The Great Indian Number Game

The UID is expected to change the rules of engagement for the country's impoverished millions. TSI's Tathagata Bhattacharya finds far too many loophole

In India, inability to prove one's identity has been one of the biggest barriers preventing the poor from accessing benefits and subsidies. However, the public as well as private sector agencies' service model is based on determination of individual identity. But till date, despite several attempts like the PDS Ration Card and the Election ID Card, there remains no nationally accepted and verified identity number that residents and agencies can use with ease and confidence.

As a result, every time an individual tries to access a benefit or a service, they usually undergo a full cycle of identity verification, photocopying of numerous documents, attestation from gazetted officers. Such duplication of effort and identity silos increases overall costs of identification and causes extreme inconvenience to the individual. This approach is especially unfair to India's poor and downtrodden who usually lack identity documentation and find it difficult to meet the costs of multiple verification process. A large number of people in this country simply have no identity – no birth certificate, no school leaving certificate, etc.

This is the premise on which Manmohan Singh government, in consultation with the Planning Commission, passed an executive order of the Cabinet in January, 2009 to set the ball rolling on India's ambitious Unique Identification project. In the end of July, former boss and co-founder of Infosys Nandan Nilekani was roped in to oversee the project as chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).

Nilekani is fully aware of the enormity of the task he has been entrusted with. “It is a humongous and complex task. It is the largest project involving biometrics in the world. We are going to cover 1.2 billion people, pushing the latest technology. This is vital if India is to develop as an inclusive society. Hundreds of millions can't be excluded from social services for the want of identity,” says the majordomo of the project.

It is important to clear all doubts as to what the UID is about and what's it not, what it will contain and what it won't, how will the process run. This is vital to a correct understanding of the project and analysing the benefits it may bring and its drawbacks.

“The mandate of the UIDAI or project Aadhaar (foundation in Sanskrit) is to provide every resident of India a unique 12-digit random identification number. However, this number will only guarantee identity of a person linked to his/her demographic and biometric information and no rights, benefits or entitlements. The UID also will not confer citizenship. “It will reach you by post in the form of a letter with a perforated attachment which is for keeps,” says Nilekani.

The UIDAI will only collect certain basic demographic and biometric information on the resident. They are i) Name, ii) Date of Birth, iii) Gender, iv)

Father's/Wife's/Guardian's name and UID number (optional for adult residents), v) Mother's/Wife's/Guardian's name and UID number (optional for adult residents),

vi) Introducer's name and UID number (in case of lack of documents), vii) Address and viii) All ten fingerprints, photograph and scans of both the irises.

Existing identity databases in the country are fraught with the problems of fraud and duplicate or ghost beneficiaries. To prevent this from seeping into the UIDAI plans to enrol residents into its database with proper verification of their demographic and biometric information. “This will ensure that the data collected is clean right from the start of the programme,” says Nilekani.

However, many of the poor and under-served people lack identity documents, many are not even aware of their dates of birth. Nilekani addresses this, “The UIDAI will ensure that the Know Your Resident (KYR) standards don't become a barrier for enrolling the poor and will devise suitable procedures to ensure their inclusion without compromising the integrity of the data.”

The UIDAI approach hopes to leverage the existing infrastructure of government and private sector agencies across India. “The UIDAI will be the regulatory authority managing a Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR) which will issue UIDs, update resident information and authenticate the identity of residents as required. A managed service provider chosen from a global tender will store the data in the physical data centre provided by the UIDAI,” says Nilekani.

He continues, “In addition, the UIDAI will partner with agencies such as Central and state departments, banks, insurance companies, Census of India, cellular operators and other agencies who will be 'registrars for the UIDAI. Registrars will process UID applications and connect to the CIDR to de-duplicate resident information and receive UID numbers. These registrars can either be enrollers or will appoint agencies as enrollers who will interface with people seeking UID numbers. The UIDAI will also partner with service providers for authentication.”

One of the very important things to bear in mind is that the the UIDAI will not issue any card but only allocate a number to an individual. However, Nilekani is quick to add that the UID number can be printed on a card issued by registrars, i.e banks, insurers, etc. Also, enrolment is not manadatory but the UIDAI is hopeful that the benefits and services linked to the UID will ensure demand for the number.

