Background paper

Lessons from Aadhaar: Analog aspects of digital governance shouldn’t be overlooked

Misra, P. 2019. Lesson from Aadhaar: Analog aspects of digital governance shouldn’t be overlooked. Pathways for Prosperity Commission Background Paper Series; no. 19. Oxford, United Kingdom.

Aadhaar is the world’s largest biometric identity programme covering about 16% of the world’s population. While digital identity projects hold immense potential in improving public service deliveries, the respective governments need to pay attention to and invest enough resources in gaining the trust of the people on the digital ID systems. Overlooking this aspect will not bode well for long-term sustenance of such reforms.

This paper takes an objective approach in highlighting the successes of Aadhaar elucidating (a) its institutional structure, (b) branding and messaging, (c) the strong checks and balances in its design, and (d) the future possibility that it opens up. At the same time, the paper elaborates on the shortcomings of this process explaining how India tackled, albeit inadequately, (a) the dual question of security and privacy of citizen data, (b) fear of surveillance from the state, (c) making the programme optional vs. mandatory, and (d) having clear cut legal backing for the ID system. Overall, the paper looks at the Aadhaar as an example to illuminate non-salient aspects of the political economy of such reforms and tries to explain why governments shouldn’t overlook ‘analog’ complements to digital systems if they wish to reap digital dividends in their countries.