A new Aadhaar for Indian diplomacy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Indian workers in Riyadh on April 2, 2016

Source: PTI

Finally backed by an enabling legislation, the Aadhaar project, the flagship of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), has been further bolstered by news that enrolment has touched the one billion mark. The creation of a database of easily retrievable biometrics and other information of a citizen — or of any resident, really — is an enormous help to government and public agencies as well as private users that may want to build applications and programmes on the Aadhaar number.

Having enrolled so many Indians and while hopefully headed towards universal coverage of Aadhaar, where does UIDAI go from here? Of course, it can remain a public agency responsible for constantly enrolling younger citizens as they are born or after the age of five. And for existing users, as addresses change and as fingerprints lose intensity, UIDAI will have to come up with updates and solutions, including perhaps better fingerprint scanners, those more sensitive to people with relatively difficult-to-pick-up fingerprints. No doubt all this will keep UIDAI and its officials busy with routine work.

Yet, a strategic reimagining of the potential of Aadhaar and UIDAI is necessary. There is a larger market out there, well beyond the shores and borders of India, that it can tap into. First, Aadhaar-like services and numbers need to be made accessible to the Indian diaspora. This is particularly so for the working class economic migrants from India who labour hard in West Asia, in the Gulf states, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and so on.

It would be an important tool to establish identities and to link these workers, many of whom earn appreciable incomes but have limited job tenures and long-term social security, to contributory pension and health schemes back home, for when they return.

Such mechanisms formed part of the discussion when the Prime Minister travelled to the UAE in August 2015. Logically plans could be extended to Saudi Arabia, which saw an Indian prime ministerial visit in the past week. Subsequently similar facilities could cover Indian diaspora and expatriate communities in other geographies, on a need-based and voluntary basis, but incentivised by specific economic opportunities, conveniences and services.

UIDAI should also look at a broader market, outside of providing free enrolment for Indian citizens, wherever they may be. The UIDAI offers a relatively low-cost solution, backed by the credibility of India’s information technology systems.

Many developing countries may find this more affordable than a similar biometrics-based enrolment programme executed by a Western company. It gives India a comparative advantage, whether it wants to use it as part of the ministry of external affairs’ Development Partnership Administration overseas assistance remit, or as a straightforward commercial product available to governments and public agencies in other countries.

In this, UIDAI and India could learn from Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). Cards offered by NADRA have proved very effective for the ministry of interior as well as other agencies in Pakistan to verify identities, streamline security protocols, track incomes and open bank accounts, and have generally served a host of purposes.

After the domestic success of NADRA, one of Pakistan’s most impressive post-9/11 initiatives, the Pakistani agency has gone about securing international clients, including in Bangladesh and in Sri Lanka. It is believed though that the national identity (ID) card contract in Sri Lanka, awarded to NADRA in 2013, is at some risk. The current government in Colombo has been rethinking the idea, but that is beside the point.

India’s rapid UIDAI/Aadhaar enrolment has evoked much interest, not just in developing countries but even in first-world nations that are struggling with similar national database issues. India’s ability to do it relatively cheaply has attracted attention.

It makes sense to leverage this. In the Gulf Corporation Council member-countries, for instance, UIDAI could, separately, enrol Indian citizens working there as well as expatriate workers from other countries for their national governments or for the host government, as the case may be.

Alternatively, take countries such as Indonesia and the neighbouring Timor Leste, or indeed the 14 nations that are part of the Forum for India Pacific Cooperation — which the Modi government has reached out to and whose leaders participated in a summit meeting in Jaipur in 2015. In many of these countries, populations are spread out very thin, across remote territories and islands. An exhaustive tabulation of numbers, let alone a compilation of identities, is a logistical challenge.

With its experience in the many regions and distant outposts of India, UIDAI could be better suited to delivering such services, at reasonable prices, than a Western competitor. Other than the Pacific Islands, the 54 countries of Africa, again hosted by India at a summit in New Delhi only a few months ago, could be alive to an Indian role or assistance that seeks to export UIDAI’s skill set.

For a start, India should offer UIDAI’s services to other South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation countries, though one expects geographically distant partners, rather than neighbouring ones, may be easier to persuade.

The avenues are many. Which one will lead where remains to be seen. The fact is, however, that Aadhaar and UIDAI are a story of Indian excellence and delivery of a public service that has few global parallels in terms of size, scale and timelines. The government would be doing itself and India a disservice if it didn’t capitalise on this diplomatic opportunity.

This commentary originally appeared in The Asian Age

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Ashok Malik

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