Sathe (2014) describes the myriad issues that the project was facing as the initial five years mandate wound down, including Nilekani's departure from UIDAI and the shifting political landscape to name just two. The latest news from India suggests that Aadhaar’s future is continuously evolving and developing. Lower-than-expected enrollment numbers and relentless attacks in the media are increasing the pressure to eliminate or radically modify the project. An article published in India’s Business Standard newspaper best captures the project’s future. The article described the Aadhaar project as a rollercoaster ride embroiled in controversy and stated that a total revolt threatens Aadhaar’s very existence (Agarwal, 2014). Statements by government officials, including India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh, alluded that the National Population Register would start issuing National Identity Cards to be used in implementing the Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) program. This statement was widely viewed as an indicator that UIDAI’s current role as an authenticator for DBT will be concluded (Sharma, 2014).
The recent national elections have amplified the debate. In spite of his public support for Aadhaar when it was launched, India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, seemed to ride the wave of declining support for the project. During the campaign, Modi questioned how Aadhaar funding was spent and insisted that the whole project was an apparatus for standard cronyism and corruption. Modi alleged that Aadhaar would not solve the problems it purported to solve. According to Modi, “Congressmen were dancing as if it (Aadhaar) was an herb for all cures” (Niti Central Staff, 2013, p.1).
Prime Minister Modi’s Historical Position on Aadhaar
While Modi was the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, he not only implemented Aadhaar, but supported collecting more resident information beyond what was required (Datta & Langa, 2014). But as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s nominee for prime minister, Modi was unrelenting in his attacks on the Aadhaar project throughout the election cycle. And in the weeks immediately following his election as prime minister, Modi did not softened his opposition to Aadhaar. Skeptics might attribute Modi’s shift from advocate to opponent as just another example of a politician motivated more by political expediency than by concern for the public welfare.
Developments since the Election
Recent enrollment rates have been disappointing, perhaps due at least in part to the negative media coverage surrounding Aadhaar during the campaign season. In February 2014, monthly enrollments plummeted to approximately 17 million from the 35.8 million enrollments recorded just one month prior. In June of 2014, the number dipped further, to only 7.61 million enrollments (UIDAI, 2014). Critics of the Aadhaar project charged that this upsurge in enrollment was a pyrrhic success because the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led government aggressively pushed Aadhaar for its own political aggrandizement. Former Prime Minister Singh and former Chairman of UIDAI, Nandan Nilekani, were both heavily vested in the success of Aadhaar and both of are affiliated with UPA. Modi’s position aside, Aadhaar’s prospects have been further cast into doubt by a number of recent Supreme Court (of India) rulings. The Court challenged the constitutionality of Aadhaar and expressed growing concern over privacy and national security implications – concern that has only fueled attacks in and from the media. Perhaps the most important ruling was that Aadhaar numbers could not be made a precondition for receiving government benefits. In March 2014, India’s Financial Minister Chidambaram stated, “Aadhaar needs to be re-thought completely” (The Financial Express, 2014, p.1). The statement was a clear indication that Aadhaar might not survive under the new government. In June of 2014, Modi abolished the UPA-established committee on Aadhaar and transferred its functions to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (The Times of India, 2014). At a minimum, eliminating UIDAI’s privileged position in the government and effectively positioning it as just another Cabinet function is a major reduction in status and could be argued to be a precursor to further reduction if not outright elimination. Aadhaar has not been without its successes, however. Approximately 640 million people have been enrolled, which is consistent with targets published during the initial launch. Some of the project’s goals have become a reality for many residents. For example, millions of disenfranchised Indians have been able to establish a personal identity. For individuals on the fringe of society, this is no small feat. With such widespread enrollment, the Aadhaar number is now permeating Indian life. For example, in the state of Kerala where enrollment has surpassed 90%, ration card beneficiaries will receive new ration cards with their Aadhaar number embedded in the cards (Biometric Technology Today, 2013). ISSN 1675-1302 © 2015 Faculty of Administrative Science and Policy Studies, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), Malaysia Aadhaar’s ecosystem