Privacy concerns with Aadhaar have yet again gained center stage and the UIDAI is trying hard to convince people of the security of its 12-digit identity number. While we might be divided on our views for or against Aadhaar, the fact remains that India’s digital and financial infrastructures are not ready for the giant, same as we were not ready for demonetisation and GST. The number of amendments brought to both these schemes and the innumerable times the government changed its stance for introducing both the note ban and GST, point to the country’s unpreparedness.
On the night of November 8, 2016, we were informed that all Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes in our pockets were as worthless as pieces of paper. ‘It’s to curb black money,’ the Modi-led government explained.
The next few months were spent in bank queues, trying to exchange the invaluable papers with pink coloured notes of Rs 2,000. We were surely not ready for the immediate shakeup.
The year before demonetisation, a report by Google India and Boston Consulting Group showed that around 75% transactions in India were cash-based, compared to around 20-25% in developed countries. Those of us living in urban areas can make payments using our multiple debit and credit cards or via mobile applications like Paytm. But millions of people in India don’t even have bank accounts. The penetration of PoS terminals is not enough in the heart of the country. Digital infrastructure in rural areas, small towns and suburban areas should have first been developed before enforcing a note ban on a whim.
An article in Forbes called India ‘the most cash-dependent country in the world’ and the results of demonetisation showed our reliance on liquid money. While urban woes were mostly about finding new ways to exchange the idle stacks of cash at home or shifting marriage venues to cheaper locations, the poor bore the brunt of the decision. Farmers didn’t have money to buy seeds, small businesses had to be shut, employers didn’t have cash to give salaries to their workers, and autos rickshaw drivers remained unpaid as we hailed Ubers.
The bottom line is that the government was aware of the country’s dependence on cash and had not developed adequate digital infrastructure for the shift, yet decided to ban 86% of the total currency in circulation.
India does not have free WiFi in public spaces, the average time a page takes to load on a mobile connection in India is more than 6 seconds, we rank the lowest in the entire Asia-Pacific region on internet speed and we have one of the highest transaction failures due to slow internet. The government wants to make the country a cashless society without the required digital infrastructure or proper data protection and privacy laws.
Moreover, was the note ban really to promote a digital economy? When the Modi-led government first announced demonetisation, it said that the move was to curb black money and end corruption. When 99% of the demonetised notes were back in circulation, the BJP was quick to change its stance to ‘cashless economy’. The Prime Minister later said that the purpose of note ban was to ‘target the corruption of the privileged’ (the ones who stack their money in offshore accounts or gold investments?) The next unsurprising justification was ‘to bring idle savings at home into the banking system’. When nothing worked out, the PM said that demonetisation was an attempt to curb terrorism. There was no dearth of justifications – from electoral reforms, expanding tax base, integrating the informal sector into the formal sector to partnering with GST. Which brings us to the next big shakeup we were grossly unprepared for.
Ready or not, here comes the biggest tax reform
The Goods and Services Tax (GST) was rolled out on July 1, 2016 to make life simpler for businesses. Posters of ‘one nation, one tax’ adorned billboards and television screens across the nation. Yet, the ones engaged in small-scale businesses were thinking of ways to cope with the new tax regime.
While the government was reiterating its commitment toward the tax system, GST Suvidha Providers (GSPs), the ones expected to help taxpayers cope with the transition, were unprepared.
“We have just been given the specifications for developing the software but the APIs will be given to us on June 29. Integrating the two takes time. It’s like we have the design and not the structure of a building,” said a GSP official to Hindustan Times when GST was first introduced. GSP officials said that the government had not given them enough time for software testing and security compliance. The officials did wished to be named as the government had refrained them from talking to the media.
Earlier this week, The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India wrote in a letter to the chairman of The Central Board of Excise & Customs the inability of assesses to file for GST return by the due date, because of which their money is stuck with the government. The letter mentions how the GSTR 1 system is taking too much time to load, is not accepting files even though uploaded in the latest version and the assesses have to manually file for refund claims.
The problem might not be with GST, but the government’s approach to creating supply before demand points to an uncaring attitude. The GST council kept changing rates, shifting deadlines for filing returns, shuffling the goods and services that were to be taxed or not, thus creating confusion every time. The GST could have been more thought-out and planned by the government before jumping to make it a reality.
Does India have the needed technology for the world’s largest biometric database?
Let us not get into the debate of whether Aadhaar is good or bad. Let’s assume that it is good and will help people get government benefits in a smoother fashion. Despite this, the fact remains that India’s digital infrastructure is grossly unprepared to handle the database of 119 crore people.
There have been multiple cases of Aadhaar data breaches, that too from government websites. The UIDAI (which by the way has the right to sell your demographic details to requesting agencies) kept reiterating that our information is safe and secure. But after The Tribune’s report claiming that anonymous agents were selling access to Aadhaar database on Whatsapp, the government body said that just our demographic details could be misused but our bodily information was safe. Forget what people can do with ‘just our demographic details’, why is Aadhaar database so ill-protected?
Almost every week we hear stories of either data breaches, biometric duplication, entire villages having the same Aadhaar number or more number of Aadhaar cards issued than the population of a state. Just yesterday, a Twitter user going by the name ‘Elliot Anderson’, the same person who reported the presence of a backdoor in OnePlus software, Tweeted that it is ‘super-easy’ to get the password of local Aadhaar database.
Why is hacking into the Aadhaar database child’s play? Why does India not have a data protection law at a time when data is the new oil? Shouldn’t the government first bring in regulations to protect our information then create the world’s largest database?
We have past experiences to learn from. Let us question and in our own ways, urge the government to bring in policies that truly help us. We are still dealing with the effects of demonetisation, and Aadhaar shouldn’t become another burden on the pile.