The Nation Card — A better Aadhar
A letter from the future
Note: This is a news report from the future, sent to us using new Time travel technology- It covers Aadhar and its replacement.
In Jan 2022 — three months from now. India’s new prime minister — Yogi Adityanath will unveil an ambitious new scheme — The “Nation card”. The Nation card replaces the unique identity card — Aadhar or as its detractors like to call it — An All Destructive Heavy Authoritarian Regime. It attempts to give every Indian a unique identity and relies on new technology to reduce leakages, ensure welfare benefits reach the poor, and widen India’s tax base There are also hopes the new nation card will rein in runaway corruption by India’s notoriously inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy. The nation card relies on DNA technology and every authentication will require a pinprick (assured to be painless) which captures a droplet of blood. New age silicon will process the blood, extract a DNA fingerprint which is then used to authenticate for unique identity. The entire process takes less than 5 seconds.
The Nation Card will involve a process to collect blood samples from India’s population of 1.5 billion people — a process expected to take 2 years and cost 100 billion dollars.
Now is as good time as ever to look back at Aadhar — which itself was expected to revolutionize India and solve all the problems listed above. The failure of Aadhar has necessitated the launch of the nation card. So, how exactly did India get here?
Aadhar was launched with much fanfare in 2009. It was expected to give a billion Indians a portable, future ready unique identity to avail welfare services. It was rumored to be billionaire Nandan Nilekani’s vessel to enter Indian politics. Aadhar combined with Direct Benefit Transfer was expected to be a silver bullet which would ensure Rahul Gandhi’s election as prime minister of India. Fresh off the success of NREGA and with the opposition in shambles, it seemed nothing could go wrong. But scams dominated UPA 2 and with the slow rollout of Aadhar and slower rollout of Direct benefit transfer. The Congress lost in a wave election to Narendra Modi in 2009.
Aadhar was expected to die a quick death with the ascension of Narendra Modi who before the elections was a skeptic of Aadhar. However after the election, the prime minister and the BJP changed their strategy. Seeing Aadhar as the best means to many ends, he decided to make a complete reversal. The central plank of the BJP became -JAM — welfarism in a newer shinier technology shell. With the win in UP elections, Modi decided to concentrate on rooting out “black money” — money which had escaped taxation. While the public assumed that this was to end corruption, this was a clever misdirection. By aggressive crackdown on black money — the hope was to increase tax receipts which would in turn increase welfare spending, which could then be distributed to the people using JAM.
To fight black money, Aadhar was made to be compulsorily linked to everything. The idea was that by building a deep profile of citizens, Income Tax and ED could isolate tax evaders and increase tax receipts. There were those in civil society who objected to this linking, bringing up the prospect of an Orwellian surveillance state, but the Supreme court brushed it away. The other objective with Aadhar was to crack down on wasteful spending by linking every welfare disbursal to a biometric. The initial results were encouraging. Spending on LPG subsidy went down by linking with Aadhar.
Then the problems began. Widespread leaks of Aadhar data began. Instead of leaks from hackers, the data was leaked from inept bureaucrats and the websites of ministries. The leaks were restricted to Aadhar Numbers. No bureaucrat ever lost his job in the leak. However worse was to follow.
As the requirements for Aadhar linking increased enterprising citizens found that it is reasonably easy to get a new set of fingerprints. A band aid was all it took. As the popularity of disposable fingerprints increased— entrepreneurs built up better less cumbersome solutions. That along with the corruption ensured that people ended up getting multiple Aadhar numbers. Last year active Aadhar numbers were estimated to be 150% of the estimated population of India. The uniqueness of Aadhar became a joke.
The savings in welfare schemes turned out to be illusory. It turned out that the only reason there were savings in the LPG scheme was because LPG cost had gone down and many people had not transitioned to the new subsidy scheme. As more people registered on the new scheme (possibly with fake Aadhar’s) the savings went down till the spending on the LPG subsidy exceeded the spending before Aadhar linking was announced.
The replay attacks ended up killing Aadhar pay. Since the Aadhar payment terminals were plain old smartphones, compromised phones started storing fingerprints and using it again and again to drain accounts. As the horror stories virally spread around Whatsapp, Aadhar pay collapsed to an ignominious exit with no usage.
Privacy which was always a concern took a slightly circuitous route to fail in Aadhar. First data of celebrities was leaked. Then embarrassing information of politicians was leaked. Even though the data leaks kept increasing, it did not really make an impact till the great Republic Judge leak of 2018. An enterprising nerd hacked the Income Tax department. He managed to get access to the Aadhar linked profile data of Supreme Court justices. This was then promptly leaked to Arnab Goswami’s Republic news channel. The sordid data revealed the debauchery of judges and senior lawyers and Arnab lapped it up like a lion laps up a deer. In the end no judges resigned but they did pass an order ending such data collection.
Last year The New York Times claimed in a report that Russian hackers had managed to infiltrate Aadhar’s core system (Central Information Data Repository) and had stolen the entire biometric database. Due to the questionable credibility of The Times especially with regard to all things Russian, the claims are being ignored.
Then there was the welfare itself. As Aadhar authentication failure rates increased and with pressure from the ground, Aadhar authentication had to be loosened. To avoid Type 1 and Type 2 errors, Rules of disbursement were heavily loosened. This along with Fake Aadhar’s brought back the leakages. In a few years India was back to where it was before Aadhar.
Tax revenue did increase, but it did not increase because of Aadhar. The identity linking stopped being effective as the egregious offenders ended up using fake Aadhar’s. Even the much ballyhooed GST ended up having a very mild impact on tax collection. However thanks to Trump’s deregulation in the US, A worldwide economic boom started which helped India. With some sort of economic recovery, Moody improved India’s credit rating. After which India went on a borrowing binge, money which was funneled into welfare schemes in time for the 2019 elections. Modi won again.
The surprise win of Elizabeth Warren last year changed everything. Due to a host of regulations addressed at protecting the environment, the American and world economy tanked and oil prices increased. A weak rupee, no growth, high oil prices and high welfare bill started weighing on the government. With Aadhar not delivering the intended benefits. A new task force was announced to fix and improve Aadhar.
Then tragedy struck, The stress and the unrelenting schedule finally got to Narendra Modi and he suffered a heart attack. The transition to the next generation — Yogi Adityanath was hastened. Yogi was promoted first to deputy PM and then the took over as Prime Ministership himself.
Looking back at the failure of Aadhar, Internet activist Hacking Jack is lost for words. All his doomsday predictions came to naught, an yet it is clear Aadhar failed. He says —
“I knew Aadhar would fail, but I definitely did not expect it to fail this way. It did not fail with a bang but with a thousand whimpers”
His friend chimes in. Jugaad defeated Aadhar. Jugaad is all conquering and unrelenting. It looks amiable, but it isn’t. Jugaad alone triumphs — Jugaad Eva Jayate!
To prepare for the 2024 elections, and with the taskforce’s recommendation, The Yogi government has unveiled the ambitious new nation card. The government claims lessons have been learnt. Data will be protected better, linkages will be fewer. And most importantly DNA data cannot be faked with a prosthetic. This time smarter people are working on the problem. This time it will be better.