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Aadhaar Pied Piper of Technology is the Foundation Weak?

This is a journey that was begun in September last year from the little-known Tembhli village in Nandurbar district in Maharashtra when the first 1,400 Aadhaar numbers were issued. It is a journey that has seen people crossing both sides of the road, trying to determine the right way forward.

Says Nandan Nilekani, the man entrusted with giving the unique 12- digit code to every Indian through the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), “if India is going to achieve both economic prosperity as well as social equality, we not only have to grow but we have to grow along a path where people are not left behind in the process of change. Identity will be an important aspect in achieving this. In India, the purpose of the UID project is very simple; it is to give every Indian resident a unique number, preventing the kind of duplication that currently exists. The complexity of the issue is in making sure that everybody in a population of 1.2 billion gets a unique number, and therein lies the challenge of scale and technology.”

Sounds simple: it is technology and scale that are the issues of concern here. But critics of the project, and there are many, feel that what was initiated as a project to strengthen internal security and check infiltration is fast-becoming a behemoth that could impact individual privacy, citizen rights, infringe on one’s civil liberties, without the requisite safeguards being in place. It is also a project that others say will needlessly raise public expectations even as no correctives are put in place to ensure that the right delivery mechanisms for government services are in place.

Nilekani here is clear that the Aadhaar number or the unique identification number is not the panacea for all evil. The UID project is really for the people who are currently outside the system. For the poor, it is a number that will actually empower them, promoting greater inclusiveness in the process. As the UIDAI website notes: “Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique number which the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) will issue for all residents. The number will be stored in a centralised database and linked to the basic demographics and biometric information—photograph, ten fingerprints and iris—of each individual. By providing a clear proof of identity, Aadhaar will empower poor and underprivileged residents in accessing services such as the formal banking system and give them the opportunity to easily avail various other services provided by the Government and the private sector.”

And it is not only in government services that the Aadhaar card has its use. In fact, when the concept of a multipurpose national identity card was first mooted by the then Deputy Prime Minister and Union Home Minister L K Advani, the aim was solely to bolster internal security and check infiltration. As UIDAI Director-General Ram Sewak Sharma said in an interview to Inclusion within months of taking over: “Every agency working as registrar can collect additional data. Also, for leveraging the power of the UID, various agencies will have to embed the number into their databases. This will enable crosslinkages across systems and processes.” Thus, as many as 21 sets of databases under the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) are proposed to be networked for seamless access to information. And the Aadhaar card has an important role to play in this context. On its part, the government has sought to do away with some duplicity in the national identification process by linking the Aadhaar card with the National Population Register.

In the process, however, it has invited further criticism. While the latter is covered under the Citizenship Act 1955, which has its own provisions for confidentiality, the information generated while issuing an Aadhaar card has also no such cover. Says Usha Ramanathan, an independent law researcher, this will allow the government not just to make the information collected under NPR available to the UID Authority for generation of a unique number but also to the intelligence and investigative groups to be aligned under the NATGRID.

It is precisely that the ambiguity that surrounds the use of the Aadhaar number gets amplified. Thus, most people are not sure whether the UID number is mandatory or not. Furthermore, few realise that it is a process that is not restricted to Indian citizens only and is meant for all residents, irrespective of their citizenship. An Aadhaar card does not establish citizenship of India, it is only meant for identification. Again, the UIDAI is seeking to collect only biometric and demographic information about an individual and not any information on caste, religion or language. Clearly Nilekani’s team is keen not to be seen as coercive in driving Aadhaar. It is another matter, point out his critics, that the UID is already being designed in a manner that adoption becomes virtually compulsory. The Planning Commission has issued a written diktat, which makes Aadhaar compulsory for several government projects, MGNREGS included. So even when the Authority stresses that enrolment will not be mandated, it goes on to add, “this will not, however, preclude governments or registrars from mandating enrolment.”

So what is that makes the UID identification different form the other forms of identification like birth certificates, driving licences, voter cards and ration cards that are already in place. Points out Nilekani, the Aadhaar card has several important ramifications, the effects of which will be far-reaching. The first is that an Aadhaar card will give a person a recognised identity. For people already having driver licences, passports, bank accounts, credit cards and PAN cards, this probably means little. But there are a few hundred million people who face a lot of challenges in proving their identity. They don’t have birth certificates, school certificates or even residence proof as they are homeless. This failure to prove one’s identity denies many facilities to our citizens. And, Aadhaar seeks to correct this denial. It also seeks to correct the last mile denial of basic services to needy citizens as they do not have the necessary identification proof.

“Today, if one wants to get a mobile phone, then one has to go through what is called as the KYC (know your customer) process. Here, the mobile company actually checks and verifies an applicant’s identity. But for people who have no such documentary proof, it is very difficult to get a mobile phone. Similarly, if somebody goes to a bank to open an account, he is unable to open an account because he has to again go through the KYC process. This absence of an effective identity infrastructure has also been sharply felt by both government and service providers.”

