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10 In good faith?

This is not a scheme of a government that is desperate to ‘do something, anything’ about national security. If Home Minister Chidambaram is serious about security, what he can do—and he knows full well—is to choke the financial lifeline of the ‘terrorists’. He could easily do so by demonetising all currency notes above Rs 100—the Rs 500 and the Rs 1000 notes. Unfortunately, he and the rest of the ruling elite, know that they cannot do so since these slush funds are required for his company to hire goons to take the land away from the farmers and the forest from the Adivasi.

There are many theories as to why the scheme is going ahead. It is a money making opportunity for the IT companies desperate to stem the steep fall in their revenue streams due to the financial crisis of the west. The global economic scenario has fundamentally changed and they will no longer be able to match their past growth depending on the western markets. They wilfully get on this bandwagon just for the monetary benefits and short-term balance sheet requirements. It is a multi-billion rupee bonanza for the companies for software, hardware (IT, biometric scanning) and consultancies. What we are seeing is a scam similar to the Common Wealth Games, but on a much larger scale. UIDAI will need many of those Rs 4000 toilet paper rolls to wipe away the stink.

Another is that there is an intellectual arrogance by people far removed from their roots and Indian ethos, that seeks to drag the country to modernity… that technology is the solution. It has come under criticism for [mis]-selling itself to the millions of poor in the country to create ‘legitimacy for itself against the valid criticism of it being misused, technologically unproven and costly’ and claiming to be the foundation for public service delivery.

That the stated intent is noble is not in doubt, nor that the people will adjust to the ‘new normal’—we always do. That we will see some hype of how effective the scheme is for a while—and some real substantial benefits too—is also not in doubt. Aadhaar could generate 350,000 new jobs in the country, collecting the biometric data and registering citizens and in software services, but excluding jobs created for updating UID data as addresses and other personal details change. These jobs would largely bypass the unskilled workers. Perhaps the whole scheme is to keep professionally educated youth employed and not let them stray into extremism and the spiral of violence, perhaps it is all for the good.

However, the crunch will come when this becomes a white elephant. Are we really prepared for when we realise that this is an egotistical project whose cost is far above the scattered, transitory benefits. The media hype of these scattered benefits will not keep the people ignorant for long… and then will come the costs of decommissioning. We will have to dismantle it at great economic and social cost. Jobs will be lost. There will be disruption.

When asked to take-up this task, Nilekani’s only request to the prime minister was that he be given the rank of a union minister, so that he could deal with the reluctant intractable politicians being higher up on the protocol than mere Members of Parliament. The ‘simple request’ is turning out to be like Gandhi’s poverty—everyone else has to pay a very high price for it.

The IBM Hollerith D-11 card sorting machine, used by Germany to identify Jews in its census of 1933, at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC should be sufficient warning for India’s technocratii. As Bill Clinton wistfully reminiscences, just because something can be done does not mean it should be done.