By Jatin Bavishi
Imagine a fictitious entity called the Big Brother, contemplating each and every movement that you make during the day. Big Brother knows which newspaper you read, where you bought your coffee from, and who you went out on a date with. This dystopia of mass state surveillance was portrayed by George Orwell in his classic novel ‘1984’. Now, imagine the power of gathering such information using Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and the Internet of Things.
New members of the family
The 12 digit Unique Identification Number (UID), contains biometric information of people, which is the ‘Aadhaar’ (meaning basis) of a person’s identity. The Aadhaar Act, which was passed in the Lok Sabha, says it aims to provide the target delivery of services and subsidies to citizens residing in India. The first major rollout of Aadhaar based service was the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT), a measure to hand over subsidy and welfare directly to the bank account of beneficiaries. On 6th October, the government has made biometric identification mandatory for all post office deposits, Provident Funds, National Savings Certificate schemes, and the Kisan Vikas Patra. This increases the number of Centrally Sponsored Schemes to 135, under 35 Ministries, which are implemented through DBT, along with various other State Sponsored Schemes.
Aadhaar is everywhere!
The Aadhaar has courted controversy due to the present government’s apparent frenzy to link everything to this number. In States like Haryana, it has become virtually mandatory for birth certificates, and it has been extended to get a death certificate as well. Bank accounts have to be mandatorily linked to it. It is also required for scholarships, availing mid-day meals, along with the filing of Income Tax returns. A database containing the information about the behaviours of a person can be created. Some members of the civil society have contended that such universal link up of personal information would enable the State to track every citizen of the country. They say it is a realisation of the adage “Big Brother is watching you”.
We are living in the world of ‘Information Revolution’. Technology, enabling the availability of cheap and high-quality information, has contributed to redesigning the very structure and rules of our societies. Those who have data no longer need to rely on their instincts to make decisions. They can use data and analytics to make faster decisions and accurate forecasts.
Information was the foremost problem that hindered efficient decentralisation and distribution of welfare. The most comprehensive data generating exercise was the mammoth census, which is carried out every 10 years. However, so many things change within a decade, that by the time the census data is put into operation, some part of it already loses its relevance. There was also a possibility that some of the eligible individuals were omitted, whereas some dubious individuals were commissioned as beneficiaries. In this case, Aadhaar facilitated targeting, compliance, and decision making.
What are the benefits and costs?
The Aadhar card, being a universal card with no specific purpose, eliminates the need to register or apply for separate cards for separate services. Being linked to the biometrics of a person, it also cannot be replicated. The government has saved a whopping Rs 57,000 crore with DBT, with LPG subsidy alone contributing Rs 30,000 crore.
However, on the other side, there are certain costs associated with it. Not all of these costs are currently visible because they haven’t been felt yet. Even if we leave aside the possibility of mass surveillance, linking of different databases does make it vulnerable to hacking by other parties. Aadhaar enabled schemes would definitely help in curbing fiscal leakages through inefficient targeting, but the legal provisions must be put in place simultaneously, lest there is an infringement of the ‘Right to Privacy’.
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