As the UIDAI website notes, “By providing a clear proof of identity, Aadhaar will empower poor and underprivileged residents in accessing services such as the formal banking system and give them the opportunity to easily avail various other services provided by the Government and the private sector. The centralised technology infrastructure of the UIDAI will enable ‘anytime, anywhere, anyhow’ authentication….”

But is Aadhaar, meaning support, foundation or sustenance, the magic wand that the poor need? Is it the perfect social security scheme that it is being touted to be? If one looks at the UIDAI working paper – Envisioning a role for Aadhaar in the Public Distribution System – duplication of identity is the major malaise besetting the country’s public distribution system. While this may be true to a large extent, critics point out that this is also because of the definitions that different governments adopt to differentiate the people entitled to such services. In fact, the interpretation of below poverty line (BPL) and above poverty line (APL) families varies between different villages, different officials and different standards. The Planning Commission estimated the BPL number to be 27.5 per cent of India’s population in 2004– 2005. This estimate was revised up by two official committees appointed by the government—Tendulkar committee (37 per cent) and the N C Saxena committee (50 per cent). Other multidimensional poverty indices have pointed out that there are more poor in India than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. The National Family Health Surveys (NFHS) paint an extremely bleak picture of the health of women and children in India. All these data are strongly indicative of the depth of poverty and underline the futility of drawing a sharp boundary to define poverty in India. Today, what is essentially an identity number is being over-romanticised as an ‘enabler’ to put India on a fast-track growth path by virtue of becoming a pivot around which all anti-poverty measures will rotate and also deliver, say its critics.

Opponents of the UID initiative also point to the lack of any constitutional or legal acceptance of the initiative. Since the statutory backing for the Aadhaar cards in the form of legislation is yet to see the light of the day, the project handlers have given a go-by to their constitutional obligations. In fact, the National Identification Authority of India Bill, which was introduced in Parliament only in December, is yet to be enacted as a statute. Till such time that happens, the UIDAI and the entire eco-system that it is seeking to create appears to be unconstitutional or extra-constitutional, they add. As social activists Jean Dreze and Aruna Roy voiced concerns over the Rural Development Ministry’s decision to link UID to job cards in a letter addressed to the then Rural Development Minister C P Joshi. “It would be particularly dangerous and inappropriate to proceed with any linking before the legislative framework of the UID project has been worked out. We suggest that decisions related to the linking of UID with MGNREGS are put on hold in the meantime,” they said in the letter.

Ramanathan explains that even though the UID produces a number, which is poised to be a ubiquitous tag, “its capacity to link disparate pieces of information is difficult to dispute”. She is referring to various pieces of information that an individual hands over to a range of agencies. Even though these are currently in different ‘silos’, she says, the UID might just facilitate bridging those stacks of personal information, exposing the profile of an individual to any kind of intrusion and data mining for marketers.

These critics also point out that it was because of concerns over privacy that several developed countries had shelved similar projects and it was only in the developing world where such projects are being pushed through. Consider the case of the British government. Its proposal to go in for biometric identity created such an uproar whose results were clearly visible when the ruling party went to the hustings. The first decision of its opponents – the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – took after assuming power was to announce a timeframe for scrapping of the identity project. Ireland, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia too have stayed off biometric identity projects. So have China and Japan. Even Turkey, which has assigned Turkish Republic identity numbers to its citizens, does not use personal information.

The biggest criticism by far has been the caveat that we haven’t imbibed anything from the learning curve of other countries such as Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia and UK, which have jettisoned implementing biometric national identity programmes. Gopal Krishna of the Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties, a strong anti-UID votary, points out that around the same time when UIDAI Bill was being introduced in Parliament, the British Parliament was scrapping it “because the democratic mandate of UK citizens and all the democracies was against such an invasive project.” But this was not the only reason that the UK government opted against the project. Quoting a London School of Economics survey of the UK project, Karan Thapar told Nilkanai on his TV programme, “the technology envisioned for this scheme is to a large extent untested and unreliable. No scheme on this scale has been undertaken anywhere in the world. Smaller and less ambitious systems have encountered substantial technological and operational problems that are likely to be amplified in a large scale national system. ” Now, if that is true of Britain it has to be true of India also?

The Aadhaar identity is a critical component of inclusive growth. It will be the door that will open other doors like banking, mobile connectivity and targeted public spending like job, food and shelter

Citing from the London School of Economics report, Reetika Khera of the Centre for Development Economics explains that the Indian UID has all the broad elements of the UK identity bill because of which the latter was opposed unequivocally and eventually dropped. Both are essentially national security projects in character, both make unfounded claims about identity fraud or lack of identity defeating the objective of financial inclusion, and both have raised legal concerns, contends Khera. The point to be noted is that UK has much less linguistic, cultural and religious complexities to reckon with; surely the task is going to be that much more difficult in India with a population that has more socioeconomic variations than anybody else and a population that surpasses that of UK by a multiple of 15.

