Surely you’re joking, Mr Friedman

Surely you’re joking, Mr Friedman

The NYT columnist ignores all criticism on Aadhaar and talks of how it’s enabling Indians to be more empowered.

By Meghnad S

Published on :

I have been fondly calling Aadhaar the “Many-Headed Hydra” for a while now: A monster with multiple heads. Cut off one head and another one pops up immediately.

I did so because it’s becoming a draconian project of late, and it forces those opposing it into a terrible choice: either ignore it all and risk normalising Aadhaar excesses or write about it constantly and risk not having the time to learn and report about the big trends now re-shaping India — trends that one day will surprise your readers and leave them asking, “Why didn’t I know this?”

I can do this too, Thomas Friedman.

In a recent opinion piece titled Forget Trump and discover the world for The New York Times, Friedman started off in a similar way talking about Trump, his ability to draw attention away from important things and how he forces commentators (read: American commentators) to ignore developments around the world. One would think he would then go on to talk about groundbreaking gene editing technology or how China’s dreams of world domination are shaping up through the One Belt One Road project.

Instead, he goes on to wax eloquently about Aadhaar, a project started by his friend Nandan Nilekani.

In case you don’t know, Friedman is a renowned American journalist and author who does commentary on foreign affairs and globalisation. He is also someone who is known to suffer from something called Lippmann’s condition — named for the legendary journalistic hot-air salesman, Walter Lippmann, and alluding to the inherent tendency of all pundits to swell in self-importance to zeppelin-like dimensions.

Lippmann’s condition is on full display in this particular column for NYT. Friedman parachutes in like an important white man from a country led by leader of the free world (TRUMP!) and declares that he is “blown away” by the Aadhaar project. He says, “Congress Party left office in 2014, and Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party took over, Modi continued and impressively energized the Aadhaar project, bringing it today to 1.18 billion users, out of a population of about 1.3 billion.”

He conveniently doesn’t mention how BJP was opposing the project tooth and nail before it came to power and suddenly got ‘energized’ after 2014. Or maybe he just didn’t know.


I honestly burst out laughing when Friedman compared Aadhaar to the railways:

“When the British laid railroads in India it led to the more efficient extraction of natural resources. Now the Indian government, through the combination of a trusted unique ID platform — tied to cellphones and mobile bank accounts — is creating a kind of digital railroad enabling the more efficient empowerment of human resources.”

When you think of it, he’s right. Just that his conclusion is plain bizarre. Aadhaar is very much like an efficient resource extracting mechanism. Only in this case, it is citizen digital data that is being extracted. Data is the new oil, after all.

Learning well from the Brits, aren’t we? Especially since his friend Nilekani likes to think that everyone opposing Aadhaar are ‘colonised guys’.

If one does a cursory google search, there is enough material about the pitfalls of Aadhaar out there. From starvation deaths to exclusion to enabling fraud to mass surveillance, Aadhaar (Hindi for “base”) now is a base for a lot of widespread suffering. Many-headed Hydra, remember? There have been data leaks by more than 200 government entities putting privacy of citizens at risk and making them vulnerable to identity theft. UIDAI and supporters of the programme still maintain that Aadhaar is secure and continue to ignore the kind of misuses that are happening because of it.

Often you hear Aadhaar being compared to the Social Security Number system in the US (which is plain wrong, just saying) to support implementation. “If developed countries like the US have a unique ID, why shouldn’t we?” is an often used refrain. But I’m sure Friedman must also be aware of the fact that a few Senators in his own country are now opposing SSN after the Equifax hack.

Friedman, however, doesn’t seem to care about all that. Or just chooses to ignore it in order to sell a narrative. He focuses a lot on the cashless and banking aspect of Aadhaar and about how it’s enabling Indians to be more empowered. For example, as stated in his column, Friedman’s friend’s driver’s wife has now been empowered because she has a debit card and doesn’t need to ask for money from her mother-in-law. So is Friedman’s friend’s driver’s son who is training to be a doctor because Friedman’s friend’s driver sends money directly from his mobile phone to both of them.

(*cough* I wonder who this friend is *cough*)

Perhaps, in Friedman’s head, Indians were just a poor lot without access to banks and mobile apps before Aadhaar came along to save us all, modernise us and introduce us to the wonders of cashless transactions.

But wait, didn’t Demonetisation do that? I’m confused. Maybe, just maybe, BOTH ARE CONNECTED!

He takes the example of a driver because, of course, poor people. It has become such a trope to sell Aadhaar, especially in the developed world, by putting up this image of helpless poor people in India who need to be saved by the use of this hellish technology. It fits right into the narrative of “the only way to improve the poor lives of poor people in poor India is to hand over your soul and identity to the government, especially if you are poor and living off welfare.”

I have two words to say for this: Please stop.

Or as the all-time greatest narrative creator of India, Karan Johar, puts it.

Mr Friedman, I’m saying this as respectfully as possible, please reconsider how you want people to ‘forget Trump and discover the world’.

Because as Morozov put is: Aadhaar is our biometric hell.

Just like Trump is your hell.