There are claims, and ambitions, that surround the UID project. The claims first.
The UID, it is claimed, will be an identity that will bring down the barriers that prevent the poor from accessing benefits and subsidies. Unfortunately for the UIDAI, this claim is already being severely eroded. What was projected as a project of inclusion is already turning into a threat of exclusion. So, the poor have been told that if they do not enrol for a UID, if they do not have bank accounts, if those bank accounts are not embedded with the UID number, then they will become ineligible for the subsidies that they have been getting so far. That is the first obstacle that has been set up by the project.
Then, a person needs to produce a pre-existing document to be able to enrol; a voter ID, a PAN card a driving licence or one of the many cards that are listed. Those who do not have a document to establish their identity or those whose documents are not accepted by the enrolment agency – and this is invariably the poor and the less privileged – will need an "introducer" to help them get enrolled. The introducer, as was explained by the Demographic Data Standards Committee that reported to the UIDAI in December 2009, would be akin to a bank introducer – with one significant difference: while a bank introducer would be expected to know the person he or she is introducing, it is different with UID enrolment.
The state government or other agency acting as Registrar would have to appoint an "approved introducer" to do the task. That is, introducers must be known to the Registrar, but do not need to know the persons they are introducing! The accuracy of the data can be imagined. No wonder, then, that in January 2012 the Home Ministry protested that they could not accept UID data because it was insecure and unreliable.
A second stated ambition is that of reducing leakage in the system. Mr Nilekani refers to himself as a plumber, plugging the leaks. The savings will be huge, it is said. No one would deny the pervasive corruption that has blighted many systems of distribution.
The RTI, "transparency walls", public hearings, the use of technology to computerise, communicate and monitor the movement of goods and grain, the opening of post office and bank accounts for payment of NREGA wages, the use of mobile phones to let people know when their rations are to reach so that they may watch and collect their entitlements, the use of GPS to track the movement of vehicles carrying grain to the shops – these have already greatly improved systems.
The UIDAI, however, suggests that salvation lies elsewhere – in a centralised system of identification.
That, it believes, would do away with duplicates and ghost beneficiaries. There is, of course, no evidence about the extent of the leakage, and what the saving would therefore be. In fact, the first paper attempting to explain that the UID would reduce leakage appeared only a few months ago, done by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy.
The paper is littered with assumptions for, as they admit, there isn’t any data in some areas and, in others, the data is outdated.
In addition, contrary to Mr Nilekani’s assertion at the talk in April 2013 that this was an `independent study’, scholars at the NIPFP have admitted to "the group’s research affiliations with the UIDAI (which) should preferably have been made (clear) in the study itself".
How many us know of the One Time Passwords which are to be used to "manual(ly) override" when the biometric identification fails? When fingerprints or iris fail in recognising the person, for whatever reason, a request can be sent to the UIDAI to send a One Time Password to any mobile phone that is on hand.
That OTP can then be used in place of the biometric.
The potential for `leakage’ and identity fraud and corruption in this, and the problem this poses for the `last mile’ is undeniable, although it is not being acknowledged.
No wonder everyone including the UIDAI is shrinking from taking on liability where there is "false accept", or "false reject", or where identity fraud occurs is a telling circumstance.
The risk, till things change dramatically, rests heavily on the individual, while the system carries on experimenting.
Is this too harsh a way to read the UID? Fact is, the UID project has been attempting to derive its legitimacy from the failures and corruption and non-performance of the system as it now is.
Yet, since it is the excitement of technology, and not an intimate understanding of the poor and marginalised, that informs the project, the gap between its claims and how it is playing out on the ground is huge.
And how much the bureaucracy and the political establishment have understood is moot; they have spoken too little for us to tell.
With the claims not quite holding up, what ambitions are these that drive the project?
(The writer is an academic activist. She has been researching the UID and its ramifications since 2009.)
Then again, the biometrics on which this whole system hinges is still in an experimental stage. For the poor, manual workers and the old, authentication of who they are is more than likely to be a problem. This is what the DG and Mission Director of the UIDAI said in November 2011: "The other challenge we face is the quality of fingerprints. Capturing fingerprints, especially of manual labourers, is a challenge. The quality of fingerprints is bad because of the rough exterior of fingers caused by hard work, and this poses a challenge for later authentication…. Issuing a unique identity will not be a major problem. But authentication will be, because fingerprint is the basic mode of authentication." So, it seems, the idea is to expand to iris authentication – increasing cost through the introduction of a mode in which pilots are yet being run.