A year ago, Nandan Nilekani operated out of a small, makeshift office with just the bare essentials. Today, the plush, wood-panelled office of the Unique Identification Authority of India chairman bears witness to the estimable rise the 52-year-old Nilekani—and his pet Aadhar project—has seen in the past 18 months. Despite many doubters, the co-founder of Infosys has led a charmed existence in government, feted for his business-like approach in stewarding the project to give identity numbers to millions of Indians, an exercise unprecedented in scale globally.
The calm inside Nilekani’s office, however, doesn’t reflect the storm raging outside. Over the past few months, Aadhar has been the subject of a viral attack from various quarters—cabinet colleagues and bureaucrats, policy experts and activists, even a few state governments. Everything, from Nilekani’s procedures for data collection and the potential errors therein to concerns over privacy, is being questioned. Besides, the existence of an older exercise, the National Population Register (NPR), led by the home ministry, is threatening to derail the project.
While most accept the need for creating a systematic database of our citizenry, the path to be taken for this has created a vertical divide in the government and is leading to a turf war—or, as a PMO official tartly put it, “personality issues”. The debate has now reached the highest levels, involving the Union finance minister, the home minister, the Planning Commission, the Registrar General of India (RGI) and the PMO itself.
Fortunately for Nilekani, he is being backed at the highest level—by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and the PMO. With Rahul Gandhi too invoking UID in his recent speeches, the weight of the Nehru-Gandhis too is behind him. With such powerful friends, why then are Nilekani’s opponents running riot?
Recently, home minister P. Chidambaram opened up a new flank by declaring that the authentication data by UIDAI does not satisfy security criteria and urged the cabinet to take another look at it. Chidambaram’s views found resonance in many quarters pushing the NPR as the de facto mode of identifying residents.
At the centre of the debate is the UIDAI’s process of using multiple registrars and enrolment agencies to collect individual data as well as its system of relying on ‘secondary information’ via existing identification documents. While Nilekani feels this is an effective method, NPR protagonists are pushing for a method of public scrutiny in which individual data is collected directly and put up before the public to weed out any fraud.
This many-layered screening process used in NPR is what, in fact, helped villagers in Gujarat’s border areas expose ‘strangers’ (from Pakistan) on the rolls when the data was put up for public scrutiny. This reinforced the RGI’s belief that the NPR process, despite being long and painstaking, is more foolproof. The one meeting point with Aadhar is the biometrics technology, which NPR has adopted. “We are fully governed by Aadhar standards for biometrics,” says RGI and census commissioner Dr C. Chandramouli. “Our objection is to the data collection by other registrars who have a different orientation from ours. From a security point of view, they are not acceptable.”
The discontent was fuelled last December when the UIDAI got the finance ministry’s nod to go beyond 100 million enrolments to 200 million. Says a senior bureaucrat who declines to be identified, “Nilekani ought to have taken permission of the cabinet committe on UIDAI or quickly thereafter gone for ratification (by the cabinet). Instead, for more than 6-7 months, the matter never came to light.” The charge: the UID unilaterally kept shifting the goalpost, which resulted in expenditure not being approved by the competent authority.
From voicing concerns over UIDAI operations, Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia is among those who have shifted stance in the last few months. In August this year, the Planning Commission had shared with the home minister concerns over the overlap in enrolment and said that processing the independent proposals of RGI’s Rs 10,00-crore and UIDAI’s Rs 14,841-crore for universal coverage “would violate the specific mandate of the cabinet committee to avoid duplication”.
The face of UID An Aadhar card
But in his cabinet note earlier this month, Montek made a clear pitch for UIDAI while giving options to take NPR and Aadhar forward. “I have suggested four ways in which duplication can be avoided. It is for the cabinet to decide,” he told Outlook. Some of his suggestions are contrary to the expressed view of Chidambaram, including allowing UIDAI to continue Aadhar operations without providing government funding.
UIDAI’s processes have also come under flak from activists. Says legal expert Usha Ramanathan, “The whole emphasis is on enrolment with no planning on how this is going to be used. And to push the agenda of enrolment, they have a multiplicity of registrars, which is leading to duplication as people who do not get their numbers within a stipulated time are re-enrolling.” She also points to a dichotomy in UIDAI’s approach—it has always said getting the number is a voluntary affair but is pushing service providers to make it mandatory for availing those services. UIDAI’s system of using introducers to identify and provide numbers to the homeless and those without documents is another grey area.
In particular, there have been many issues with UID’s biometric data collection. Labourers and poor people, the primary targets of the Aadhar process, often do not have clearly defined fingerprints because of excessive manual labour. Even old people with “dry hands” have faced difficulties. Weak iris scans of people with cataract have also posed problems. In several cases, agencies have refused to register them, defeating the very aim of inclusion of poor and marginalised people.
Activists also question UIDAI’s authority to collect biometric data. Says human rights and UID activist Gopal Krishna, “There is ambiguity about biometric data. It is not clearly defined in the National Identification Bill. UIDAI also provides for storing biometric data like fingerprints forever while even the Prisoners’ Act provides that this data should be destroyed on acquittal.” Adds Ramanathan, “The whole thing is so illegal. Every statutory organisation can only act within a given mandate and citizen’s rules do not provide for it. The Citizenship Act has nothing on biometric data.”
While Nilekani asserts that the best systems are being put in place for security and no data will be shared, it hasn’t helped dispel fear. Some states, in fact, are holding back.
