The making of the world’s largest identity project, to fix India’s ‘leaky’ welfare distribution infrastructure, has captured the imagination of the people and the book is an account of the process. Ram Sewak Sharma, an IAS officer who was the first Director General of the Unique Identification Development Authority of India (UIDAI), describes in detail the making of Aadhaar. A product of IIT Kanpur, Sharma used technology during his postings as the district collector to keep a record of land holdings and arms licences.
The book gives an account of the difference in approach between the working in government and private sectors. Nandan Nilekani, who headed the UIDAI project, thought that if someone was suitable for the job, it was enough. But in the government sector, posts have to be advertised and all candidates have to be given an opportunity. Those drawn from the private sector did their work primarily on the basis of emails, while the government officials could not do without notes on files. Ultimately, the differences were reconciled and it proved to be a great learning experience for everyone.
Many of the problems plaguing India can be solved with the help of technology and the country should strive to build more such products that would help make a positive impact in the lives of our countrymen, says Sharma, who has been instrumental in Aadhaar-enabled innovations such as attendance systems, pension transfers, registration platforms, eSign and DigiLocker. The last two are components of IndiaStack, a set of products that allows governments, businesses, start-ups and developers to enable presence-less, paperless and cashless service delivery. e-Aadhaar and e-KYC also have the author’s imprints. The importance of Aadhaar is evident from the fact that the government used it for direct cash transfer during the coronavirus-induced lockdown to millions who needed financial support.
Aadhaar is digital ID infrastructure, while a smartcard is just an offline token. The number is a random sequence of 12 digits. It is impossible to guess any part of it from the details you may know about the person, and the number itself does not disclose any information about its holder. A semantics-free 12-digit number was chosen to be Aadhaar where the last digit is the check digit, to minimise data entry errors, and the first digit is reserved for denoting the number type. The rest of the digits are generated in a random manner. Only about one per cent of the number is actually assigned from the available universe of numbers (100 billion), says the author.
The book dwells on the difference between breach of privacy and data protection and says that privacy is not to be confused with data security. The problem of checking duplication and ensuring its preparation, trial and delivery are all wonderfully documented. The book is a relevant insight into one of India’s most relevant initiatives that has gone on to become a significant governance tool.