The aadhaar project has become the bane of average Indians, threatening their access to all manner of services. Basic questions have sometimes been asked and almost never been answered, says USHA RAMANATHAN, in the first of a multi-part series.
The Unique Identity (UID) project has been around for over four years. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was set up by an executive notification dated 28 January 2009 and came into its own after Mr Nandan Nilekani was appointed as chairperson in July 2009. Now it has, as some observers say, become an experiment being conducted on the entire country.
In its early stages, it was marketed, simply, as giving the poor and the undocumented an identity. It was to be voluntary, and an entitlement. But, it is evident even from the Strategy Overview document of the UIDAI that it was never intended to be an entitlement that people may choose to adopt or ignore. That document said that "enrolment will not be mandated", but went on to add: "This will not, however, preclude governments or registrars from mandating enrolment". So, the potential for compulsion was built into the architecture of the project. Starting in 2012, voluntariness began to be eroded, and threats of exclusion from services and entitlements began to be bandied about. By January 2013, a virtual panic was set off when it was announced that various services and entitlements would not be accessible to persons who did not have a UID number.
Mr Nilekani has said time and again that half the population is expected to be enrolled by the end of 2014; yet, there have been warnings that people without a UID number may find themselves unable to access benefits and subsidies if they did not have it, if a bank account had not been opened, and if the UID number were not embedded in the bank account. So, subsidy for cooking gas, kerosene, and scholarships, for instance, became dependent on having a bank account seeded with the UID, or aadhaar, number. In case anyone wonders what the UIDAI has to do with these decisions, it is the chairperson of the UIDAI, Mr Nilekani, who chaired the committees that recommended these changes. The reports are in the public domain.
From its inception, the UID project has been about creating the ‘database resident’. The website of the Department of Information Technology, which has been renamed as Department of Electronics and Information Technology, modestly carrying the acronym DeitY, has said all along that "Project UID, a Planning Commission initiative, proposes to create a central database of residents, initially of those above the age of 18 years". Except, that the UIDAI got more ambitious and wanted everyone, from the newborn to the oldest resident, on its database. And it was always intended to converge various databases to construct a profile of the individual, and to this effect the website of DeitY says that "the project envisages provision of linking of existing databases, as well as providing for future additions, by the user agencies". The MoUs between the UIDAI and various registrars that include the state governments, oil companies, banks and the Registrar-General of India, who is in charge of census and the National Population Register and socio-economic and caste census, not only provide for various additional fields of data being collected during enrolment, but also for having the UID number appended to each such database.
As for biometrics, documents reveal that when the decision was made to use fingerprints and iris for enrolment, there was no knowledge about whether these biometrics would work in India, given the demographic and environmental conditions. In fact, it has since been found that with age the fingerprint fades, that manual labour makes the fingerprint difficult to read, that malnourishment-induced cataract blights an estimated 8-10 million people, and so on. In fact, as recently as 23 April 2013, Mr Nilekani said in his speech at the Centre for Global Development in Washington: "We came to the conclusion that if we take sufficient data, biometric data of an individual, then that person’s biometric will be unique across a billion people. Now we have to find that out. We haven’t done it yet. So we’ll discover it as we go along." First, the conclusion. Then they will wait to find out! That is why some observers of the project have been saying that it is an experiment being conducted on the entire population. The consequences of failure have not been discussed, although, in a talk at the World Bank in Washington on 24 April 2013, Mr Nilekani said in response to a question about what he thought was the greatest downside risk to the UID: "To answer the question about what is the biggest risk," he said "in some sense, you run the risk of creating a single point of failure also."
There is more to cause concern, and much to be answered about UID.
(The writer is an academic activist. She has researched the UID and its ramifications since 2009.)
The UID project is proceeding without the cover of law. There is only the notification of January 2009 which says the UIDAI "owns" the database, but which says nothing about how it may be used, or what will happen if it fails or if there is identity fraud, or some outside agency gains access to the database. A Bill was introduced in Parliament in December 2010, after the project had been launched and data collection had begun. The Bill collapsed in December 2011 when the Parliamentary Standing Committee found it severely defective, and after it found that the Bill and the project needed to be sent back to the drawing board. There is no sign yet of a Bill, and any protection that the law may offer is non-existent. There is no law to protect privacy either.