In today’s age of omnipresent data threats and rising bridges of disparity, a proactive step towards the casting of a pre- emptive safety net should be seen separately from the incidental authoritarian rhetoric that it comes wrapped in. Reducing the concept of Aadhar to any belligerent ideology (and thus, rhetoric) and falling prey to sensationalized arguments, is to render a rather myopic view of the issue.
The ideation of the scheme never had, as its motive, to distribute parts of big brother’s all- seeing eye to the masses. Instead, the movement was to be a solution to a host of problems, including the corruption and resource leakages that the State’s machinery (such as the PDS) had been diagnosed with. Addressing the need for a standard national identity card, a unifying and convenient means of linking financial services and government documents onto a central portal for easy procurement, as well as an instrument of “direct benefit transfers” and other welfare services, the Aadhar card was to form a sophisticated identification and welfare dissemination system.
Over time, however, other concerns have also propped up. At a time when the “Internet of Things” seems like a not- too- far- off reality, as well as the striking rates of digitization being seen around the globe, the Aadhar could potentially solve an added list of futuristic problems, as well. These would include upholding accountability of each individual (a crucial aspect given the trajectory of online trolling and spread of fake news propaganda), extending a standard toolkit of services and protection to all the citizens of the country, allowing the poorer section of the country targeted access to the same kind of resources that a relatively well- off citizen with basic internet connection has, and also increasing efficiency by way of decreasing paperwork to a bare minimum (thus, speeding up the bureaucratic processes that we so often complain about). The last point here is to be underscored given that analogous steps are already taken by private institutions to increase respective efficiencies (for example, Google and Amazon increase customer satisfaction by tailoring services via continuous collection and storage of user data and recognition of human behaviour patterns). Hence, if private organizations can be lauded for their efficient servicing, it would be hypocritical to pelt the State with proverbial stones on its attempts to do the same.
Although accumulation of data provides a more effective distribution of services to its customers, it also brings into question the current inadequate framework for protecting this data. To succinctly address this phenomena and also cement its urgency, it would be apt to quote The Economist which eloquently wrote of “human data being the new oil”. The foundation of this concern lies in the right to privacy.
Its at this crossroad that India stands. The overarching issue of right to privacy is what requires clarification. The outcry for Aadhar is not so much related to the flaws in the service it provides or the idea it espouses, but an intrinsic fear of the abuse of accumulated data. Hence, the problem lies not in right to privacy, but in the violation of a particular kind of right to privacy, that has been hitherto undiscussed in the public sphere. Push coming to shove, the legal battle that commenced in 2012 has reached a sense of urgency in 2017, because this right to privacy has begun to feel more vulnerable due to the explicit venturing of the State into a system, that till now was built upon soft adoption coming from the private space rather than binding directives from the Government.
It is this data use and protection mechanism that must be pursued with the help of a strong judicial backing. Some semblance of progress can be seen in the recent formation of a panel looking exclusively into data protection in context to Aadhar. And the other is the current 9 judge bench of the Supreme Court hearing arguments on the fundamental right to privacy. In order to successfully achieve this end, the variation in nuances must be identified, acknowledged and then tackled accordingly.
A close off- shoot of the same issue is the debate on whether right to privacy is a fundamental right or not. Taking cognizance of its importance, it would be key to point out that although right to privacy is essential to personal liberty and must be upheld without question, awarding the whole ambit of this undefined entity the title of fundamental right, off the bat, would also be equivalent to stitching legal loopholes that would adversely affect the public and private interest at least under present conditions (the existence of contract law being susceptible to such a step, being a foremost example),. Hence, it would be safer to proceed on a case- by- case basis, with every context easing the crumples of this complex, un-navigated and extremely delicate term. As this legal maturity is attained, fully formulating the specifics of such a fundamental right can be undertaken, and it would be this experience that would ensure that the correct implication of this fundamental right is laid down, rather than a hasty judgement under a pressurized and highly politicised atmosphere.
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.