“The UIDAI will offer a strong form of online authentication where agencies can compare demographic and biometric information of the resident with the record stored in the Central database. The authority will support registrars and agencies in adopting the UID authentication process and will help define the infrastructure and processes they need,” says Nilekani. He adds that the first phase of the project in which 60 crore Indians will be covered will cost a maximum of Rs 25,000 crore in its first five years. It is being said that the entire process will cost the country's exchequer upwards of Rs 1,00,000 crore when fully implemented and running.

echnology systems will have a major role across the UIDAI infrastructure. The UID database will stored on a central server. Enrolment of the resident will be computerised and information exchange between registrars and the CIDR will be over a secure network. Authentication of the resident will be online.

Dr Saeed Ahmed, director, Human DNA Bank, Biotechnology Park, Lucknow, established the world's second DNA bank (the first and only other being the Federal Bureau of Investigation's DNA database) on June 8, 2008. He rubbishes the very scientific basis of India's UID project.

“The purpose of a comprehensive UID project should be to identify a person, alive, dead or unconscious. That is where first and foremost, the UID project fails miserably. After a person's death, iris scan becomes ineffective. After Rigor Mortis sets in, even fingerprinting is not possible. In case of burn deaths or rotting of body in water, it will become impossible to ascertain the identity of the person. The only solution is in developing a DNA data bank which is the most comprehensive identity parameter,” says Dr Ahmed.

“The irises of individuals suffering from chronic glaucoma, hypertension, diabetes and retinopathy changes periodically. How is the UIDAI going to factor in these changes,” he asks.

“Secondly, leaving the DNA identification process, the amount being quoted for the project is astronomical. In fact, I am prompted to call this a scam of biblical proportions. There is no way the entire process, as it is now, can cost upwards of Rs 10 per person which brings us to the figure of Rs 1200 crore. And it should not take more than three years to complete it as well. If you take gene mapping into account then the cost per person will work out to Rs 130. Even then, the total cost can't exceed Rs 15,600 crore. Trust me, I am working in this field for about 20 years now,” Dr Saeed laments.

The scientific and cost aspects aside, the Centre's UID project has come in for major criticism from civil liberties and human rights activists too.

Human right activist and member, Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties, Gopal Krishna says that the Unique Identification Number project is a gross violation of fundamental human rights. He points out that a similar project in the United Kingdom is going to be cancelled soon after a parliamentary repeal.

“The very first bill that is to be presented by the UK's new coalition government in the British Parliament is to repeal its Identity Cards Act 2006 even as Government of India has chosen to give approval to Unique Identification Number project that threatens citizens' privacy. Clearly, what is poisonous for civil liberties in the UK cannot become non-poisonous in India. How is it that two democracies deal with the issue of ungovernable breaches of privacy differently? While the government in UK is proactive in protecting the privacy of its citizens, the Government of India is ridiculing the very idea of privacy and civil liberties,” Krishna says.

History is witness to the fact that organised information on citizens, residents, ethnic groups has been used as an instrument of social and political control. It has been used as a weapon in war and has been used to target specific population groups. Adolf Hitler's National Socialist government in Germany launched the first identification drive in the modern world. Even before that, Europe has had identities accorded to people primarily for two reasons – conscription and Church levies – right from the medieval times. Hitler's Germany gave the responsibility of the population mapping exercise to International Business Machines (IBM) who also devised the punch card and slot machine. Both would be used by the Nazis to target, segregate, ghettoise, deport and exterminate Jews, communists and other political rivals. Now, is there any guarantee that a reactionary and autocratic government, if and when it comes to power, will not make use of the information to identify, frame and neutralise political opponents, rights activists and everybody else who threatens the regime? An IBM Hollerith D-11 card sorting machine, used for the census of 1933 that first identified the Jews, still stands at At the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC as a grim reminder of the perils of organised information falling in wrong hands.

There are already strong allegations that LPG connection documents, Income Tax and Sales Tax documents were used by rioters in 2002 to target households and commercial establishments belonging to individuals from a certain minority community in Gujarat. Now one can only shudder and think as to what will become if some registrar will pass the data collected for the UIDAI project on to miscreants.