Conceding that scale and technology were major challenges, Nilekani, however, is clear that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. “Issuing a unique number is just one part of the challenge. The other part of it is making sure that this number is used effectively. The combination of de-duplication and having unique numbers on the one end and the existence of online authentication at the other is the core of the solution that the UIDAI is seeking to achieve. “India is not the first country to link identity with biometrics on a national scale. Many countries around the world are using biometrics as basis for identification of citizens. Brazilian citizens have had user ID cards since the beginning of the 20th century. The decision by the Brazilian government to adopt fingerprint-based biometrics was spearheaded by Felix Pacheco at Rio de Janeiro, at that time the capital of the Federative Republic. Pacheco was a friend of Juan Vucetich , who invented one of the most complete ten-print classification systems in existence. The Vucetich system was adopted not only in Brazil, but also by most of the other South American countries,” he adds.

“For a population of over one billion, uniqueness of the biometric data is important. It is only then a unique number can be allocated to each resident. The project would be collecting the biometrics of all 10 fingers, face, as well as the iris image of both eyes. Fingerprint biometrics is being collected to ensure easy biometric authentication – the individual would just have to put their thumb on the biometric reader. Iris is being collected as an additional biometric because it can ensure inclusion of the poor – whose fingerprints often get worn out due to physical labour – and to ensure inclusion of children, whose iris images stabilize even as infants, even though their finger biometrics become stable only at the age of 16. Capturing the iris image also helps ensure the uniqueness of the number, since collecting multiple biometrics lowers the chances of errors,“ avers Nilekani.

“It’s a question of learning from parallel experience,” says Vinayshil Gautam, IIT-Delhi. “Experience has shown that most rural branches have only one person who does everything. As a result, opening of a bank account has largely remained a task in literacy,” he adds. Information & Technology Minister Kapil Sibal confirms the failure of financial inclusion programme. “Only 9 per cent of rural India has access to banking. The national average is 14 per cent,” he said while addressing a roundtable on June 14 in New Delhi. What needs to be done is to draw a lesson from this if financial inclusion has to become meaningful with UID. For this, products have to be devised which are specific to the rural context.

Adds Nilekani, you need the infrastructure at the bottom to make inclusion happen. “The efficiency of our social programmes depends on the fact that they reach the right people and that there are no duplicates who are taking away the benefits which are meant for the poor. We need to make them more efficient and this is where the Aadhaar card can play a critical role. The Aadhaar identity is a critical component of inclusive growth. It will be the door that will open other doors like banking, mobile connectivity and targeted public spending like job, food and shelter. Going forward, it may be connected to provident fund, markets and even to check money laundering. There have been proposals of linking Aadhaar numbers with the health profile of individuals.”

As the UID notes in its paper on public health, “every citizen must have a strong incentive or a ‘killer application’ to go and get himself a UID, which one can think of as a demand side pull…. Helping various ministries visualise key applications that leverage existing government entitlement schemes such as the MGNREGS and PDS will get their buy-in into the project; help them roll out mechanisms that generate the demand pull; and can form a flexible and future-proof design for the UID database. It will also build excitement and material support from the ministries for the UID project even as it gets off the ground. Health and healthrelated development schemes could offer a killer application for the UID. After years of neglect, public health in India is seeing a revolution both in terms of greater commitment towards government financing of public and primary healthcare; pressure to meet the MDG goals and consequent creation of large supply platforms at national levels such as the NRHM, RSBY and complementary state level initiatives such as the Rajiv Arogyasri Insurance Scheme in Andhra Pradesh. The UID can further help catalyse a revolution in India’s health outcomes.”

While the 73rd Constitutional Amendment assigns the important role of planning and facilitation to PRIs in developmental works, why has the UIDAI not made them parties to the registration process

The most serious accusation against the UIDAI, however, is that not only has it completely sidelined Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) in registration of individuals but also seeks to promote greater centralisation through the proposed cash transfers to BPL families in place of subsidies. While the 73rd Constitutional Amendment assigns the important role of planning and facilitation to PRIs in developmental works, why has the UIDAI not made them parties to the registration process. Though on paper the 28,18, 290 elected representatives of Panchayats at all three levels in 23 states and 6 Union Territories of which 10,39,058 are women, are supposed to generate awareness about inclusion, act as influencers, be introducers for people without documents and enrollers too, the UIDAI appears to have given them the go-by. Instead, the UIDAI has tied up with various government agencies such as state governments, state-owned banks and Life Insurance Corp to function as registrars.

