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Nandan Nilekani wants Aadhaar-based system to roll out Covid-19 vaccinations

Photo of Nandan Nilekani

Nandan Nilekani, the architect of Aadhaar, wants the Indian government to use the “Aadhaar model” while rolling out an eventual COVID-19 vaccine. The former chief of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), speaking at an Indian Express event, proposed that Aadhaar could be used to authenticate the population before vaccination. People who get vaccinated would also get a “digital certificate” as proof of vaccination, he added. Nilekani claimed this model would help deliver as many as 8-10 million doses in a single day.

Nilekani is not the only prominent individual who wants to link the controversial identification document with COVID-19 vaccinations. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the chairperson and managing director of Biocon Limited, has also made similar statements in the recent past.

At the event, Nilekani said that the country could have a system wherein it trains around 2,00,000 people to become “authorised vaccinators” who will operate in a network of public and private vaccination centres. He claimed that Aadhaar could be used at these centres.

Nilekani argued that if the proposed vaccine needed two doses, India would have to deliver 260 crore vaccines, which could not be done in 9-10 month time-frame without a “strong technology backbone”.

“An Aadhaar-type backbone would be critical for, initially, sending messages to people to come for their initial, and later repeat, vaccine while the use of Aadhaar would help create a record of those vaccinated,” Nilekani was quoted as saying.

The technocrat indicated that Aadhaar would help monitor 24X7 how long the vaccines are effective, and track different types of vaccines (whether they work or not). He claimed this would be especially useful if there is a need to repeat the doses every year.

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Nilekani tried to draw parallels to UIDAI’s experiences with enrolment and an eventual mass vaccination drive. He said it had taken UIDAI five-and-a-half years to cover over a billion-plus people. However, in this case, the entire population needs to be vaccinated in two years, translating to roughly 100 million vaccinations a month. “So this is a scale challenge which is unprecedented in out history,” he added.

Nilekani had previously elaborated in an opinion piece in the Hindustan Times how exactly this system would work. He said that “everyone can be authenticated online”, either using Aadhaar or using mobile phones, through biometrics or OTP. “For example, we can allow anytime-anywhere vaccination, where a person can walk into a vaccination station nearby, have a choice to get authenticated with Aadhaar or phone number and get a shot — all in minutes.”

What does Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw say?

Mazumdar-Shaw has gone one step further — she proposes a QR-code based vaccination plan linked to Aadhaar. According to her, this system would also be linked with travel and movement of people between locations. This system would presumably allow people who have been vaccinated the ability to travel anywhere in the “world” using Aadhaar-linked QR codes that prove their “vaccinated” status. Those who don’t get vaccinated would probably have to forget about stepping out of their homes.

Speaking at a Business Today event last week, Mazumdar-Shaw elaborated her stance a bit more. She said the government could leverage Aadhaar “intelligently” by tracking and assessing everyone who has received a dose. It would also help administrators track if these vaccinations have any adverse effects. Although, she didn’t seem to say anything about the QR-code proposal.

MediaNama’s take: An unsettling proposition

Both Nilekani and Mazumdar-Shaw’s proposal reliance on Aadhaar seems to be based on the assumption that Aadhaar is already universal — that everyone in India has it by now.

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However, this is not the case. According to an answer by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) from August in Parliament, the total number of Aadhaar numbers in the country is 126.17 crore, against a  projected population (2020) of 137.05 crore. To make things even more complicated, some of the 126.27 crore Aadhaar holders are no longer alive. MEITY estimates the total number of Aadhaar numbers held by alive persons is 121.86 — just 88.92 % of the population. If one were to operate under Nilekani and Mazumdar-Shaw’s assumption, at least 11% of the population who don’t yet have Aadhaar will never get vaccinated. Having Aadhaar — or not having it — will become a matter of life and death.

Furthermore, there are even more issues with Mazumdar-Shaw’s proposals with an Aadhaar-linked QR code system. Her proposal seems to be based on the additional assumption that all Indians not only have Aadhaar, but also a device that can generate and display QR codes. According to Statista, only half of the country uses smartphones.

If such a system were to be implemented, only those with smartphone will be able to travel between cities or even within one. Even if, for argument’s sake, everyone has smartphones and can use QR codes, one would need to have enormous faith in the functioning of this system. For instance, what if the app, or the internet, or even your phone stop working while you are on the way to the hospital for an emergency? Will you be prohibited from moving beyond the checkpoint?

Aadhaar has already been mandatory for people claiming ration from the public distribution system (PDS), with disastrous effects in some cases. For instance, an IndiaSpend report from 2018 linked the absence of Aadhaar with starvation deaths in Jharkhand. The government told Parliament in 2019 acknowledged reports of people being denied ration because of inability to produce Aadhaar, but it said it had no data on the same.

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