XXVII.6 November - December 2020
Page: 76
Digital Citation

Aadhaar and the creation of barriers to welfare

Sareeta Amrute, Reetika Khera, Adam Willems

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Sound, movement, temperature, affect: What machines sense for the sake of monitoring populations and their characteristics transcends traditional realms of surveillance. The term surveillance, combining the idea of being above with the notion of watching, suggests an all-seeing center that is at far remove from the object of its attention. But this notion of being watched from above does not encompass in any detailed way the use of fingerprint and iris scans, fever monitors, infrared cameras, cell-site simulators, and social media monitoring that make up contemporary governance and control apparati. Being watched is greater than being seen, and it no longer happens at a distance. We need models of understanding sensing and monitoring that move us beyond a focus on observation, on the one hand, and toward understanding the intimacy that such monitoring has in the everyday lives of people across the world, on the other.

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This forum, After Veillance, begins to grapple with two factors that make up what feminist scholar Jasbir Puar calls the information flows of sensing "that render bodies transparent or opaque" as well as "risk enabled or risk disabled" [1]: first, the extension of monitoring to senses beyond sight, and second, the intertwining of monitoring with the most essential, banal, and intimate aspects of life. Moving beyond the distanced watcher, After Veillance seeks to understand how the senses and sensors are intertwined and mutually constituting, even while it seeks to move our discourse about surveillance from abstractions like big data and privacy to investigations of the particular locations, bodies, intimacies, and practices that cohere and are unmade through the dream of controlling populations. The authors featured in this forum will pay particular attention to the race, gender, class, and caste practices that are made and resisted in the spaces and times when people and their environments are watched, listened to, felt, touched, and analyzed.

The first offering in this forum is an interview with Reetika Khera by Adam Willems about India's Aadhaar unique identity number. Dissent on Aadhaar: Big Data Meets Big Brother, an essay collection edited by Khera, brings together critical perspectives from various disciplines on Aadhaar, which includes the 12-digit unique identity number along with its biometric and demographic data to distribute state benefits in India.

In Khera's interview, she makes the point that the Aadhaar system was not designed as a government surveillance system. Rather, in part because its purpose was not fully spelled out from the beginning, it has become a necessity for accessing welfare benefits and other, arbitrarily defined services. This extension makes Aadhaar an intimate and necessary accompaniment to everyday life for Indian citizens, even while it is an unreliable companion for those seeking food and other kinds of aid. As Khera notes, the Aadhaar number has even been used to control the movements of laborers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Her account of Aadhaar's overreach highlights controversies around the status of privacy as a concept in India that should be a warning to those who still think such issues matter only in the West. Though Aadhaar's uses have multiplied since the time the ID number was issued, Khera also outlines how dissent against the program paved the way for a strong and vigorous objection to the Covid-tracking program Aarogya Setu.

— Sareeta Amrute

Adem Willems: What is Aadhaar, and how does it function?

Reetika Khera: Aadhaar was supposed to be a unique identity number for each Indian resident. In the Aadhaar Act, Aadhaar is defined as an identification number, though in practice it is also used as an identity card. Uniqueness is supposed to be guaranteed by the use of biometrics (fingerprints, iris scans, and photographs).

Aadhaar's purpose was never clearly spelled out by its early proponents, and it has morphed beyond an identification number. De facto, it has become a necessity to access welfare benefits and other services (often decided arbitrarily). People entitled to welfare benefits are expected to submit their Aadhaar details in order to continue receiving them. Failure to do so can cut them off from welfare, even if the failure arises due to lapses on the part of the government (e.g., data-entry errors while entering Aadhaar details, failure to enroll a person for Aadhaar, etc.). Further, in some uses, people are also required to biometrically authenticate themselves at the time of receiving benefits (e.g., subsidized grains). Again, biometric authentication failure (false negatives) can lead to denial of welfare, even if the fault lies with the system (e.g., connectivity failures).


AW: In Dissent on Aadhaar: Big Data Meets Big Brother, you dissect several arguments that proponents of Aadhaar wield to dismiss Aadhaar's systemic privacy violations. For instance, Aadhaar's supporters argue that privacy is an elitist concern, because colloquial Hindi does not have a word for privacy—despite the extensive privacy protections granted under the Constitution of India. Have Aadhaar's supporters floated any similar arguments since Dissent on Aadhaar's publication? How has the public responded?