But, it is true that for an ID project of this magnitude and import, there will be many issues and concerns and different stakeholder perception. There is also the question about whether this a project about technology or about identity or both? As Vinayshil Gautam says: “it is being seen as a technical project, when in fact, it pertains more to management.” It is essentially a task in governance and the person at the helm must be conversant with social dynamics of a demographic country like India.”

Privacy Issues Dog Aadhaar

That biometric-based aadhar runs into issues of privacy and civil liberties has for long been debated in public domain with people for and against it slugging out in media, discussion forums and on social networks. Even some parts of the establishment were not greatly enthused by the identity scheme and the security paraphernalia (NATGRID, DNA profiling, National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) and CCTNS), which was to be tagged with it and whispered against its pitfalls in off-therecord briefings. But somehow the government failed to take note of it.

In fact the government itself seemed to be pulling in opposite directions with UIDAI honchos going full steam on unique identity even as Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily promised to introduce an elaborate right to privacy bill in the Parliament covering issues like confidentiality of communication, family life, banking, financial, legal and medical information, protection of individual honour and name, protection from search, detention and surveillance.

But the government has now decided to have dialogue with the dissenting voices. The Planning Commission, which has UIDAI under its jurisdiction, is all set to meet experts, civil society representatives and government officials to hear their views on the project.

“The review is extremely important and necessary as these initiatives are based on usage of ICT platform,” says Minister for Planning Ashwini Kumar. When asked about right to privacy, which is supposed to be implicit in Article 21 – right to life and personal liberty -, Kumar, who is in charge of IT in the plan panel, takes a rather aggressive stand stating, “This right, which has been given privacy under constitutional schemes, is nonnegotiable. i

Kumar does not seem to be the only one who feels strongly about the civil liberties. A few ministers had expressed similar reservations against NATGRID during a meeting of Cabinet Committee on Security in February last year. Though the CCS has since cleared NATGRID, many people within the government and Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) primarily have issues with Aadhar’s tagging with security applications like NATGRID.

Even before the first 1400 Aadhar numbers were issued in Tembhli village in Nandurbar district in Maharashtra in September last year, about 100-odd NGOs in a petition to the Prime Minister, UPA chairperson and heads of government demanded scrapping of the project with immediate effect. Development economist Jean Dreze has opposed the project on grounds of civil liberties, famously remarking that it is a national security project now being dressed as a social policy initiativeii.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen too has underlined that it raises questions of personal liberty. The NAC (National Advisory Council) has made representation to the Rural Development Minister objecting to the decision to link the UID project to the MGNREGS. Usha Ramanathan, a legal expert, wrote in a newspaper last yeariii “The Constitution is expected to provide the citizen with dignity and privacy; but these are missing in the UID project. With so many questions on the project regarding biometrics, security and privacy yet to be answered, it is far from time for parliamentary approval, she argues.

The tracking and surveillance of individual through biometrics, the activists feel, would help the government bring into net tax evaders, unearth black money, benami holdings of agricultural land and real estate and reveal benami transactions in stocks and commodity exchange. Moreover, it would breach privacy and keep private history (at times embarrassing) of an individual with the government.

“So if a person is dyslexic some time in life, is a troubled adolescent, has taken psychiatric help at some stage in life, was married but is now divorced and wants to leave that behind in the past, was insolvent till luck and hard work produced different results, donated to a cause that is to be kept private — all of this is an open book, forever, to the agency that has access to the data base…. For the poor, who often live on the margins of life and legality, it could provide the badge of potential criminality in a polity where ostensible poverty has been considered a sign of dangerousness.iv” Says Ramanathan.

  • i Report in The Times of India, 20th June 2011
  • ii Report in Business Standard on 4th September, 2010
  • iii Economic & Political Weekly, 14th October 14, 2010
  • iv The Hindu, April 4, 2010

Sir James Crosby’s Case for UID

Crosby’s 50-page plus document titled ‘Challenges and Opportunities in Identity Assurance’, meant to comment on the then proposed national security project in UK, touches upon almost every other domain the UID is directly or indirectly expected to impact on

Minus the name of the author and the country, Sir James Crosby’s report on United Kingdom’s nowscrapped Universal Identity Assurance System reads like a treatise on Unique Identity system hitherto rechristened Aadhaar.

Released in March 2008, the report was supposed to pave the way for national identity system in Britain. But it ended up queering the pitch for then Labour government as its opponents – the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives – highlighted how the report had argued against keeping full biometric images in the ID cards and advocated protection of all data and systems through state-of-the-art encryption. At the same time they focused on obtrusive and anti-privacy nature of the project. The ID project contributed to the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats ascent into power and the first thing they did after assuming power last year was to announce a timeline for its nullification calling it ‘intrusive, bullying, ineffective, un- British’ and one that represented ‘worst of the government’.