“Unmindful of the lessons from Germany in particular and Europe in general, advancing the argument of targeting, it has been claimed on the floor of Parliament by the finance minister while presenting the 2010-11 Union Budget that the UID project 'would provide an effective platform for financial inclusion and targeted subsidy payments,' the same targeting measures can also be used with vindictive motives against citizens of certain religion, caste and ethnicity or region or towards a section of society due to economic resentment,” says Krishna.

Krishna adds, “The government is feigning ignorance about the democratic movement against such efforts. In India too, there is a robust case against rejecting what has been rejected in the UK. The UID project is a blatant case of infringement of civil liberties. The government's identification exercise follows the path of the Information Technology Act 2000 that was enacted in the absence of no data or privacy protection legislation.”

Strangely, the finance minister and the project Aadhaar chief refer to financial inclusion and not economic inclusion of the poor. What propagators of the UID campaign have failed to drive home is how it is going to benefit the poorest of the poor and usher in progress of those at the peripheries of the development paradigm. It is an identification exercise and guarantees no rights, subsidies or entitlements. In a country where a BPL Card is also not enough ground for allocation of National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) work, it is hard to see how a Unique Identification Number will make any difference. It can at best be used as a planning tool but even then a direct survey will have to be conducted to see if benefits have reached the intended beneficiaries. Now there is no reason why such a survey can't be conducted on the sample space drawn on issuance of PDS Ration Cards and BPL Cards by the very issuing agencies. After all, the same agencies will be used as registrars by the UIDAI. So what difference will the allocation of a number make and that too at a cost of thousands and thousands of crores of public money?

Another aspect of the Unique Identification project is that it does not have sanction of the Indian Parliament. It is learnt that a draft legislation has been prepared which will be presented in Parliament, subject to Cabinet approval.

All in all, the UID project surely will make life, i.e procurement of passports, LPG connections, opening of bank accounts, easy for India's upper and middle classes. However, it does not seem to be cost-effective. It compromises democratic principles of civil liberties and pays little heed to privacy concerns. The way the UID, it seems, would be linked to passport, bank accounts, credit cards, tax documents, the information will load the government with enormous power to control lives and dissent. When asked how ethical is it for him to head a project for which Infosys will also definitely bid, Nilekani said, “I am not involved in the procurement process or in selecting suppliers. There is a transparent and well-established mechanism and suppliers will be identified through a global tender.” Though this rules out his direct intervention, there is no point denying that his presence at the helm of affairs can very well influence the decision making process.

Risks that arise from centralisation of data include possible errors in the collection of information, recording of inaccurate data, corruption of data from anonymous sources and unauthorised access to or disclosure of personal information by unscrupulous elements. Other countries with national identification systems have confronted numerous problems with similar risks such as trading and selling of information. India, which has no established data protection laws such as the United States Federal Privacy Statute or the European Directive on Data Protection, is ill-equipped to deal with such problems.

The UIDAI, in its publication titled UIDAI Strategy Overview, says, “The UIDAI will not share resident data.” But under the same paragraph, it says, “The agencies may store the information of residents they enrol if they are authorized to do so, but they will not have access to the information in the UID database.” Since the UIDAI will also appoint private banks, insurance companies, telecom operators as its agencies, one can just imagine the security risk that personal information will be exposed to. Nilekani says, “The basis for adopting the UID model is developmental.” However, this logic falls flat in the face of the government's actions on the ground. The Centre allocates Rs 10,000 crore for a new airport and Rs 40,000 crore for Commonwealth Games; it writes off Rs 60,000 crore lost in the spectrum scam. The current Union budget has made provisions to write off Rs 5,00,000 crore for the super-rich and corporate houses. However, universalisation of PDS which can come at a fraction of these write-offs is never on the cards.

May be the Unique Identification project should be better understood in the context of the Union Finance Minister's words after delivering the last Union Budget speech. On February 26, 2010, Pranab Mukherjee told Parliament, “With development and economic reforms, the focus of economic activity has shifted towards the non-governmental actors, bringing into sharper focus the role of Government as an enabler. An enabling Government does not try to deliver directly to the citizens everything that they need. Instead it creates an enabling ethos so that individual enterprise and creativity can flourish.”

The UID project is also an extension of this philosophy where the government takes a backseat, creating an enabling atmosphere for a corporate takeover.

The writer met UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani for an interview. Some parts of that interview have been used to substantiate this article.

Tathagata Bhattacharya


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