India’s ambitious project to provide every resident with a unique, biometric-based ‘Aadhaar’ number has been argued to be a pro-poor initiative on the one hand and a surveillance scheme on the other. But Itay Noy argues that on another level, the unique ID scheme could be seen as an expression of a desire for unmediated state-society relations, through a government project shaped in the form of a hi-tech start-up.
In September 2010, President of the Congress Party Sonia Gandhi declared that Tembhli, a remote tribal hamlet in the Indian state of Maharashtra, had earned “a special importance in the map of India”. Ten of Tembhli’s inhabitants became the first Indians to receive an Aadhaar number under the government’s novel identification scheme, marking “a historic step” towards strengthening India’s people.
The ambitious Aadhaar project aims to issue every Indian resident a 12-digit identification number linked to unique personal biometric markers. Covering nearly 630 million people and adding 1.2 million daily, the Indian scheme is said to already surpass any other biometric database worldwide. Perhaps more importantly, while similar identification measures have elsewhere been discussed in terms of national security, the Indian project is couched in terms of social inclusion. Aadhaar’s main focus, the project tells us, is on the poor and marginalised, whose inability to provide proof of identity – with no birth certificate, passport, driving license of proof of address – is a major barrier to availing public services and receiving state welfare benefits. The Aadhaar number is supposed to allow these people to access the services and benefits they deserve by providing them with an “identity with respect to the state”.
It was not long, however, before more critical voices began to surface, lambasting the shiny government initiative as a project of state surveillance and monitoring. Aadhaar, argued activists such as Jean Drèze, is not about welfare and inclusion, but surveillance of people by the state through the collection and convergence of vast amounts of personal data. The public debate that Aadhaar generated, then, was essentially characterised by two dominant opposing images: on the one hand, a benevolent state that initiates a massive project to facilitate social inclusion and access to welfare; on the other, an authoritarian state concerned with profiling, tracking and tailing. In an attempt to move beyond this normative opposition, I would like to provide some reflections on the possibility to read Aadhaar on a different level. Fundamentally, I suggest, Aadhaar – like its spiritual father, e-governance – is a symptomatic manifestation of two interconnected desires regarding state-society relations. The first is for state-society relations that are transparent and immediate; the second is for the employment of the knowledge economy as a basis for these relations, whereby state ventures (such as Aadhaar) are envisaged in the form of a hi-tech start-up. In this interpretation, Aadhaar is related to a dream about transparent visibility in the interaction between government and citizens, enabled through the injection of entrepreneurial information technology notions into the domain of the state and its relations with society.
With its objective to enable ‘anytime, anywhere, anyhow’ authentication, what Aadhaar tries to achieve is making citizens ubiquitously recognisable to the state – and vice versa – so the two can be in direct, unmediated interaction. Indeed, e-governance is frequently seen as a force able to penetrate the layers of mediation that come between state and citizens – the various middlemen, intermediaries, brokers, fixers and even politicians. As an ideological formation, argues William Mazzarella, e-governance is animated by a “frictionless ideal of disintermediation”. Importantly, this ideal also carries with it a sense of understanding intimacy: in the world of e-governance, government and citizen would respond to each other’s needs not only with immediate presence and minimum mediation, but also “exquisite sensitivity,” conveyed through e-governance’s “claim to represent a more caring and more locally embedded principle of social inclusion”.
Aadhaar, then, as India’s most high-profile e-governance scheme, is about a desire for technological optimisation of governance so that it is transparent and direct as well as empathisingly responsive and attending. Interestingly, however, while the dream behind Aadhaar speaks the language of affective politics and invokes (like e-governance) an appeal to direct democracy, it at the same time equally relies on an appeal to economic market principles. Specifically, the transformation in the relationship between government and citizens is in this dream enabled through an importation of the (neoliberal) notion of a knowledge economy into the sphere of state-society relations.
To begin with, Aadhaar makes use of the neoliberal discourse of consumer choice. Just like in the marketplace, we are told, Aadhaar, with its promise of a mobile identity, will finally enable people to not be confined to the local underperforming school or corrupt ration shop, but to actually choose between public service providers. Such a statement has to be seen within a broader process in which citizens come to be regarded as clients of state services. And if citizens are clients – to take this position further – then the state should function like business, which has indeed become an oft-repeated trope among different CEOs and politicians alike. With Aadhaar, this ‘business’ gets a distinctive form: the entrepreneurial hi-tech start-up.
In recent years, private-public partnerships involving information technology have become increasingly popular, not only to improve technological capability in public service delivery, but also to give it an efficient and responsive private sector-like quality. With Aadhaar, however, we see not an ‘outsourcing’ of the state to various entrepreneurial projects, but an in-sourcing of information technology entrepreneurship into the state. This shift is perhaps above all reflected in the person who headed Aadhaar from its inception in 2009 until last year: Nandan Nilekani, formerly one of India’s biggest software entrepreneurial moguls and as Chairman of Aadhaar, a hi-tech governtrepreneur. The state’s attentiveness is therefore marked not only by disintermediation, but also by the inventive efficiency and customer courtesy associated with the private, entrepreneurial, information technology sector; in other words, by a representation of this major government venture as a state hi-tech start-up. Such an idea of the state is perhaps indicative of the entry of the knowledge economy into the specific domain of government and state-society relations. While the concept of the knowledge economy has been previously used to analyse new forms of the market and workplace, it has largely not been applied to the state itself, where a government development project is envisaged as a knowledge economy start-up.
On the whole, then, I have suggested that Aadhaar may be illustrative of something quite different than a turn toward either reinvigorated welfarism or authoritarianism. Instead, it could be seen as part of a dream about another kind of transformation in state-society relations and in the character of large-scale governance initiatives. At any rate, Aadhaar – which has received much less academic attention than certain other Indian development programmes, for example the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) – is surely worth analysing in relation to the some of the ideological notions and formations that underlie the contemporary Indian state, and which translate into potentially new forms of development projects.
A longer version of this text was published as an article in the South Asianist.
Image credit: Sonali Campion
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the India at LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
About the Author
Itay Noy is a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology at the LSE, where his research focuses on coal pedlars and tribal livelihoods in Jharkhand, India. He has an MSc in Anthropology and Development from the LSE and previously worked as a consultant for the German International Development Agency (GIZ) and UNICEF on social policy and social protection.