Thursday, March 3, 2011

109 - Is “Aadhaar”, a shaky foundation? by Mathew Thomas

Is “Aadhaar”, a shaky foundation?
By Mathew Thomas

“Aadhaar”, meaning foundation, is the “brand name” given to The Union Government's Unique Identity program, abbreviated as, UID. About a year back, The Government announced its launch. It is to cover all people of the country. The program envisages identifying each person residing in India uniquely with fingerprint and iris scan biometrics and allocating a unique number to each. A national database with this information is to be set up. The program, although touted out as one that would eliminate leakages of welfare monies spent in MGNREGS, PDS and subsidised LPG schemes, seems to have ulterior motives. Media reports suggest that the UID database would be linked to NATGRID, a national information grid for criminal investigative and anti-terrorism activities. The police, IB, RAW and such agencies are to be provided access to the database. A government authority, the Unique Identity Authority of India, UIDAI has been set up, with Nandan Nilekani as its chairperson, through a notification. UIDAI was allocated a budget of Rs. 120 Crores last year and Rs. 1950 Crores this year. Neither UIDAI nor The Government has stated that combating crime or fighting terrorism is an objective of the UID program. The silence of both these on this objective raises suspicions regarding their true intentions. While so, UIDAI has claimed savings from preventing leakages of welfare funds of Rs. 20,000 Crores per annum. Strangely, the project has been launched without any feasibility study or detailed project report.

Identical programs in the US for combating terrorism and in the UK for preventing illegal immigration, met with strong public resistance, and disapproval from political parties. These programs have since been given up. A London School of Economics [LSE] study of the UK program found the project not feasible and opined that such a database would itself become a target for terrorist attack. The UK initiative was for controlling illegal immigration. In the US, the objective was counter-terrorism. Resistance from public in both countries was caused by fears that the database could become a surveillance tool in the hands of government. LSE added that the database would not serve its intended purposes. LSE estimated it cost at over £ 10 Billion. Extrapolating this estimate to arrive at probable costs of the Indian UID program would lead to a figure of Rs. 1.5 Lakh Crores.

There has been no discussion in Parliament. Evidently, The Government appears keen on pushing this program through surreptitiously, as it anticipates public and political resistance, should its real purposes become known. There are dissenting voices within The Government from those who caution that this tool could very well be used against them, when out of power. Media has been carried away by the public image of the chairperson. Press and TV interviews have largely carried his version of UID. It started out as a national ID card. When this was found infeasible, UIDAI changed tack and announced that UID would be a mere number. He said that it would be voluntary, and added that it would be “demand-driven”. The idea is that banks, phone companies etc could use the database for identifying their customers by paying a fee to UIDAI. What was left unsaid was that these institutions could make it compulsory to have a UID number – a rather crude or deft ‘sleight of hand’, depending on the hearer’s ability to decipher the hidden message.

Public resistance is now building up. NGOs have started questioning The Government’s intentions. Articles and interviews have been published in a number of publications, voicing concern. Experts have questioned the technical feasibility. Several questions of legality and fundamental rights are involved. The Supreme Court has held that the right to privacy is inherent in the right to life enshrined in Art 21 of the Constitution. The propriety and financial prudence in embarking on a project with such a huge public expenditure, without so much as even a feasibility study, needs serious questioning. The one who heads the project is from the private sector, where not a paisa would be spent without justification. The cavalier fashion in which, both he and The Government are proceeding on UID, makes a mockery of government’s accountability. Is it that private sector expenditure needs shareholder approval, whereas public monies could be squandered? The very credibility of both UIDAI and The Government is in question and they would do well to answer the questions raised here. Both of them need to ponder on the need and advisability of attempting this rather foolhardy venture in a country of this size, with its hugely illiterate and poverty-stricken people. ‘Aadhaar’ is certainly a shaky foundation