On the ground, enrolling agencies too are facing problems. They are finding it difficult to get people to enrol in rural areas. Says Binod Mishra of Glodyne Technologies, an enrolment agency: “Initially, it took about Rs 22-24 per number, now the cost is many times that amount.” Other agency officials say that despite the project being targeted at financial inclusion, it takes a long time to convince villagers to enrol as they are not sure what benefit UID will give them.
The crucial question now is whether Aadhar will survive in its present form beyond the 200-million cap. In early September, the Expenditure Finance Committee, at which the UIDAI is also represented, debated the proposal for extending Aadhar enrolment beyond 200 million individuals. The meeting did not conclude in Aadhar’s favour. In the same month, UIDAI put in a fresh proposal for universal coverage under Phase III, thereby raising concerns both in the home ministry and the Planning Commission.
In the end, though, what matters is who has more support. While PMO sources say everything will be “sorted out” when the cabinet meets next month to take a call on UID’s future, the attacks on Aadhar show that even technocrats have to tread carefully.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
There ae Millions of 'Bangadeshis getting enrolled in this AADHAR CARD Scheme. It appears that the Gov intention is to declare Bangladeshis as Indian Nationals for their vote bank olitics.
I have submitted documents like proof of identity ( land telephone bill) , a photo identity card ( passport copy ) and then went for this Adhar card. My eye was photographed and then finger prints and my photograph ; all were taken and stored in a computer in just a few minutes. The application form though I filled everything was not checked at all before it was accepted.
I got this UID number card , with my photo and full details in just 60 days time. Though at the same time and place my wife and my two daughters gave it , only myself and one daughter got it. I heard that in each post office , there are huge bundles of these applications.
In general , this UID card idea is really good.
While I went for my vehicle registration recently, all that I carried was my Adhar Card , that was all. I found that people in Govt.office and in vehicle showrooms are well aware of the use and importance of UID card. In vehicle show rooms , vehicle will not be given even with a temporary registration without the buyer's identity card and proof of address.
UID card (Adhar card ) shall be useful tatkal railway tickets or bank account openings or for any thing else. I do not think there is a serious scope for misuse of fingerprint information. This biometric information will be very useful to quickly locate terrorists for example.
We should know that no system is full proof and some type of a system of singular identification number is far better than nothing.
Biometric information system shall be useful in all types of identification including the situations like mass deaths in blasts in public places by terrorists or in an accident like crash of an airoplane . There is at present absoultely no record of fingerprints, or iris of an eye of a person except may be for criminals !!. If there is no law to provide for storage such a data as bometric data then a law should be brought out so that no more hindrances or controversy for UID.
I believe that UID programme should have been divided in to stages. For example , all Graduates , post-graduates, Labour only, craftsmen only and so on. It would have brought its usage, and discrepancies if any. Instead in A.P. at least , it is started only in cities and they say it will start in district HQ afterwards and in villages much later.
Though a good idea in general, the highly centralized implementation is questionable. There should have been pilots, small areas could have been chosen to implement, and then assess the merits and demerits by competent and independent auditors, then the system could have been gradually scaled up to regional and then state levels. One has to constantly sell the benefits of a system, and allow independent observers and groups to assess and critique them. Gradually more and more people could become stake-holders. That is the demcratic way. This project, like anything big, has political and social dimensions which technocrats alone cannot fully grasp.
Any centralized way of doing things fails in our diverse, multi-layered (even in terms of modernity and knowledge), is inefficient and even counter-productive. The planning commission is a prime example.
Objections by other government agencies like NPR at this late stage is frivolous and objectionable. These things should have been sorted out in the beginning. The fault lies with the government. UID registration at national level is a gargantuan task and there are bound to be hiccups in completing this exercise. Having experienced the ordeal for getting a voter's ID, my experience in registering for Aadhaar was a piece of cake. Only,they could have simplified the form by removing all optional entries (financial data). Any refusal to recognise UID as Identity/Address proof at this stage by any agency should be severely dealt with.
Aadhar is a step in the right direction. All the objections being raised can be addressed with ease, given the political will to do so. For registration, all an applicant needs are valid proof of identity (POI) and proof of address (POA) documents like a Passport, voter card, PAN card or a ration card. I have recently gone through the enrollment process and found it fairly straight-forward. The attitude of the private agencies hired for the task is a refreshing change from the insufferable petty bureaucrats one encounters during dealings with the Government.
The information recorded is based on documents issued by the Government or statutory bodies. The only new data being recorded are the biometric ones. It is funny how people who express concerns about its legality readily provide not just biometric information but fill in applications running into tens of pages giving plenty of personal and financial information to foreign governments while applying for visas to go to the west.
The databases can easily be compared to weed out applications which have inconsistencies in them for greater scrutiny.Furnishing false information can be made a cognisale offence with deterrent punishment.
I find the issues of privacy laughable. Computerisation and making PAN cards mandatory for even opening a bank account has made it possible for officials with access to the governments' databases to know everything about you like the places you went to, how much you are worth, how you spend your money, etc. The information being asked for by Aadhar will not add anything to what is already known about us.
The idea behind Aadhar is to make things like voter cards, PAN cards and ration cards redundant. It will serve as both POI and POA. It will make things easy for the common man like access to PDS and other governmental aid. It will also make things difficult for cheats and criminals. Teething problems will always be there in such projects, especially in such a gargantuan endeavour. It needs everybody's co-operation. All right thinking people should support Mr.Nilekani in his efforts at providing millions of ordinary Indians with an identity.
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