and public-private partnership structure may be its greatest strength. Aadhaar’s implementation momentum does not reside entirely within the bounds of government or even within a narrow set of government and private organizations. Rather, the project has a broad array of organizations with a vested interest in its ongoing evolution and success. Therefore, even if India’s government has the desire to eliminate the program, the process may be difficult. The same forces that precluded UIDAI from mandating its adoption might now preclude the new government from shutting the program down completely. The dynamics of a program being in a decentralized governmental structure are hard to anticipate even if information is readily available. Because Aadhaar is a decentralized program, the task is made even more difficult. Beyond high-level criteria, performance measurements are being evaluated across the array of contributing organizations, if they are being measured at all. Decentralization makes it very difficult to understand what is going on with Aadhaar at an operational level or how to eliminate a program of its magnitude. In a somewhat surprising turn of events, in July 2014 Modi announced the support for the continuation of the unique identification system and the goal of reaching 1 billion Aadhaar enrollments as soon as possible (Singh, 2014; Tewari, 2014), this despite his previous opposition to the continuation of Aadhaar. This announcement brought a swift end to the uncertainty and speculation surrounding to the future of Aadhaar. Given Modi’s shifting stance on Aadhaar, it is an open question whether this latest position will stand the test of time.
Moving Forward and Future Directions
In addition to the number of open issues that have already been highlighted, there is the clear opportunity for future research into the effectiveness of the structure and procedures employed by UIDAI in the Aadhaar project. Process simulation and analytical techniques such as discrete event, system dynamics, and agent-based modeling could identify key bottlenecks, systemic interactions, and emergent behaviors that would not only improve Aadhaar’s processes but also those of future widespread information infrastructure projects. Quantitative and statistical analyses would provide a broad evaluation of Aadhaar’s overarching performance regarding inclusivity, satisfaction, and accuracy. Cumulative enrollment figures are not a good indicator of whether Aadhaar has reached its goals. It does not, for example, indicate the number of people that have actually used their Aadhaar number in order to obtain services. Residents might have enrolled in Aadhaar but, in fact, may have never used their unique identification number to obtain government or private services due to other obstacles or impediments. Future research could examine whether or not the number of bank accounts, government services, or cell phone accounts being opened by marginalized residents have increased in conjunction with enrollment. Qualitative analysis on the effectiveness of Aadhaar is also important. Focus groups, in-person interviews, or other methodologies should be employed to assess satisfaction and other qualitative factors surrounding the implementation and user adoption of Aadhaar. It will be important for Aadhaar and other future information infrastructure programs to understand residents’ experience before and after acquiring an Aadhaar number. For residents that have not enrolled, it is especially important to understand the source of their hesitation. Such information is vital to improving the quality of service, driving enrollment, and minimizing political opposition.
India is one of the first countries in the world that has initiated a biometric identification system for all residents (Sharma, 2011). Aadhaar’s transformative aim to provide the 1.2 billion people of India with a uniform means of identity provides residents with an upward mobility that the current system lacks. The process of social and financial inclusion of all residents in India will remain a contentious and controversial subject. The analysis conducted by this research has determined that the public-private partnership, when compared to the framework established by Kania & Kramer (2011), was relatively successful in creating and implementing a complex biometric identification system. Kania & Kramer’s (2011) foundations for collective success reveal that despite some challenges, many aspects of the partnership were firmly grounded. As this research has illustrated, the benevolent movement of greater empowerment of the poor, underprivileged, and marginalized Indian residents into the formal economy is still being met with resistance and defiance by some elements of Indian society. The success or failure of the Aadhaar project remains to be determined. Even though the detailed analysis focused on biometric identification system in India, the practical application and findings of the public-private partnership can be applied in a broader perspective. Whether Aadhaar is successful or not, the outcomes and implications will be a notable indication for other nations to determine if the application of a biometric identification system should be adopted in the interests of their own residents.