When stars die, they go out with a whimper, not a bang. The really large ones often end up as black holes.
Such seems to be the fate that awaits the sun that had positioned itself right at the centre of India’s digital ecosystem, India Stack. Appearing seemingly out of nowhere around five years ago, India Stack quickly became the gravitational centre around which India’s banking, telecom and fintech planets started revolving.
Such was the power of India Stack that multi-billion-dollar businesses could be created, or destroyed, based on their knowledge and access to the APIs—‘application programming interfaces’ are software functions that allow disparate applications to talk to each other and exchange data—provided by India Stack.
Jio, India’s newest and most disruptive telecom player, owed its fast growth to its ability to authenticate new customers via Aadhaar’s eKYC, an online authentication mechanism linked to people’s unique Aadhaar IDs. PhonePe, the Flipkart-owned runaway success in the digital payments space, owed its rapid rise to its early work and access to UPI, a real-time money transfer protocol.
Both eKYC and UPI were powered by India Stack.
But on 26 September, India’s Supreme Court sucked away the fuel that was powering India Stack – Aadhaar.
A five-judge constitution bench that was hearing a slew of legal challenges to India’s unique ID project for years, finally held that Aadhaar was legal and that the government could continue to use it to identify citizens to deliver services.
But the same bench also struck down the entire section in the Aadhaar act that allowed private companies or entities its use and declared it “unconstitutional” for good measure.
Barring a series of legal miracles from a government that’s in its final year, India Stack’s fate seems sealed, albeit over a period of months, maybe even a few years. And with it, dozens of startups that had based their entire business models around it.
“There are no two ways about it: India Stack and its whole Aadhaar authentication project is dead in the water,” says a Delhi-based lawyer with a prominent think-tank, who did not want to be quoted because of the sensitivity of the judgement.
Aadhaar, India’s unique ID project, was the foundation for India Stack’s ambition in more ways than one. First, by acting as a unique key that would identify all digital transactions made by Indians. And second, by creating a critical mass of data on each user by virtue of both the government and hundreds of private companies demanding it for pretty much anything a user wanted to do.