Ironically, the Crosby document often quoted in our media to indict UID on one or the other score seems to build a strong case for what it calls ‘ID assurance’ a consumer-led concept, a process that meets an important consumer need without necessarily providing any spin-off benefits to the owner of any database. It claimed that due to haphazard proliferation of ID assurance systems and growth of silos, local authorities and welfare departments need a universal identity assurance.

The report felt that the universal identity would not only help individuals to assert their identity with ease and confidence without delay but also make optimum use of public services, banking transportation, e-commerce and other welfare schemes. It would cut down government cost, build up trust among different departments and enable ‘joined up government’. At the same time, it would allow public and private sectors in enforcing their policy objectives. Moreover, it would improve efficiency for business and ensure that suspect individuals leave trails of transactions that are ultimately traceable back to unique identity records for the purposes of national security.

Inclusion brings you the do’s (positives) and don’ts (pitfalls), the six chapters in the Crosby report prescribe for the identity project:


  • All elements of the scheme should be designed with the customers’ interests at the core.
  • Once enrolled in the scheme, a customer may wish to enable “joined-up” government services and government should, using robust solutions to protect this data, give customers the option to do so.
  • The scheme should be operated independently of government (for example, accountable directly to Parliament) and its processes and security arrangements should be subject to the approval of the Information Commissioner, who should have the power periodically to review delivery.
  • To protect consumer privacy and engender trust, the amount of data stored should be minimised. Only non-unique digital representations of biometric images should be stored.
  • Citizens should own their entry on any register in the sense that it should not be possible for any such data (including digital representations of biometrics) to be shared without their informed consent.
  • Verification of identity should be performed without the release of data.
  • The system, from enrolment to point of use, needs to be simple, convenient, and cost effective for the consumer.
  • Enrolment processes should vary between individuals and over time so as to minimise costs, strengthen the focus on high-risk customers, and give citizens the simplest and most hassle-free experience consistent with the achievement of the published assurance targets.
  • Fast roll out is important in order to be able to respond to consumer demand and achieve early realisation of economic and social benefits.
  • Private and public sector organisations are unlikely to depend on the system until a critical mass of customers have registered, and so the benefits of a universal ID scheme largely come once it is widely adopted.
  • No technology provides total assurance nor is any one technology totally future proof, but a modular roll out will capture the benefits of technology change and allow the system to be kept up to date.
  • The scheme’s systems should be closely aligned to those of the banks.
  • Citizens should be able to rely on their cards being replaced and their identity being repaired quickly and efficiently.
  • Enrolment and any tokens will have to be provided free of charge.
  • The market should provide a key role in delivering a universal ID assurance.
  • Technology-neutral standards should be adopted.


  • In countries where there has been a lack of consultation (Finland), good technical solutions have remained under-used due to a lack of public unity. In spite of the many services on offer, the Finnish card has failed to attract customers and many organizations are taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude about adopting the ID card authentication standard.
  • Malaysian card (MyKad) have had little take up. Of ten million drivers, only 1.3 million have added their driving license information to their MyKad. The police don’t carry MyKad readers and still insist on drivers producing conventional driving licenses.
  • Biometric data is not impregnable; fingerprints can be replicated from prints left on certain surfaces.
  • Biometric technologies do not work precisely 100 per cent of the time and biometric characteristics will adjust due to age and environmental changes.
  • While some ID cards schemes deliver a high level of assurance, relatively few have any links into core banking systems and taken together they embrace a wide variety of processes and technologies with no near term likelihood of any common standards being established.
  • The Government should avoid picking a technology and building a strategy to match.
  • ID assurance is not ID management, in which an organisation keeps a close track of people and their movement. While ID management is designed to benefit the holder of the information, ID assurance is focused on bringing benefits to the consumer.
  • Biometrics is not the silver bullet and cannot be a substitute for biographical data.
  • If citizens don’t use a system regularly, it will be capable of providing very limited data for national security agencies. Thus, even the achievement of security objectives relies on consumers’ active participation.
  • (Though) the market forces are presenting citizens and consumers with an ever increasing array of ID systems of unknown quality, market place is not about to deliver the best outcome for consumers.
  • Full biometric images (other than photographs) should not be kept. Only non-opaque digital representations of biometric images should be stored. Additional data accessed during enrolment and records of verification enquiries should not be retained.

Shadow Boxing

An otherwise docile IT industry took to media to voice its concerns over award of technology tenders, which patiently gave it a hearing

It’s a little ironical that the project which, is being hailed as one that will transform governance and root out corruption should itself be embroiled in controversy. Charges of irregularities in the tendering process in the world’s only biometric national ID project have been making news intermittently.

Just last month in May, two of the technology biggies—HP and IBM – made it known that they were pulling out of the Rs 20 billion outsourcing contract to manage the world’s biggest citizen identity database, Economic Times reported. Quoting an official of one of the tech majors, which walked out of the project, the same report said, “Things had become pretty hostile between us and the authority over the weeks.” Another top-level official was reported as saying that it had got pretty bad after they had complained.

