May 21, 2014 -
The historic win of India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recent national election might result in changes to Aadhaar, the world’s biggest biometrics bank.
The Aadhaar program, governed by the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI), aims to enroll all of the country’s residents through biometrics, in order to distribute 12-digit identity cards for access to social programs. So far, the program has combined enrollment of approximately 850 million people, with 630 million Aadhaar numbers generated.
The database is currently used for school attendance, natural gas subsidies to India’s rural poor, and to send wages directly to people’s bank accounts. The system, a landmark legacy project of India’s long ruling Congress Party, also provides identification to people who do not have birth certificates.
During the election campaign, the database was criticized by the BJP as a “failure” and a “waste of money”. Narendra Modi, the leader of the BJP and now India’s Prime Minister designate, slammed the biometric system as a “political gimmick”, openly questioning in the press whether the system adequately addresses control of migrants and national security concerns.
Much of this criticism was mainly politically motivated, since Nandan Nilekani, an Indian entrepreneur and bureaucrat, who served as a former UIDAI Chairman, contested the recent election as a high-profile Congress candidate for a parliamentary seat in Bangalore. In order to question Nilekani’s reputation, the BJP’s Modi launched a sharp attack on Congress Party’s role in the Aadhaar scheme, claiming that the system robbed the Indian treasury through excess expense and even through partisan corruption. The previous stage of Aadhaar implementation was budgeted at nearly US$630 million.
While initially heralded as a method to eliminate fraud, the system has been subjected to a number of severe criticisms. As reported previously in BiometricUpdate.com, several Indian banks have resisted the Aadhaar subsidy transfer system. The banks’ resistance to this platform was rooted in two main concerns: Banks wanted the UIDAI to bear liabilities related to false identifications, and the UIDAI wanted banks to reconfigure their existing systems to its inter-operable solution.
Also, India’s Supreme Court ruled that Aadhaar numbers are not be mandatory for receiving government services. Many industry analysts have also been critical of Aadhaar’s administration, noting that it has not been efficient. As a result, expectation of changes to the system due to a changeover in government is warranted. The BJP however did not indicate whether they would reform or scrap the program. Indeed, Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat, actually did implement the system in his state. But as with many policy prescriptions during election campaigns, the BJP leveled criticism of the system without offering concrete solutions. Political analysts will watch closely to see what changes will be offered in the coming months.