The enthusiasm with which government agencies and businesses have embraced Aadhaar should prompt India’s foreign policy planners to deploy it abroad. Executed properly, Aadhaar could become a central pillar of India’s “neighborhood first” policy, culminating in the creation of a unique digital South Asian identity.
A single, region-wide platform to authenticate residents of South Asia could integrate its markets, bring communities closer and allow governments to offer a wider range of governance services. None of this is to ignore the steps that India’s Unique Identification Authority must take to secure its own Aadhaar ecosystem. But the demand for identity-driven governance in South Asia is indisputable, and Aadhaar could be Indian foreign policy’s biggest asset to promote economic and political convergence in the region.
Already, South Asian economies are in varying stages of conceiving or implementing their own “national identity” schemes. Pakistan has the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), that for two decades has collected biometric information. NADRA, however, has seen limited success: at last count, it had issued only 3.8 lakh ID cards to Pakistanis, in comparison to Aadhaar’s one billion-plus enrollments. In 2013, NADRA even won an international contract to create Sri Lanka’s digital national identity scheme, but that project appears to have stalled. Nepal, meanwhile, intends to roll out biometrics-driven “national ID cards” to its citizens soon. The Election Commission in Bangladesh began issuing such cards last year.
South Asian governments, long content to gather data through traditional means such as censuses, are struggling to capture dynamic trends in their population. Current databases shine no light on urban mobility, data consumption patterns, or quality of life, because these are metrics that need integrated data sets and powerful analytical tools. To capture “multi-dimensional” data, India’s neighbors have moved towards digital identity schemes. The need for unique IDs is also acute because post-conflict societies in South Asia have not fully rehabilitated excluded minorities or former combatants. In comparison to politically fraught changes — for instance, the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution for the devolution of powers, or federalist reforms in Nepal — digital identity schemes are easier to implement, can strengthen local governments and support the financial inclusion of marginalized sections.
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Arun Mohan Sukumar heads the Cyber Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation. Madhulika Srikumar contributed with research inputs to this piece