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A rant on Aadhaar – Kaarana – Medium

kiran

I’m going to preface this by stating that this is an intensely personal opinion, coloured by my experiences working on identity projects over the years.

Over the weekend I addressed a seminar of faculty and students at an engineering college, urging more civic participation in policy making. The speaker following me was a UIDAI official, who described the inevitability of Aadhaar in language that, to me, sounded like we were headed for a police/surveillance state. I tried raising my concerns, but he brushed me aside. “The problems are not serious. The technology will improve.”

I haven’t been able to rest easy since. I tweeted yesterday:

This needed clarification, so I followed up:

I’m going to explain my concerns with Aadhaar, but given how thoroughly misinformed most people are, I’m going to start with context. Be warned, this context is coloured by my experiences.

The good

First, I know many of the people behind Aadhaar. I’ve spoken to them over many years on Aadhaar and on various other things. I’ve known some of them for way longer than Aadhaar existed. I do not doubt their sincerity or integrity in their stated mission, nor do I doubt their technical competence. Unlike many of Aadhaar’s detractors, I do not believe these people intend to create a surveillance apparatus. They are as privacy conscious as any of us, if not more, and it’s come through in multiple conversations. They have been kind enough to host me for an in-person technical deep-dive and ask-anything session, speaking frankly about their intentions and fears. However, they are actors in a mere sub-plot in a larger narrative, a narrative that they are not the authors of. I have no doubt they are aware of this, and the problems of the larger narrative bother them as much as they bother us, even if they are not free to admit this in public.

The background

Second—and this is the long part—my own work experiences. In 2006 I joined a firm named Comat (now defunct), hoping to learn something about writing software for Indian users, users I could actually meet and observe the difference my code made to their lives. That year Comat bagged two major government contracts. One, to computerise the Public Distribution System (PDS aka ration cards) for the Food and Civil Supplies department in Karnataka, and two, to deploy a network of 800 computer telecentres across Karnataka, a rural analogue to the already-running Bangalore One urban centres. I spent a few months working on the first project before finding myself appointed the technical head of the second.

My boss at the time was a friend who had recruited me. Within our circle of friends, he was the conspiracy theorist. Some of it rubbed off. One of his theories was on the Indian civil services. He pointed out they were a derivative of the British Raj-era civil services, where the collector was a white man, legally superior to the natives. Post independence, everyone had equal rights, so the civil servant’s position of authority was somewhat diminished. They couldn’t simply expect compliance anymore. This meant a freshly minted IAS officer had to quickly learn to be the ultimate bad-ass if they hoped to survive a rural stint. It helped that the e-governance secretary we reported to was a foul-mouthed man who commanded fear and compliance by humiliating anyone who stood in his way. People I know who worked for him fled the first chance they got (including my boss). This picture is the only time ever I saw him supplicant, in the presence of his political masters on our launch day:

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