UID In Search of a Panacea

The Aadhaar number gives you robust identification of an individual and a robust method of verifying or authenticating an individual and ensures that he is the right person participating in a particular transaction, says Nandan Nilekani in an exclusive conversation with Sameer Kochhar, Editor-in-Chief of Inclusion

01 July, 2011 Interview, Technology
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Nandan Nilekani

Q: Where are we on UID today?

A: Right now the big thrust is on enrollment. As of now, the UIDAI has generated about 4.5 million numbers. We have an Aadhaar portal where figures on Aadhaar generated are available online. One can also check the status of one’s application online once he/she has enrolled for Aadhaar. Enrollment is taking place in a number of States. Our focus now is on achieving maximum coverage through our multiple partners so that a large number of residents obtain an Aadhaar number. On the application side of it, we are working on two major areas: one is in the area of financial inclusion and second is in the area of telecom inclusion. In both these sectors authentication of identity is a challenge. We are working with various stakeholders and State Governments to look at other applications that they can develop using the Aadhaar authentication service that we will provide. As enrolments into the UID system become more widespread, the applications around the number will increase.

Q: There is also a debate going on that Aadhaar is going to be linked with all the social security schemes whether it is PDS, MGNREGS etc. How is UID going to become a tool to prevent leakages and so on?

A: The Aadhaar number gives you robust identification of an individual and a robust method of verifying or authenticating an individual; he is the right person participating in a particular transaction. Second, the Aadhaar-based financial inclusion provides ability to link a bank account to an Aadhaar number and using the whole micro ATM infrastructure makes payments of money to people more convenient. Further, the Aadhaar-linked mobile phone allows people to have a verified mobile phone for doing self-service transactions. This is a kind of infrastructure service that we provide. Now the value of this in social programs is where social programs involve cash payments like pensions, scholarships, MGNREGS. There you could use this infrastructure to make a payment directly into somebody’s account and they can go and withdraw the money from any business correspondent. It simplifies and makes it convenient for people to get government to person payments. As far as non-cash benefits like PDS are concerned they can be re-designed to use Aadhaar-based authentication at the point of delivery to make sure that people get what they are entitled to get and they can confirm the transaction. This increases accountability and transparency in the system of delivery of benefits. It is the decision of the appropriate authority to utilise the Aadhaar infrastructure for improving the service delivery of benefits.

“The Aadhaar-based financial inclusion provides ability to link a bank account to an Aadhaar number and using the whole micro ATM infrastructure makes payments of money to people more convenient”

Q: But then you know another big problem happens, that Aadhaar is not mandatory so one has to ask for it but when it comes to asking for the benefits there Aadhaar becomes mandatory?

A: The choice of Aadhaar being required for benefits and the timeframe to implement is entirely the decision of the appropriate agency which is giving that benefit. We provide an enabling infrastructure that agencies can use to improve service delivery. The implementation plan as well as timeframes can be decided by the implementing agencies.

Q: What happens in the interim?

A: Both. Today you already have some system so you can have a system where you continue to do what you are doing today and for new beneficiaries you can use Aadhaar and over time you can migrate to an Aadhaar-based system.

Q: Don’t you see Aadhaar becoming mandatory over a period of time?

A: That is a decision taken by the appropriate authority of that program. It is not a decision that UIDAI will take. We provide the infrastructure so any agency that is launching any kind of social programme based on Aadhaar will decide the sequencing and timeframe of bringing Aadhaar into that application in a way that it is not disruptive and in a way that it is not exclusive.

Q: Aadhaar provides for identification. What mechanism is devised for authentication? What is the financial transaction integrity because you are only establishing identity? Like the way ATMs work through a secure network.

Nandan Nilekani

A: Aadhaar is only an authentication mechanism that is inserted into an existing payment infrastructure, which has all the security that any payment system has. The normal way to do a transaction is to go to a bank branch. Today we have basically two types of transactions; card- present and card-not-present. Card-present transactions is when you have some kind of a card like a debit card and you go to an ATM or point of sales swipe that card and withdraw money or whatever you want to do. Card-not-present are transactions over the mobile phone, internet, over IVR all that. Now the move is towards two-factor authentication which means that you must have two factors to authenticate. In the case of a “card-present transaction” you have a card which is a factor which is what you have and one more factor can be a password or a one time PIN or it can be other authentication. In a card-not-present situation both the factors will be either Aadhaar-based or non-Aadhaar based. So Aadhaar only provides authentication that you essentially put into authentication of two factors of any financial transaction. The rest of the financial system is the same.

Q. So basically wherever Aadhaar is being used security has to come as an externality. If MGNREGS for example wants to do then they have to figure out their own security…

A: There is a payment system that has all kinds of security built in a system that is being used by you today. Money is being transacted, withdrawn from the ATMs, being spent on the internet. For all these transactions which involve either card-present or card-not-present two-factor authentication is required. All that is happening now is Aadhaar authentication becomes one or both the factors. Hence it is not a major shift in the security structure.

Q: Going by the media reports one fears that national ID card will make India a police state. The way we are progressing is going to put society under mass surveillance? Basically people are concerned about privacy.

A: The Aadhaar project is a developmental programme under the aegis of the Planning Commission. Its mandate is to provide a proof of identity for better delivery of services and benefits.

