The National, Thursday 04th April, 2013
By PRITI PATNAIK
INDIA is rolling out unique identification numbers (UID) for its citizens, ostensibly to cut out the middleman and reach the real beneficiaries of government-sponsored programmes.
The project is headed by Nandan Nilekani, a former co-chairman of Infosys, the technology company he co-founded 30 years ago, and one of India’s most admired groups.
Eulogies have been written about this corporate leader and entrepreneur turning to deliver public services.
The idea behind this project is to link payments of several government-sponsored programmes – such as the food subsidy programme, which has consistently failed to reach hungry people due to corruption, and the national employment guarantee programme – to the identity cards.
In one stroke, the 12-digit UID aims to become the overarching identity to the faceless millions residing in India – similar to the national insurance or social security numbers.
The UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) is expected to spend almost US$10 billion (K21.5 billion) over the next five years to cover 600 million people.
It started the process and in April last year the authority renamed UID as Aadhaar, which means foundation or support, using the outcome as its brand name.
“As many people were getting confused with the present UID name, we renamed it, so that it could be recognised across the country, could resonate in different languages and could be easy to remember and pronounce,” Nilekani explained.
The project is not without controversy. Activists paint a Big Brother scenario where the information collected could be misused.
The discussion is replete with comparisons of IBM’s role in helping the Nazis identify Jewish populations and others during World War Two.
Armed with only electoral rolls, minorities have already been targeted in India on more than one occasion; it is not too difficult to imagine how such data could be used by the state in Kashmir, or even in Gujarat.
Authenticity of the data is another concern. It could be possible to tamper with the card with candle wax and glue.
A Mumbai-based expert claims that many Indians who work on construction sites have abraded, and therefore low-quality fingerprints, which could exclude them from the proposed benefits.
Nilekani believes a significant section of India’s population that has remained excluded would, with this card and unique number, be brought into this realm of identification.
He also told MPs recently that the UIDAI would not seek information about an individual’s caste or religion when assigning a number.
But others, including the development economist Jean Drèze, who is a member of the National Advisory Council headed by the ruling Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, say the UID will cause calamity.
Critics also question why the UIDAI has gone ahead and collected data – demographic and biometric information including an individual’s 10 fingerprints, iris scans and perhaps also face data – without the consent and legal authorisation of the Indian parliament or government.
And while the authority is being officially created as a statutory body under a separate legislation, it has been in existence since February 2009.
But this has not stopped the UIDAI from working with consultants and private companies.
There is no data protection statute in India and little in the law to protect privacy.
There is, however, a “draft discussion paper on privacy bill”, which says that data privacy and the need to protect personal information was, in the past, almost never a concern since data is stored in a decentralised manner.
It says: “Data that is maintained in silos is largely useless outside that silo and consequently has a low likelihood of causing any damage.”
However, under the UID project, multiple databases would be unified.
Groups such as the Centre for Internet and Society are concerned with the UIDAI’s public accountability, issues of data protection and privacy of information.
In July last year, it wrote to the authority outlining its concerns, including the right to privacy and freedom of choice, stating: “Measures should be taken towards ensuring that the … number is truly voluntary.”
The UID’s advocates argue that it would help to accommodate the financially excluded, and so fulfil a government pledge – because it is often difficult for people such as slum dwellers or a rickshaw pullers to open bank accounts.
The UID aims to offer proof of identity. Some feel that this is also a backdoor method of introducing conditional cash transfers in India, getting money to people who fulfil certain criteria – an idea that has been endorsed by the government at several levels.
The Aadhaar number would, therefore, become essential, not voluntary, for poorer people to be able to access benefits – such as rural employment or cheap housing – an issue that Yashwant Sinha, a BJP MP, pointed out at a meeting of the public accounts committee.
Other MPs were concerned about how migrant workers, from other parts of India could access schemes that they were entitled to while also keeping illegal workers, such as the growing number from Bangladesh, from obtaining an UID number and taking benefits meant for Indians.
In the past, such efforts to assign identity to the masses have met with relative success, but are fraught with complications. For example, the UK government recently wound up its ID card system.
The point is that not enough public debate had taken place before a project of such proportions was pushed through.
It may be a heroic effort, but there is a need to involve stakeholders before tapping into citizens’ information.
Technology may or may not be a panacea to cure all the problems besieging India. But since this is a first effort, there may be a reason to be optimistic. –The Guardian.