Both HP and IBM had in April alleged that they were unfairly disqualified in the Rs 2 billion storage solutions contract – billed as a precursor to the MSP contract, the largest of all the UIDAI project – which was eventually bagged by Wipro Technologies. Both the US tech majors had complained of the Authority being biased towards products of certain vendors (EMC and Cisco). In a letter addressed to UID Chairman Nandan Nilekani, ET’s earlier report said, HP complained that the Authority mandates only one OEM solution and all shortlisted bidders have to necessarily quote that only.

“While it is an extremely risky and unfair proposition for a government project to be solely dependant on one OEM technology only, it also deprives the government from getting competitive rates,” HP is believed to have represented.

It may be easy to dismiss the ‘technology scam’ charges made by ‘disgruntled’ bidders as being slanted, but what is significant is that the authority postponed the bidding soon after the accusations were leveled, and made changes to the tender specifications. A quick recap of the chronology of events is in order here to explain the ‘what’ and ‘whys’:

  • 3/12/2010: original pre-bid conference for supply, installation and commissioning of servers, storage and security systems postponed due to a large number of (over 1,300!) queries raised.
  • 11/12/2010: At the rescheduled pre-bid conference UIDAI gives an assurance that specifications would be made open and generic and proprietary protocols would be done away with.
  • 4/1/2011: first corrigendum – in all there were seven of these – mandates drastic changes in the storage specifications, resulting in only EMC qualifying. However those for networking remain unchanged making only Cisco eligible.
  • 15/3/2011: UIDAI opens commercial bids for the project and Wipro emerges as the lowest bidder for providing solutions to data centres in New Delhi and Bangalore.
  • March last week: HP, IBM raised concerns over their technical disqualification in storage solutions contract.
  • 8/4/2011: UIDAI puts off bids for the managed-service provider contract by a month.
  • 16/5/2011: New deadline for submission of proposals. HP and IBM opt out; remaining five – Accenture, Wipro, TCS, HCL Infosystems and Mahindra Satyam – submit bids.

There is more. That as many as seven corrigenda were released to the storage solutions contract, say the detractors, points to the lack of technical knowledge of the designated officials. The Central Vigilance Commission, in consequence, came out with a circular on 11th February this year mandating an EOI-based tendering procedure for procurement of complex / technical solutions, wherein more than one iteration is required in the original tender document.

It may be easy to dismiss the ‘technology scam’ charges made by ‘disgruntled’ bidders as being slanted, but what is significant is that the authority postponed the bidding soon after the accusations were leveled, and made changes to the tender specifications

The CVC circular also goes so far as to suggest: “Care should be taken to make the specifications generic in nature so as to provide equitable opportunities to the prospective bidders.” It might well be directed at the allegation of bias in favour of technical solutions of EMC and Cisco.

However Nilekani has countered the allegation in an exclusive interview with ‘Inclusion’: “A huge amount of energy and time has been spent in creating an open technology platform which is adaptable to changes as technology develops.” Skeptics however are quick to point out that unlike MCA 21 project, which followed much the same methodology but kept the technology issue open, why is UIDAI insisting on a specific technology? It has also been alleged that the Authority was looking for solutions that were not just expensive but were in fact also something that were not needed right away.

Charges have flown in the past too. Last year, the Authority had shortlisted three consortia led by Accenture, Mahindra Satyam- Morpho and L1 to implement the core biometric identification system for the UID project. The mandate for the three vendors was to design, install and support a new system that will run a new applicant against every single entry in the existing biometric database to check for duplication. A source explains how the tendering hygiene had been sullied by the fact that two of the bidders – Morpho and L1 – have in fact now merged and become one entity even though the two were awarded the project separately.

Morpho, which is part of the French conglomerate Safran in the aerospace and defence space – officially announced last September that it had taken over L1 in an all-cash deal, becoming the industry’s most powerful player. The acquisition meant that in one fell swoop, L1’s high-tech security systems specializing in fingerprint iris, and face recognition for identifying individuals came Morpho’s way. Interestingly, the UID project got awarded in June last even as speculation was rife of L1’s impending buyout by Morpho.

In fact, a PIL challenging the entire tender process for Aadhaar was filed in a High Court division bench. However, the Authority dismissed it in January this year when the court considered the technical report submitted. To be fair, this is bound to happen in due course of anything with a “transformative” import. But had matters been laid threadbare in public domain, a lot of needless faultfinding could have been avoided.

