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  • Prasanth Nori

Shaky Foundations

(Blog post for DPI 671M at Harvard Kennedy School)

Image by Fotokannan; CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Aadhar or आधार broadly means any of the following words: foundation, base, footing, backbone, backing, root, pillar etc. It is popularly known as the world's largest biometric identification system. Established in 2009, it has since gone through a lot of controversy. While a lot has been studied and understood about the Aadhar unique identification system, I write from my experience of registering for my Aadhar card in 2012 and the complex trials and tribulations of navigating the system that me and friends and family around me have been through in the last 7 years.


Registration

Enlisting myself onto Aadhar was carried out primarily via ad-hoc centres and camps that were set up in different locations around the city. At the time, I went with my parents and we got our registrations done on the same day. While the process was easy for me, there were multiple errors and delays for most people. The primary reason being that people had documents with differing details on them. The residential address on the tax identification card (PAN) is often different from that listed on the passport. This is especially true of working class populations who've not had the luxury of permanent address. A lot of manual verifications and form-filling was necessary to clear this and it took hours for many people. I had one permanent address all my life at the point and all my documentation connected to that. A second crazy experience at registration was that the fingerprint scanners could not recognise some people's fingerprints. And in a situation like this, neither the officials there nor the people knew what to do. Imagine small bugs like this amplified to a billion citizens across the country. 'small' takes on a whole new meaning. Once the cards eventually arrived, most cards had errors in spellings, mismatched biometric data or blank fields.


Aadhar of things

Between 2013 and 2014, banks, mobile phone companies and other service providers began to request the linking of your Aadhar to respective accounts. Till this point the then-opposition-party, the BJP was a fierce critic of the program. In 2014 once the elections were past us, the BJP became the ruling party and began to rapidly expand the use of Aadhar. Service providers moved swiftly from 'requesting' to 'mandating' linking the Aadhar number with deadlines to block services if the linking wasn't done. But there was a huge problem here. Since the Aadhar details were full of errors when you tried to link it to a service, either the server would time out or you would be outright denied. And this left us in a big mess - on one hand we faced the threat of losing phone connections and bank accounts for not linking Aadhar while on the other hand there was no way to link Aadhar because it was full of errors. During this phase there were multiple voices in the system litigating against the government. This wasn't even the biggest problem for urban, middle class dwellers like myself. The biggest problem was for the rural poor who had to link their public distribution systems to Aadhar and if it didn't link - you basically had no food. Starvation deaths became a reality. In the 21st century. Because of IT failure.


Bread and Butter

Starting 2016 the government began mandating the linking of bank accounts and tax accounts with Aadhar and that became a huge issue. The system would not accept your Aadhar details and not be able to link. And this meant you could not file your taxes. The only way to resolve it was to go back to an Aadhar centre to update your erroneous/missing data and hope that it works after 5 weeks. Aadhar centres were over capacity and wait times ran into hours. I remember having to do this process twice which meant to update my details I spent about 10 hours in line and 10 weeks waiting. The collective loss of productivity and increase in frustration must have been a significant amount of GDP lost. (Did I mention that in the middle of all of this suddenly our currency wasn't valid anymore?)


I came out of this process immensely tired, frustrated and fearful that I wouldn't have access to basic services if I didn't dance to the government's tunes. All the while there are constant reports of data privacy breaches. I remember a ruling party member defended it saying the data was held behind a "thick concrete wall" and hence it couldn't be breached!


It was clear that the UIDAI team had bitten off more than it could chew. All the while citizens and the opposition were constantly battling it in the supreme court. News outlets and rumour-mills had a great time with constantly changing stances and changing deadlines. I saw that the people running the show had absolutely no clue what they were doing. I had a growing suspicion that my cheap, mass-produced cell-phone had a better fingerprint scanner than the Aadhar scanners out there.


There was a clear lack of preparation or anticipation of the problems that unprecedented scale brought with it! I hypothesise that the organisation handling it and it's leadership had built enterprise software but definitely not worked on essential services which is a whole different ballgame. A lack of preparation and lack of domain expertise with the leadership would be my two key suspects on the vendors side. On the government side - the political environment was extremely shaky with actors in the system exhibiting bipolar behaviour frequently. One minute you would be a fierce advocate of the system and the next you would be filing a lawsuit against the government for something you didn't like. What this means is that you actors and supporters were advocating for a digital identification system more for the mileage and public relations imagery and less for the actual benefits that it had the potential to deliver.




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