Aadhaar Pied Piper of Technology is the Foundation Weak?

At noon on 13th January 2011, 15 year-old Sukrity, a resident of North Tripura, became the one millionth resident whose Aadhaar number was generated by the UIDAI. “It took us nearly six weeks to cross 100,000 (0.1 million) enrolments,” Nandan Nilekani, Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India said. “However, it has taken us almost the same time to ramp up from 100,000 to one million Aadhaar enrollments. This success is an auspicious milestone, en-route to our goal of issuing 600 million Aadhaar numbers in the next four years.” A Report by Team Inclusion

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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 ult

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