Cost-effectiveness is one major issue in the ‘rigmarole’ that has got almost everyone’s goat. The cost of one Aadhaar enrollment roughly works out to Rs 100 – Rs 50 to enroll each individual and another Rs 50 for the back-end expense. The entire cost of the project has never been shared by the Authority and if the figure quoted in a newsmagazine is correct, then the UID project is committed to spending billions of rupees. That’s without doubt a humongous number and we are still not sure of the total cost of ownership – establishing the infrastructure, its maintenance, cost for enrollment of residents, training and awareness campaigns and the cost involved in having to regularly update the central database. Apparently, one of the main reasons for the UK’s national ID project to be abandoned was its cost.

Is there really no more cost-effective means of transforming governance in the country? That’s a question worth billions of rupees being poured into Aadhaar. Knocking off some of that profligacy may be the entire base that’s really needed.

NPR & UIDAI: Shall the Twain Meet?

When Multipurpose National Identity Card (MNIC) was first conceived in 2002 by Atal Behari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) its sole raison d’être was to check illegal migration and thus bolster national security. A Group of Ministers (GoM), which proposed the introduction of MNIC, had then said, “Illegal migration has assumed serious proportions. There should be compulsory registration of citizens and noncitizens living in India. This will facilitate preparation of a national register of citizens. All citizens should be given a Multi-purpose National Identity Card (MNIC) and non-Multi-purpose National Identity Card and non-citizens should be issued identity cards of a different colour and design. This should be issued initially in the border districts or may be in a 20 kms border belt and extended to the hinterland progressively.”

Apparently, the project drew a clear distinction between citizens and non-citizens and was to ‘function as deterrent for future illegal immigration’. Initially the card was supposed to be a simple ‘Photo Identity Card’ with no dimension of unique number attached to it. To be distributed to all the citizens of coastal regions in the states, the MNIC was to lead to a ‘National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC)’.


It was the UPA government which first time thought of broadening the sphere of MNIC to other parts of the country, shifting its focus from citizen to resident and NRIC to National Population Register (NPR). Therefore, while NPR became a superset instead of the MNIC, the UID became the subset.

“Whosoever is living in this country, whosoever is the usual resident of this country, his demographic profile and his identity attributes will be captured,” say senior government officials in DIT reiterating that the mandate of the NPR ‘is not to identify who is a citizen’.

In 2010 when Registrar General of India (RGI) was to launch census, the government asked him to also collect demographic profile of the adult residents along with their headcount. The demographic profile since collected in two-phased census will soon be digitised and become the core of the Population Register.

DIT officials expected the various registrars appointed by Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), Public Sector Units and Department of Information & Technology (DIT) to capture biometrics of the residents on the basis of digitised NPR information for seamless integration of the UID with the NPR.

Duplication before De-duplication

But it seems for now the private registrars, appointed by the UID, have no access to the digitised NPR information and will collect the information afresh for the UID cards. A recent visit by Inclusion to Sahada, a tehsil in Nandurbar, whose residents became the first recipients of the UID cards in the country in September last year, found it happening there.

The UID registrar in Sahada, Tera Software Limited, is collecting information again to tag with the biometrics. And this information hardly matches with the details collected by the census enumerators.

While the focus of the census was to capture demographic profile – name, address, marital status, educational qualification, occupation etc, the UID enrolment form in Maharashtra seeks the resident to fill up voter card number, PAN number, LPG connection number, trade license number and sundry other details. The state even expects the residents to submit copies of the voter card.

“Only some features of the UID and the NPR are identical. We have not even sent (digitised) population data to the centre so far. But data of 14,000 persons have already been sent to the UID for issuance of the unique number,” says Pramod B Bhamre, Tehsildar of Sahada Tehasil in Nundurbar District.

The DIT claims to have set up about 94 thousand Common Service Centres (CSCs) in villages (one each for six villages) for the purpose of recording of biometrics. But Inclusion found no CSC in the three villages Tembhli, Asus and Lonkheda, it visited in the first week of June this year.

Although the DIT officials hope that the distribution of unique number and preparation of national population register will lead to issuance of national identity cards to the usual residents and expect the process to go back and forth between the NPR and the UID till the national identity cards are issued to the residents, we found no evidence of it on the ground at least in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra.

Though the UIDAI and the NPR claims not to discriminate between citizens and non-citizens and, the interaction of the two only would enable the government to separate the non-citizens on the basis of the demographic profile the enumerator has prepared. The demographic profile, after all, not only includes questions on name, father’s name, mother’s name, and date of birth but also place of birth.

The avowed objective of the UIDAI and the NPR is to ensure that benefit of welfare schemes launched by the central and state governments reach the targeted group and there is a check on leakages and slippages. “The government is spending huge amount of money for the welfare scheme but many a times the benefit of these schemes may not be accruing to the targeted group and may be lot of people who are not eligible to get that subsidy, or to get those benefits are getting or cornering these benefits. So we thought it will be a good idea to create this kind of a database so that each and every person can be tracked for the purposes of equitable growth,” officials associated with the scheme claim.