RK: In recent years, two developments—one encouraging and one disturbing—have been heavily influenced by the 2017 Supreme Court of India's unanimous verdict from the nine-judge Constitution bench on privacy, which said that privacy was a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution. The encouraging development has been that supporters of Aadhaar have had to stop treating the right to privacy as an elitist concern and engage substantively with the debate.

Aadhaar's purpose was never clearly spelled out by its early proponents.

What is disturbing, though, is that some of them are trying to push the line that as far as the right to privacy is concerned, it is a case of missing markets, and the thing to do is to create a market for the right to privacy through laws on privacy and data protection. I think their argument is that if data has monetary value, then those who would like to monetize it should be allowed to do so, and that the role of the government is to develop an appropriate legal framework for this.

This is disturbing because—as economists and philosophers have argued before—there are certain aspects of human existence that should be kept out of the realm of the market. This includes varied things like blood for transfusion, organ transplants, and love/relationships. There are moral, ethical, and even economic and social grounds for this. I believe similar arguments apply in the case of the right to privacy.

AW: What role has Aadhaar played during the Covid-19 pandemic? Is the state deploying any strategies to expand surveillance mechanisms during the pandemic and lockdown?

RK: As with earlier deployment of Aadhaar, even during the pandemic, its use has created further hurdles and heightened the anxieties of the most vulnerable. For instance, once the movement of laborers was allowed (five weeks after their livelihoods collapsed overnight), there were reports of requiring Aadhaar to apply for passes to return home. In fact, the Odisha High Court had to intervene to stop such compulsory use of Aadhaar. In Delhi, while the state government has undertaken the commendable step of trying to expand the coverage of the food-security program, the Public Distribution System (PDS), the application process requires Aadhaar.

Understanding the full extent of the harms from Aadhaar is not easy in the best of times, and with the coronavirus pandemic, even the most basic data is increasingly hard to come by in India. There are reports of people being denied coronavirus tests [2] for lack of Aadhaar, of being denied the test because their registered address in the Aadhaar database is outdated [3], or of not being able to access Covid-19 relief because their Aadhaar paperwork needs updating. Meanwhile, the UIDAI, the authority that manages Aadhaar, has pared down its services [4] during the pandemic.


Is Aadhaar being used to surveil and/or consolidate data (e.g., digital payments, health, and so on)? We do not know. The loss of control over our data and of agency in our lives is another problem with the Aadhaar project. The Aadhaar number may have been submitted for a specific purpose, but it is not possible to tell whether purpose limitation, data privacy, anonymization, and so on are being honored, because there currently are no data-protection or privacy laws.

AW: The past year has seen popular protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which offers paths to citizenship for undocumented migrants who are not Muslim, and the National Register of Citizens, which lists all state-recognized citizens of India and streamlines deportation processes. Did these protests change public perceptions of Aadhaar? How does Aaadhar interact with previously existing surveillance mechanisms and government attempts to quash dissent?

RK: I believe that the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act were also instrumental in helping many Aadhaar believers understand the true nature of the project. My sense is that changes in the public perception of Aadhaar have come in waves. One big wave was when the Indian government started pushing for linking Aadhaar with mobile numbers and bank accounts; another big one was the data leaks story in 2018, in which a syndicate sold access [5] to the full Aadhaar database for less than $10. Anti-CAA protests have also converted some believers.

The most visible and encouraging change in public perception, in my view, is not so much Aadhaar-specific but slightly wider. This struck me most forcefully when the Indian government introduced a contact-tracing app called Aarogya Setu for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Within a few days of the enthusiastic launch of the app, critical voices arose throughout the mainstream media. It took us about seven years of work on Aadhaar to reach a point in the public discussion where critical voices were taken seriously; with Aarogya Setu, it seems it took us a mere seven days to reach that same point.

ins04.gif Marothamay Murmu, Simra, Sahibganj. She is a 75-year-old widow living with her son. Both have not received rations for the past eight months because their Aadhaar cards have not been included in the service-delivery database.

During UPA-2 (the second term of a center-left political coalition between 2009 and 2014), the Central Monitoring System (CMS) [6] was approved. A system of mass surveillance, it allows the government to have access to phone records (who you called, how long the call lasted, etc.). Besides this, and also from the time of the UPA is NATGRID, which traces its roots, tenuously, back to the first NDA government (the ruling right-wing coalition of the central government between 1998 and 2004).

