This post has been updated.
In the more innocent days of 2011, India’s grand national plan to issue a biometric identity numbers to every citizen won praise and admiration from observers the world over. The unique identity record, called Aadhaar, would decimate corruption, lead to greater accountability in government handouts, and generally benefit the poorest of the poor. Getting an Aadhar number wasn’t mandatory, so there was no risk that the government might impose silly rules requiring the use of the number.
That was then. By 2014, Aadhaar has lost steam. A series of reports have shown the system can easily be gamed: numbers have been issued to gods, fictional people, inanimate objects, and fruits and vegetables. After early signs of government overreach, the Supreme Court earlier this year ruled that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for government services.
That doesn’t seem to have stopped India’s minister for women and child development, Maneka Gandhi, from considering its use for private services. According to the Economic Times, Gandhi wants online matrimonial websites (which modern Indian families use to arrange marriages) to require the use of Aadhaar cards to verify men. As a ministry official told the Economic Times:
There are hundreds of people who register online on matrimony sites every month and there are increasing instances of women being cheated while looking for grooms. There are men who have multiple accounts in different websites… Making an Aadhaar card compulsory will ensure the pictures of the grooms are on the profiles. This will limit the number of stalkers, serial daters and married men posing as single.
This is patently ridiculous, for three reasons. First, not all Indians have ID cards yet. Indeed, the middle-income groups that use matrimonial sites are less likely to have cards than those who are offline. Second, requiring people to maintain a profile on just one site has little to do with stalking or dishonesty. Third, as Medianama points out, it is a small step from requiring government-issued identification on one type of website to requiring it for every online interaction.
To be sure, the Aadhaar card can be a magnificent resource if used correctly—such as for criminal background checks, which may have flagged the Uber driver accused of raping a passenger in New Delhi last week. But such implementations are rare. Instead, Indians are tiring of what they see as a creeping bureaucracy combined with the best of modern surveillance. Indeed, the common view of Aadhaar is best summed up by this joke doing the rounds among Indians on Whatsapp and Facebook, reproduced verbatim:
Operator: Hello Pizza Hut!
Customer: Hello, can you please take my order?
Operator : Can I have your multi purpose Aadhaar card number first, Sir?
Hold on….. My number is 889861356102049998-45-54610
Operator : OK… you’re… Mr SYED and you’re calling from 155, 1st Cross. Panduranga Nagar, BG Road, Bangalore. . Your home number is 26490786, your office 22211379 and your mobile is 9880088786. You are calling from you home number now.
Customer: (Astonished) How did you get all my phone numbers?
Operator : We are connected to the system, Sir.
Customer: I wish to order your Seafood Pizza…
Operator : That’s not a good idea Sir.
Customer: How come?
Operator : According to your medical records, you have high blood pressure and even higher cholesterol level, sir.
Customer: What?… What do you recommend then?
Operator : Try our Low Fat Hokkien Mee Pizza. You’ll like it.
Customer: How do you know for sure?
Operator : You borrowed a book titled ‘Popular Hokkien Dishes’ from the National Library last week, sir.
Customer: OK I give up… Give me three family size ones then.
Operator : That should be enough for your family of 07. Sir. The total is Rs. 2,450.
Customer: Can I pay by credit card?
Operator : I’m afraid you have to pay us cash, Sir. Your credit card is over the limit and you owe your bank Rs. 1,51,758 since October last year. That’s not including the late payment charges on your housing loan, Sir.
Customer: I guess I have to run to the neighbourhood ATM and withdraw some cash before your guy arrives.
Operator : You can’t Sir. Based on the records, you’ve exhausted even your overdraft limit.
Customer: Never mind just send the pizzas, I’ll have the cash ready. How long is it gonna take anyway?
Operator : About 45 minutes Sir, but if you can’t wait you can always come and collect it on your motorcycle.
Operator : According to the details in the system , you own a motorcycle registration number 7786
Customer: “????” (hmmm.. these guys know my motorcyle number too!)
Operator : Is there anything else, sir?
Customer: Nothing.! .. by the way… aren’t you giving me that 3 free bottles of cola as advertised?
Operator : We normally would sir, but based on your records, you’re also diabetic… In the best interest of your health, we are holding this offer for you.
Operator: Better mind your language sir. Remember on 10th July 1986 you were imprisoned for 3 days and fined Rs.5,000 for using abusive language against a policeman…?
Customer faints… aur banao Aadhaar Card…