What distinguishes the NPR from the UIDAI is that under the former the residents are under obligation to give information sought by the enumerators for demographic profiling. The UID number on the other hand, at least for official records, is voluntary.

Too many cooks…

Interestingly while the DIT has the responsibility of manning the CSCs (provide computers, broadband connectivity and technical manpower to the Centres) and will report to Registrar General of India (RGI), for UIDAI, the RGI will only be one of its many registrars. While RGI will be responsible for the NPR, the UIDAI will have biometrics in its custody. Moreover, due to the degree of sensitivity attached with security of the Nation, the biometrics in coastal areas will be captured through central PSUs.

It is not clear as to whether and how the different registrars of the UIDAI will talk to each other and the RGI. What is clear is that it will not be an easy task for the government to achieve symmetry between the data collected by the UIDAI registrars and the NPR.

Government officials say the unique number and the NPR are expected to make things simpler for residents as they will not need to identify themselves again and again. According to them, the unique number will make sure that a resident need not surrender his ration card and get a new one when he shifts his residence. Gujarat government, which recently decided to issue its own UID numbers, is already saying that once it puts barcodes in all ration cards in the state then the cardholder will be able to carry his ration card to another location.

Notwithstanding the public pronouncements to the contrary, the NPR carries the risk to marginalise and compromise the privacy issues as the authorised intelligence and investigative agencies can seek information about a particular person from the NPR.

Aadhaar Incentivised

The centre and the states have loosened their purse strings for Aadhaar enrolments distributing cash incentives to their residents as well as employees, who are authorised to enroll, to ensure that the largest identity scheme does not meet the fate of the other not-for-profit inclusion plans in the country

Having realised that not-for-profit nature of financial inclusion schemes was what did not let it take off, the governments have finally decided to incentivize Aadhaar enrolment, the largest identity scheme, they are banking on to tag host of social sector plans with.

This is what is being done in Maharashtra, which has taken lead in issuing Aadhaar cards and has the target of enrolling all its citizens by 31st March 2012. The State has embarked on an innovative schemes to speed up the enrolments.

The state government pays 25 paisa per enrolment to its employees working in the taluka and municipal zones. The incentive would be derived from the Rs 5 per UID number paid to the District Collectors and Municipal Commissioners in the state. The central government has sanctioned Rs 50 per UID number for enrolling the first 200 million residents for the project by March 2012. The incentive of 25 paisa per UID number would effectively be paid out of this amount.

The State passed a Government Resolution (GR) on 11th April 2011 to facilitate the payment. It has also made UID card mandatory for all government employees through another government resolution and is threatening to hold back salaries of employees who do not enroll.

No wonder, Maharashtra figures among the top three when it comes to number of enrolments done since September last year when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi kickstarted the scheme in Tembhli, a tribal hamlet in Sahada tehsil of Nandurbar district. The state which has the distinction of carrying out the exercise simultaneously in all its districts (4,000 centres at 1,100 places) had registered 10 million people till 25th June.

Flip side of the story is that people at several locations in the state have accused government employees of making false promises to boost enrolments. Many people in Tembhli told Inclusion that the state administration promised pucca houses, self-employment, health cover and even free travel in state roadways’ buses to the villagers before the PM air dashed to the place to distribute the Aadhaar cards. Obviously, the poor villagers are feeling short changed. “Unhone bola ghar bandhi deva, paani bhi deva. Par kuchh nahin mila (They promised pucca houses and water). But we’ve not got anything)”, says Jasoda Bansi, a housewife in Tembhli.

Maharashtra, however, is not the only state in the country that has incentivized the Aadhaar enrolments.

Jharkhand and Karnataka governments have also introduced incentives for the scheme albeit with a difference. In their case, the cash incentive is being paid to each member of BPL (Below Poverty Line) households. The idea is to compensate the loss of daily wage the enrollers will suffer due to their visit to the enrolment centre.

Karnataka government will directly transfer Rs 100 into the bank accounts of beneficiaries of social security schemes – pensioners, widows, physically disabled – and those of MGNREGS after they produce relevant documents as proof at the time of enrolment.

“The process of registering BPL residents involves cost for both the beneficiaries and the state government. Since the beneficiaries will be forgoing a part of their daily wage by taking time off work to enroll for Aadhaar we want to incentivise them. Social security pension and job guarantee schemes are among the six services we have shortlisted to be Aadhaar-enabled,” M N Vidyashankar, Principal Secretary

Team Inclusion

INCLUSION is the first and only journal in the country that champions the cause of social, financial and digital inclusion. With a discernable and ever- increasing readership, the quarterly relentlessly pursues the three inclusions through its rich content comprising analysis, reportage, features, interviews, grassroots case studies and columns by domain experts. The magazine caters to top decision makers, academia, civil society, policy makers and industry captains across banking, financial services and insurance.
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