Aadhaar, on the other hand, was not overtly a surveillance intervention. If that was the intention, it has always been denied. Many—and this was the government's argument in court—believe in a hierarchy of rights. Therefore, you might have to give one up—say, the right to privacy—in order to enjoy another—say, the right to life. A corollary of this is that instead of the right to privacy being a fundamental right for all, who can enjoy it is still an issue of debate. Aadhaar-based incursions into privacy might seem easier to combat than ones revolving around supposed terrorist threats. But the wrongful yet widespread acceptance of the notion of a hierarchy of rights—an idea that the Supreme Court of India has forcefully rejected—makes it equally hard to push back against violations of the right to privacy.

ins05.gif Dealer, Dubliya, Kanke, Ranchi. The dealer has no connectivity in the rations shop. She gets around this impediment by going to this spot with good connectivity and authenticating households' eligibility for rations. Families can then bring this receipt to the shop to collect rations within eight days.

AW: You have noted that resistance to Aadhaar is largely siloized into different spaces—cybersecurity activists, development activists, and others—and that this prevents comprehensive responses to the expansion of Aadhaar. What steps can these groups take to engage with one another moving forward?

RK: It was the siloed resistance to Aadhaar that made me feel an essay collection would be valuable. That was in 2016 and 2017. By the time the book was published at the end of 2018, the conversations and collaborations had already begun. I suspect this is true not just in India, but internationally for other technologies as well. The tech companies were infiltrating all democratic spaces: media, universities, government, and so on. Often their interventions took on the garb of philanthropic work, even working with civic groups. They were able to lure people who would have been the first to resist an assault on civil liberties by sugar-coating the pill. It took a while to recognize how big money was, in a sense, undermining democratic practices and endangering hard-won civil rights.

I feel that a fuller understanding of how the system works (that is true for me as well) would be helpful in devising strategies to counter it. We're caught in a vicious circle—weak government (and revenue) mean less support for public institutions; that means private interests take on public roles (e.g., funding research, media). Then, corporate-funded media propaganda tarnishes the perception of the effectiveness or desirability of government roles. Add to this the two-faced nature of private interventions in public roles: Private wealth is pledged for public work through philanthropies. Much of that private wealth is accumulated through tax avoidance (sometimes evasion, too), weakening government. That wealth is used to "supplement" public activities where government is weak. This essentially means the wealthy get disproportionate control—without any accountability—over policy decisions.

AW: If there is one lesson to share with people designing and implementing systems like Aadhaar the world over, what would it be?

RK: Look at Ghana and Jamaica rather than India. The highest court in both countries learned the right lessons from the Aadhaar project, to stall similar domestic initiatives. Universal welfare programs are friendliest to the poor; identification documents are ways of creating barriers. I cannot say how these projects are designed and implemented in other countries, but in a country like India with high economic and social inequalities, Aadhaar has been hugely detrimental to our endeavors for equality and justice. This has happened in two ways—undermining welfare, which could have furthered greater participation of greater numbers in democratic processes (it is hard to fulfil the duties of a good citizen on an empty stomach), and undermining dissent, the foundation of a healthy democracy.

back to top  References

1. Puar, J. Terrorist assemblages (excerpt). In Surveillance Studies: A Reader. Oxford Univ. Press, 2018, 367.




5. Khaira, R. Rs 500, 10 minutes, and you have access to billion Aadhaar details. The Tribune. Jan. 3, 2018;

6. Xynou, M. India's Central Monitoring System (CMS): Something to worry about? The Centre for Internet and Society. Jan. 30, 2014;

back to top  Authors

Sareeta Amrute is an anthropologist who studies the relationship between race, work, and data. She is the author of Encoding Race Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin.

Reetika Khera is trained as a development economist whose work focuses on social policy in India. She teaches economics at IIT Delhi. The essay collection Dissent on Aadhaar: Big Data Meets Big Brother, which she edited, brings together critical perspectives from various disciplines on Aadhaar.

Adam Willems studies religion and economy at Union Theological Seminary and is a subject of the Aadhaar system. They write Divine Innovation (, a newsletter about the spiritual world of technology.

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