“The choice of Aadhaar being required for benefits and the timeframe to implement is entirely the decision of the appropriate agency which is giving that benefit. We provide an enabling infrastructure that agencies can use to improve service delivery”

Q: When we talk about Panchayati Raj Institutions how have you involved them from the inclusive growth perspective to become registrars?

A: Typically Departments of State governments are our Registrars. PRIs have a very critical role in the Aadhaar project. We have a complete handbook for Panchayati Raj and Urban Local Bodies to participate in the UID project. We have an MoU with the Ministry of Panchayati Raj to involve the PRIs in the implementation of the project. In fact they can create a lot of awareness about the project and its benefits among the people.

Q: Basically I will tell you the issue here is that everyone looks at Aadhaar as something that can foster decentralisation and encourage participatory democracy. It basically means that in all the social spending schemes they are now looking at primacy of PRIs. An APL card, BPL card, Pension card all that is actually done by Panchayats so we were hoping that UIDAI would have a little more proactive involvement of PRIs because the states will never do it.

A: The decision as to who gives a particular benefit and also what is the eligibility of that benefit is a decision that Government at an appropriate level has to take. Aadhaar provides an identity infrastructure which can be authenticated.

Q: We are not saying who gets it. We are saying that most of these benefits are actually given to Panchayati Raj. In MGNREGS our work is being done by Panchayati Raj. BPL card, caste card everything is coming from the Panchayats so then thay make the most logical registrars. That should have been targeted specifically.

A: The PRIs have an important role in the UID project. We enter into MoUs with the State Governments to implement the Aadhaar project. The PRIs can be actively engaged by the State Government to implement the project.

Q. How is it going to work?

A: UIDAI engages with the State Government. The State Government decides on the respective Department/agency as the Registrar.

Q: But if you look at the financial sector, you don’t deal with the Ministry of Finance. But you are actually going and talking to banks, you are talking to insurance companies you know you are doing a good evangelist job…

A: We are providing a platform for better delivery of services. It is being done in consultation with all stakeholders. It is the mandate of the UIDAI to, inter-alia, define the usage and applicability of Aadhaar for delivery of various services.

Q: Aadhaar is a tool to empower people and encourage participatory democracy. But it appears to be only a technology?

A: Our mandate is to give every resident of India a unique number. Our mandate is to work with different agencies to give that number to the resident. Our mandate is then to encourage this usage by different programmes. Our mandate is to provide this infrastructure which would foster inclusive growth.

Q: When there are kind of media reports that Aadhaar is to solve PDS problem or Aadhaar is to solve that problem then possibly Aadhaar should take a stand that listen that’s not our job.

A: Aadhaar is an enabler. It is the foundation for better delivery of services. However, it is not a panacea for all ills plaguing a particular system.

Q: Basic single point answer is your job is limited to giving everybody a single unique identity. Nothing beyond that really. True?

A: Our mandate is to create a platform and then work with various stakeholders for them to use that platform. We are working with various stakeholders in different sectors to take this forward.

Q: When PAN was done there was some suggestion that we should go for the biometric and at that time that did not happen probably because the technology was not that developed. Today we have moved many notches ahead. But at the same time the biometric integration, which is happening with Aadhaar, is going to be the world’s largest installation because we are second-largest populated country in the World. But it is not being tested for such large installations. There are a couple of countries who have done it and do not seem to be very happy say for instance UAE.

A: The UID project is a complex technological project. It is unprecedented in scale.

Q: Question is biometric as a technology even in a small set up like UAE does not seem to have worked for whatever reasons?

A: We are using biometrics primarily for de-duplication. Further it can be a factor for authentication.

Q: On this de-duplication thing there is already some experience that India has on PAN cards. I think we have more than 100 million PAN cards already issued. But they say they don’t really have a duplication problem (0.001%) and it is a technology that costs zilch compared to biometrics. Have we looked at that technology?

A: Biometric de-duplication in our view is the most robust way of ensuring that there are no duplicates.

Q: I believe your MSP tender freezes technology for 7 years in terms of memory, hard drives and other related hardware etc.?

A: Our architecture is designed to allow new improvements as technology develops. New devices which are as per the standards laid down can become part of the enrollment ecosystem as well as authentication ecosystem. UIDAI has floated an EOI for multiple authentication devices. On the de-duplication side we have three different vendors who are doing de-duplication so we can pick and choose and do a sort of load balance. A lot of attention has been given in creating a platform which does not get locked into any technology.

Q. If you look at a project like MCA 21 which is the only other example that we have in India that has also gone through the nomination route and the service provider route. But they have never really defined the technology. You decide because you understand the technology much better than us, however, while you have taken the MSP route you seem to be very specific about which technology you want and which you don’t want that’s kind of an impression that people have…

A: A huge amount of energy and time has been spent in creating an open technology platform, which is adaptable to changes as technology develops.

Q: To have a process like this you must have had several consultations with the stake holders which is what brought you to the kind of specs that you finally have.

A: There have been many (consultations) including with the vendors and other stakeholders.

Q: How are you leveraging NPR because it’s an exercise that started almost simultaneously?

A: The RGI, which implements the NPR is one of our registrars. We have an MOU with the RGI.

Q: Would it not have been good that at the time when the NPR was going on and UID papers were also being filled in, whomsoever people went to a provisional number could have been issued.

A: Efforts are being made to leverage the NPR process for the UID project. An inter-ministerial committee has also been formed in this regard and the UIDAI has entered into an MoU with the RGI.

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