A Herb for All Cures

India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, will proceed with a controversial universal identification card known as Aadhaar, an initiative launched by the previous administration. “To take full advantage of this simple but effective tool of governance, the government, though, needs to clean up the implementation of the programme that has been marred by inefficiency and misuse,” writes Nayan Chanda, YaleGlobal editor, in his column for Businessworld. Launch of the ID has been rocky, with thousands of cards going undelivered. But once the kinks are smoothed out, the card could help with good governance, accountability and a reduction in corruption. If the card managers preserve privacy and do not use the card for political ends, the new technology could lead to social and economic innovations – including assisting in passport applications or improving banking transactions. Chanda concludes, “Aadhaar is tailor-made for the kind of clean, accountable e-government that Modi seeks.” – YaleGlobal

A Herb for All Cures

Aadhaar is tailor-made for the kind of clean, accountable e-government that Narendra Modi seeks
Nayan Chanda
Thursday, July 24, 2014

In a significant reversal, the Narendra Modi government has laid to rest fears that just to score political points it would kill a transformational technology for good governance. Instead of throwing out the unique identification card Aadhaar — created by the previous government — the Modi regime will harness it to directly deliver benefits to millions of recipients, bypassing the sticky fingers of corrupt officials. The announcement was an important step in fulfilling the BJP’s campaign slogan of “minimum government, maximum governance”. To take full advantage of this simple but effective tool of governance, the government, though, needs to clean up the implementation of the programme that has been marred by inefficiency and misuse.

During the rough and tumble of the election campaign, Modi denounced practically everything the previous government did and that included the Aadhaar card. He mocked the technology saying, “Congressmen were dancing as if it was a herb for all cures.” Since assuming power, however, he has concluded that Aadhaar is a useful ‘herb’ after all. The biometric identification of Aadhaar linked to a bank account, which has already been issued to nearly half of India’s population, is now seen as an useful vehicle to deliver subsidy in cash to those living below the poverty line. The Economic Survey for 2013-14 published by the new government acknowledged, without naming Aadhaar, that “New technologies of biometric identification and payments through mobile phones have created a range of new possibilities”. 

The BJP budget has not only restored Aadhaar to its intended role of identifying welfare recipients but also allocated Rs 2,039 crore for completing the enrolment of hundreds of millions more. The government will now move to give legislative sanction to Aadhaar. The lack of legal sanction had led the Supreme Court to stay its use for delivering subsidised products like gas. All this is welcome news, but the government’s immediate  task would be to undo the results of poor implementation that have thus far marred the scheme.

Hironmoy Das, a retired bank employee who lives in a small town in West Bengal and enthusiastically took his wife and son to register for Aadhaar card, is one such victim of bureaucratic bungling. After being notified by SMS that his card was ready, he made countless enquiries at the post office for cards for his family. There were indeed hundreds of official envelopes containing cards sitting in bags, unable to be delivered as they had no street address. The failure of the contract employees, who conducted the iris scan, to properly note the postal address during the registration process has rendered the whole exercise useless. Das is not alone.  Throughout the country, hundreds of thousands of Aadhaar cards are gathering dust in post offices. Unless the government finds a way to connect the cards with the right address, the mountains of canvas bags containing smart cards in post offices will remain a testimony to misgovernance.


Aadhaar is tailor-made for the kind of clean, accountable e-government that Modi seeks. The card was never meant to be a proof of  citizenship and can hardly be used to legalise illegal immigrants in the country — something the BJP had fretted about. As Nandan Nilekani, the architect of Aadhaar, put it: “GPS answers the question ‘where am I’. Aadhaar answers the question ‘who am I’.” As the Global Positioning System platform enabled products like Google maps, inertial navigation systems, location-based services or self-driving cars,  Aadhaar could provide an important building block for many economic and social initiatives. With online authentication using biometrics, Aadhaar can, for example, help streamline issuance of passports. Aadhaar  will also be a vital tool in the implementation of Modi’s ambitious programme to provide banking services to all households in the country.  Shorn of politics, a revamped Aadhaar , which means  foundation, may eventually live up to its name. 

Nayan Chanda is editor of YaleGlobal Online based at Yale University’s MacMillan Center.

Copyright © 2014

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