This is an oft-heard refrain from well-meaning critics as well as some supporters of UID. Perhaps, if the proposition had been “Technology is not the only answer,” we would have whole-heartedly agreed. But activists have often misrepresented the UIDAI’s position as “Technology is the answer,” and then gone on to write against that proposition.
Here’re some sample quotes:
“The assumption that technology itself eliminates error and human subjectivity is extremely problematic.” (Amba Uttara Kak and Swati Malik, NUJS Law Review, Dec 2010)
“But the law already contains provisions…to detect fraudulent accounting…What is needed now is…a more robust regime of inspection and enforcement.” (Mehboob Jeelani, The Caravan, Feb 2011)
“It is not so much the lack of options for last mile authentication, rather it is the lack of political will to crackdown on the corrupt.” (Reetika Khera, EPW, Feb 2011)
First of all, the UIDAI has consistently maintained that it is an ‘enabler’ of better service delivery, and has never claimed that a unique ID alone is the answer. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no question in our minds that as an enabler, it has a better chance of locating errors and preventing fraud at a higher level (through the concept of one–person-one-ID) than attempts to eliminate fraud at the point of service through either punitive regimes or inspection/enforcement regimes -- which are not only expensive but are also themselves prone to corruption.
If the kind of Lok Pal/Lokayukta/grievance redressal systems imagined by civil society groups were to actually come about, it will be critical to ensure that the actual instances of fraud and denial of service that need to be handled by these institutions are minimized through preventive actions that a unique ID system can bring about. As a matter of fact, we also believe that grievance systems can be made considerably more effective and responsive through the use of Aadhaar numbers to trace complaints and produce reliable social audits (e.g. denial of ration cards).
We do recognize genuine concerns about the reliance of biometric technology, which we address elsewhere. But, contrary to the myth that technology is not the answer, we believe that technological solutions have more often lead to reduction of corruption and increased efficiency in India than moral crusades against corruption – the railway reservations system and the advent of modern telecom (as opposed to the old-time telephone-company-lineman-on-the-take who dictated our lives) being two examples.
Just as India’s poor have adopted to mobile technology in ways that we could never have imagined just a few years back, we believe that once they get the hang of it, they will be much better adopters of UID technology than perhaps even some of the middle class. It’s they who will be the final arbiters of whether the Unique ID technology can help them ease their day to day lives.