDAI as a mere government body.

Aadhaar is, by design, a national identity authentication platform for India, and not just for the government of India. For the record, over 200 non-government Authentication User Agencies (AUA’s), bursting with innovative Aadhaar-based applications are becoming operational. Aadhaar is as much for the private as for the public sector.

By making UIDAI a departmental undertaking, it will acquire the DNA of a typical government office which, to cut the chase, is not customer-friendly. It will exert power over its user agencies rather than being a service provider; it will be moribund in reaching out to potential user groups, and it will become self-limiting. Private user agencies will be apprehensive of dealing with a government agency and reluctant to commit to business models that make them dependent on the government. To take an example, will Apple and Samsung adopt Aadhaar notwithstanding the fact that it is far ahead of anything either of the two have on biometrics?

A Unique Achievement

Aadhaar is, above all, a technology platform; the largest biometric project of the world. The biggest and most renowned experts in the field of biometrics sounded cynical about a project of the scale of Aadhaar. Today, most of them admire it for what it has achieved – a billion unique IDs and a state-of-the-art online, real-time biometric authentication platform that works anytime, anywhere!

A traditional government entity cannot keep pace with it. Just look at all the experts who made Aadhaar possible who have since left the organisation. Although many do continue to support it out of passion in their free time.

A Country of Netizens

The UIDAI as a centre of excellence and as a hub of innovation needs to be entrepreneurial and autonomous. Having delivered Aadhaar to the populace, it needs to shift gears to popularise online authentication and partner with service providers, using ID to transform India into a country of netizens. It needs to be a powerhouse of talent, lateral thought, out-of-the-box applications, and path-breaking ID-based applications. It still needs iconic leadership, talent, trust, vision and flexibility to experiment and harness technology.

Much like the government in the USA is seeing the wisdom in letting go of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), having provided it with a legislative anchor, the Government of India should consider letting go of UIDAI in public interest. Nothing in the Aadhaar Act militates against such a possibility. If anything, an unfettered UIDAI would set the stage for more professionally managed execution agencies – a big ticket administrative reform consistent with the promise of minimum government, maximum governance!

(The writer is a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Finance)

Also read:

Leave Aadhaar Alone and Focus on a Strong Privacy Law, Shall We?

Will Aadhaar Act Address India’s Dire Need For a Privacy Law?

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