The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Aradhya Sethia, Nimoy Kher: The Indian Identity Platform (‘Aadhaar’): The Implications for Citizen-Government Relationships in a Developing Country Context

Aradhya Sethia, National Law School of India University, Bangalore, India

Nimoy Kher, National Law School of India University, Bangalore, India

India’s internet-driven ‘Unique Identity’or ‘Aadhaar’platform is the world’s largest consolidated biometric database, containing the personally identifiable information (PII) of nearly 1 billion Indian residents. The Aadhaar platform, by linking biometric data with the distribution of essential public services, seeks to address major issues in identifying the beneficiaries of targeted government welfare schemes which include under-registration, forged identities and resource leakage. These problems tend to perpetuate a vicious cycle of impoverishment and disenfranchisement, thereby hindering growth in some of the poorest regions on the globe. Indeed, Aadhaar has been projected as a ‘technological panacea’to the structural socio-economic impediments which have undermined the accessibility of basic goods and services in India.

This paper, however, adopts a skeptical view towards Aadhaar. It situates Aadhaar within the larger debate on the role of the State in developing democracies. In doing so, it explores the novel problems posed by the development of networked government platforms.

This paper proceeds in three parts. The first part analyses whether Aadhaar qualifies as an ‘online platform’. If so, the second part looks at the distinctive features of Aadhaar in contradistinction to traditional online platforms and other methods of citizen identification. Finally, the third part of this paper analyses the likely effects of ‘government as a platform’on citizen-state relationships in a developing country context.


This paper adopts an interdisciplinary approach towards the analysis of networked governments in developing countries. Specifically, it relies heavily on Amartya Sen’s ‘capability approach’, the Benthamite-Foucauldian concepts of ‘panopticism’and 'governmentality', and Lockean social contract theory.

The researchers conduct an independent empirical study to gauge the effects of class-situatedness on perceptions towards Aadhaar’s transformative effect. Further, using publicly available data from government sources, this paper co-relates variables such as class, age and gender with enrolment for Aadhaar, in order to analyse its impact on citizen-government relationships. Lastly, this study also draws on empirical data collected in other countries such as United Kingdom and New Zealand to compare outcomes between developed and developing countries.

Arguments and Findings

An ‘online platform’is an undertaking which uses the Internet to enable interactions between two or more distinct but interdependent groups of users, so as to generate value for at least one of the groups. Envisaged thus, the researchers find that Aadhaar is, in fact, an online platform. As a centralized database geared towards identity authentication, it facilitates interactions between public service providers and the targeted beneficiaries of public welfare schemes. Thus, by bringing both sides together for the purposes of identity authentication, it acts as a platform.

However, the fact that Aadhaar is controlled by a public authority, and is linked to the provision of essential services, fundamentally distinguishes it from other online platforms. Aadhaar is also distinct from traditional methods of identity-authentication such as Social Security Numbers (SSN). Unlike SSN, Aadhaar creates an internet-based network of biometric systems with a centralized database, which acts as a nodal point for processing all welfare claims by beneficiaries. These features of Aadhaar are indicative of a paradigm shift away from analogue systems of governance towards what has been termed as ‘government as a platform’. Thus, Aadhaar is a sui generis online platform.

This paper finds that Aadhaar transforms systems of governance by its centralizing tendencies. In fact, the commonly predicted ‘transformative stage of e-government’is best exemplified by Aadhaar. Additionally, Aadhaar also requires a re-imagination of the relationship between citizens and government. Viewed from a Lockean perspective, Aadhaar transforms the social contract between citizens and the state by altering notions of identity and citizenship, and expanding the scope of governmental authority. This paper finds that Aadhaar, by hoarding biometric data promotes anticipatory conformity amongst citizens, and also gives rise to the risk of surveillance ‘the quintessential ‘governmentality’of the Foucauldian paradigm. The risks of such a transformation in a developing country ‘from social contract to panopticism ‘may best be understood in terms of Sen’s ‘capability approach’. It suggests that Aadhaar presents marginalised citizens in a developing country with a Hobson’s choice; they are expected to choose between essential ‘basic capabilities’, and the constitutional right to privacy.

These findings are also buttressed by empirical research, which reveals that levels of income and age are inversely correlated with willingness to accede information to, and perceptions of risk associated with Aadhaar.


Aadhaar and the information collected thereunder is likely to become a critical element of public service relations between the government and welfare beneficiaries. The conceptual and empirical analysis provided above shows that the use of biometric identity-authentication platforms will change those relationships in profound ways. However, these changes are likely to have different directions and varying outcomes for different sections of the population. Most importantly, impoverished beneficiaries will be required to make a trade-off between their privacy rights and ‘basic capabilities’.

This study therefore concludes that Aadhaar provides an insight into the conflicting values at the heart of the debate on the emergence of ‘government as a platform’in developing countries.

Abridged List of References


2. Select Committee on the Constitution, SURVEILLANCE: CITIZENS AND THE STATE (House of Lords, 2009).

3. Jeremy Bentham, THE PANOPTICON WRITINGS (Miran Bozovic ed., 1995).


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8. Miriam Lips, Rethinking Citizen-Government Relationships in the Age of Digital Identity: Insights from Research, 15 INFORMATION POLITY, 273 (2010).

9. Paul Henman, Government and the Internet: Evolving Technologies, Enduring Research Themes, THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF INTERNET STUD0_ES (William H. Dutton ed., 2013).

10. Planning Commission, ANALYT0_CS-EMPOWER0_NG OPERAT0_ONS: THE UIDAI EXPER0_ENCE (2010).

11. Tim O’Reilly, ‘Government as a Platform’, OPEN GOVERNMENT (2010), available at (Accessed: 13th March, 2016).

Aradhya Sethia, Nimoy Kher