The ambitious and controversial Unique ID scheme — Aadhaar — received a double boost in this year's budget: not only did Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee sanction Rs. 1,758 crore to enrol 40 crore more residents, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also emphasised that the scheme would soon become the main channel through which people could access a wide variety of budget benefits.
“I propose to allocate adequate funds to complete another 40 crore [beyond the existing 20 crore] enrolments starting from April 1, 2012,” said Mr. Mukherjee in his budget speech. “The Aadhaar platform is now ready to support the payments of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act; old age, widow and disability pensions; and scholarships directly to the beneficiary accounts in selected areas.”
He outlined the pilot projects that have already started using Aadhaar to validate PDS ration cards and reduce leakage in LPG and kerosene subsidies through direct transfers. He claimed that substantial economies in subsidy outgo could be achieved through the Unique ID scheme.
Part of the Rs. 1,758 crore that has been sanctioned will be used to help scale up these pilot schemes and roll out Aadhaar-enabled payments in at least 50 districts within six months. A computerised PDS network to implement the Food Security Bill will also rely on Aadhaar.
In an interview to Doordarshan soon after the budget was presented, the Prime Minister drew a vision of a future budget, which would depend on Aadhaar to deliver most of its goodies.
Asked if Aadhaar — despite controversies over privacy, security and legitimacy — would be “the main platform on which the budget is to distribute benefits to the people of India,” Dr. Singh replied: “I think the Finance Minister has made that quite clear… There may be controversies, and there are controversies in this sort of thing all over the world. But we have, I think, begun well and we will use the modern technological devices to cut out wastage and leakages in the delivery mechanism for various public-sector services.”
The ringing endorsement is significant, given that barely months ago the Unique Identification Authority of India and its chairman Nandan Nilekani were under fire from all sides. The Home Ministry had raised security concerns regarding Aadhaar's enrolment techniques in what was widely perceived to be a turf war due to overlaps with its National Population Register. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance had rejected the Bill meant to give the Aadhaar project a legal backing, slamming its high costs, lack of privacy safeguards and lack of clear purpose. Privacy activists are still crying foul, claiming that the budget's sanction of fresh funds is a slap in the face of Parliament.