It is widely believed that Nandan Nilekani’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi saved the ambitious Aadhaar project from oblivion or a takeover by the home ministry.
Within a couple of days of the meeting, Modi gave directions to expedite enrolments through Aadhaar, along with the direct benefits transfer (DBT) project linked to the unique identity number (UID).
However, the uncertainty surrounding the project hasn’t yet been cleared. For, there has been little official communication detailing how the new government sees the project.
It was widely expected that Modi’s Independence Day speech would contain several important announcements pertaining to DBT, financial inclusion and health. While Modi did launch a scheme on financial inclusion called the Jan Dhan Yojana, the link with Aadhaar was not spelt out.
The Cabinet on Wednesday approved the blueprint for the Digital India project, which envisions a “cradle-to-grave digital identity for every citizen of the country— unique, lifelong, online and authenticable”.
This announcement was also thought to give a fresh lease of life to the Aadhaar project. However, a government official said the link with the UID number is not certain. “It could be any working digital identity”, he said. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in its pre-election campaign had rapped the Aadhaar project. When the BJP-led government took charge, there were strong doubts over the project’s continuity.
Also, the home ministry bid strongly to bring control of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) under its ambit. It also wanted to merge UIDAI’s database with that of the National Population Register (NPR), a project which has always been at loggerheads with the former.
Work had almost stopped at the UIDAI headquarters when its former chairman and chief architect Nilekani sought a meeting with Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley. According to people aware of the matter, Nilekani sought the meeting in his personal capacity and not at the behest of the organisation.
He was not accompanied by any officials, contrary to what was reported. During the meeting, in the first week of July, Modi is said to have mostly listened to Nilekani explaining the benefits of the project in the areas of containing subsidies, financial inclusion and tracking financial transactions through online authentication, among others.
Modi did not make many comments and just had a few “good questions” relating to the issue of citizenship and related matters. Soon after at an inter-ministerial meeting, Modi asked officials to fast-track Aadhaar enrolments and the DBT scheme. Jaitley is also said to have been tasked with clearing the many legal issues surrounding the project. Another official, who is more optimistic, claims the government is now, more or less, convinced about the benefits of Aadhaar. “It is not that Modi was not at all informed about the Aadhaar project. It was running in Gujarat when he was the chief minister. But Nilekani’s meeting acted as the catalyst,” said the official.
Despite having given up the post of UIDAI chairman and joining the Congress party, Nilekani did not give up the cause of Aadhaar. He would read the newspaper reports which cast doubts about the project’s future and call officials to enquire. And, then, took it upon himself to do the final convincing.
“It was a meeting between a man who knows the project inside out and the man who has to take the final decision on it.” It showed his commitment towards the project, added the official.
On the issue of what the Congress party thought of Nilekani’s move, a leader said one should not misinterpret it. “He met Modi the prime minister and not Modi the politician.” Another leader added that Aadhaar was Nilekani’s baby and he was a technocrat who “stepped in for a project of national interest”.
Nilekani might have managed quell the initial uncertainty about Aadhaar by meeting the Prime Minister but a lot still needs to be stated by the government in terms of how this project fits into their larger agenda. “If you look at it dispassionately, nothing has changed,” said a not-so-optimistic government official. UIDAI was earlier mandated to enrol 900 million people, the PM has just given directions to complete one billion faster.
There is status quo on the DBT project and there is no clarity on DBT in liquefied petroleum gas. A serious overlap between the UID and NPR continues. “It was the weakness of the earlier government that it did not solve the dispute and even the current one is not interested in resolving it,” said another official. There continues to be several process-related loopholes in the project, which are still not being addressed, despite several warnings.
While one side claims UIDAI’s weak enrolment system could create national security issues in the future, the other side thinks the home ministry wants to control the database since it is so valuable. “Speed is good but accuracy (in collecting data) is paramount, as this data will be used for decades to come,” added the person.
All eyes are now on the rollout plan of the Jan Dhan Yojana and Digital India to see where Aadhaar fits in the Modi government’s scheme of things.