The return to meaning: The long road back from Aadhaar

Will we place our blind faith in a system that seeks to tie every aspect of our lives, no matter how unrelated, into a neat bouquet waiting to welcome anyone who wants to hack their way into control?

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media
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Godavar

“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them” Ring Verse, JRR Tolkien

Amid the long, long struggle to defend civil liberties against the Aadhaar onslaught, we have seen a nationwide churn possibly for the first time since Emergency. Even if there has been a far greater urban-rural divide in the understanding and acceptance of Aadhaar, the debate has spanned both population groups. The resistance to enrolling or, where relevant, linking Aadhaar to various services, has been mixed for obvious reasons. For the poverty-stricken, the fight is not simply against Aadhaar, it is about ensuring the right to life, dignity, and livelihood.

The loss of PDS rations and MNREGA wages (Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act, 2016) for want of an Aadhaar must be seen as the State waging war against the poorest of the poor – if not in intent, certainly in implementation. That the central and state governments have consistently failed to prevent such losses only worsens their crime.

The Supreme Court’s Constitution Bench hearing the clutch of Aadhaar petitions also seems ambivalent on the use of Aadhaar in disbursing subsidies and welfare schemes. Aadhaar’s creep into financial and cellular services has already seen theft of significant sums of money. The true magnitude of Aadhaar-enabled financial crime is yet to be gauged, as many mostly urban and otherwise unaffected citizens have resisted linking Aadhaar with their bank accounts (and mobile phones). Even here, the government has been complicit in recklessly expanding the reach of Aadhaar, with either no official direction or directions founded on spurious facts.

These lies have been exposed in the SC hearing and, as a consequence, Aadhaar linking is no longer required for mobile services while the UIDAI itself suspended the e-KYC services provided to some financial firms. This only conveys the impression that the government, together with the UIDAI and other interested parties such as the Indian Software Product Industry Roundtable (iSPIRT), hoped to ram Aadhaar down the throats of unsuspecting public under the guise of fine-tuning welfare delivery.

To quote the eloquent words of Dr Reetika Khera, welfare needs Aadhaar like a fish needs a bicycle. The reams of research conducted by her and other people which repeatedly point to the failure and even incapacity of Aadhaar to address the problems of welfare have not only been ignored, but have been derided as empty criticism. In effect, we have been askedto trust Aadhaar and its parent UIDAI rather than traditional human trust, than dedicated research, than existing robust technologies aimed at preventing financial fraud – worst of all, than even existing law and order mechanisms! The sort of society that we are expected to become by willingly adopting Aadhaar seems to be straight out of the pages of dystopian fiction – citizens distrustful of each other and the State, the State more than willing to surveil such citizenry.

The question, as the writer Arundhati Roy asks, is what shall we love? Will we place our blind faith in a system that seeks to tie every aspect of our lives, no matter how unrelated, into a neat bouquet waiting to welcome anyone who wants to hack their way into control? Are we so enamoured by the promise of digital riches – as Messrs.

Ambani and Nilekani apparently seem to be – that we overturn even the most fundamental promises that underpin human society? Data might very well be the new oil, but humans do not still possess the ability to digest oil, letalone data? Whether or not the Supreme Court strikes down this blatantly unconstitutional - and brazenly bulldozed – law, the larger questions hang in the balance for us as citizens. What is the meaning of us, as a society, as a country, if we do not question even those State actions that affect us so fundamentally and profoundly? Are we so willing to surrender our fundamental freedoms in exchange for some vaguely defined, barely comprehensible promise of a digital Utopia?

Will we let Aadhaar seal our servitude to our digital devices, ensuring we never look up again to confront the dissolution of meaning facing us? In my meagre attempts at trying to build public awareness, I have had the privilege of interacting with Dr Khera, Dr Usha Ramanathan, and several others who have spent a lifetime working with passion in diverse fields – only to be brought into an unlikely Tolkien-esque “fellowship” because of Aadhaar which, much like the fictional One Ring, threatens to bind us in the darkness of digital tyranny. That their work – and their warnings – fall on deaf ears should trouble every one of us.

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Published: 13 May 2018, 12:59 PM