When I met Nandan Nilekani six months or so after he took over as chief of UIDAI, his question to me was that with him joining the government, what has changed? I said, the general public has a lot of expectations from him – from poverty alleviation to education, he seems to be holding answers to all problems that have plagued India since independence. And my biggest challenge? he asked. Delivering on those expectations was my answer.
Two years down the line, this has turned true. Aadhaar is today expected and ‘loosely’ positioned to be the sole panacea that will transform governance, make Bharat part of the growth process, plug leakages and slippages into welfare schemes and bring about prosperity all around. What is essentially an identity number has been over-romanticized 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. While Nandan’s contention is that he has not promised any such thing, the fact is that he has also never denied the frenzied media reports on UID as a fix-all solution. There seems to be a demand generating industry at work for UID and the UID-enabled.
It is feared that UID is attempting to impose technology to foster centralisation rather than promote de-centralisation and coming up with magical remedies in technology for problems that perhaps have solutions only in governance reform and institutional regeneration. Sometimes, technology can even be used as a quick bypass to constitutional provisions. Panchayati Raj Institutions being deprived of their right to ‘identify’ its people as the main UID registrars is a case in point. Focus is instead on ‘identifying the already identified’ who open bank accounts or have ration cards or even PAN cards. Arguments for conditional fund transfers instead of unconditional fund transfers and technology duplication efforts like the Aadhaar enabled RuPay card to do exactly what all cards do anyway are some of the cases in point.
The Planning Commission has started the consultations for 12th Plan and has formed several committees consisting of experts. One such committee on formulating the department of IT plan has over 60 members and no visible representation from civil society or consumer groups – coherence of discussions notwithstanding. Yet more sub-groups are being formed ministry-wise to look at their need for ICT rather than having an overall perspective on an underlay of ICT for the 12th Plan that can result in a virtual silo-busting within the government schemes and can actually make this plan different from the earlier ones and hopefully ranking it higher on delivery and inclusive growth.
There is also little clarity as to how the government will integrate the UID with the National Population Register (NPR). Considering the multifarious agencies and the issues involved in the work of capturing biometrics and digitising the demographic information it certainly is a gigantic task. Is does not seem to have happened at least in Tembhli where the information captured by private enrolment agency for the card is not quite at par with the details earlier collected by the census enumerators.
To end on a lighter note, a close associate of mine who hails from Kumaon hills was recently given an Aadhaar card. His biometrics, photo and other details were captured at the time of application. The person who delivered the card demanded a photo identity to match the photo on the Aadhaar card and handed over the card on seeing his PAN card! So much for biometrics.…