Saturday, March 5, 2011

135 - Biological changes may put UID out of bounds for kids By Harsimran Julka

Biological changes may put UID out of bounds for kids
28 Jul 2010, 0309 hrs IST, Harsimran Julka, ET

NEW DELHI: The government’s unique identification (UID) project aims to embrace nearly 1.4 billion people, but the task of covering children, up to 15 years, who form a good part of the population is tinged with uncertainty. Absence of what is delicately called stable biometric features in children — the 2001 Census said they constitute nearly 35% of the population — is proving to be a huge challenge for the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), headed by technocrat Nandan Nilekani.

Children up to 15 years do not have sharp patterns of fingerprints, the metric used to uniquely identify each one of them and more importantly, for authentication. The iris — the coloured portion of the eye — that is to be used to issue a unique identity number, too, does not fully develop before seven years.

“The iris starts achieving 90% stability in size only after six years of age. A normal iris starts assuming stability only by eight years,” said Dr Rakesh Gupta, consultant eye surgeon at Max Balaji Hospital in New Delhi.

Fingerprint patterns assume stability at an even later stage, around 16 years, said Dr V Khanna, a South Delhi-based skin specialist. “Fingerprints are very feeble in children and difficult to capture,” he said.

A direct fallout of the lack of these features in children is that the UIDAI project will remain out of bounds, or at least inaccurate, for swathes of people it is intended to help. Iris scan and fingerprint examination are used for a process called deduplication, to verify if an applicant has already been issued a number.

“We know that such inaccuracy exists,” said UIDAI director general Ram Sewak Sharma, confirming the worst fears of a report issued by a biometric panel at the agency.

“But we did not want infants and children to be kept out of the system,” said Mr Sharma, adding that government wanted to monitor child welfare schemes such as Sarv Shiksha Abhiyaan and Integrated Child Development Schemes as well as vaccination programmes.

Despite the government’s best intentions, it is unclear on how it will circumvent the problem that threatens to throw the project into disarray. With the UIDAI system in place, the government was hoping to improve the working of these schemes, which have been hit hard by corruption, bogus claims and scalability issues.

A case in point is the Janani Suraksha Yojana, which hands out incentives to mothers. Earlier this week, a fake babies scam was unearthed in Bihar where 300 women claimed to have delivered up to five babies in a span of 60 days to avail an incentive of Rs 1,000 for each baby.

There is also the problem of bogus ration cards. Many BPL families inflate the number of children in the ration cards to increase allotments, thus amplifying the fake ration card problem. Of the 102.8 million ration cards, almost 37 million are estimated to be fake. There are around 102.8 million families in India who own a ration card, with almost 65.2 million below poverty line.

“Anganwadi post-natal schemes, National Rural Health Mission and Integrated Child Development Scheme dealing with neo-natal benefits impact children below six years. There are leakages in these programmes,” said Parminder Jeet Singh, founder of IT for Change.

Welfare schemes directed at children are ambitious in scale and size. For example, the mid-day meal scheme launched across the country is valued at Rs 8,000 crore, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan is worth Rs 13,100 crore and Rs 6,705 crore rides on the Integrated Child Development Scheme.

To compound UIDAI’s woes, scores of farmers, with fingers worn out by years of toil, face a similar problem. ET had reported about this challenge earlier.

A way out would have been DNA fingerprinting, but that would have added to the cost of a programme already running into crores of rupees, said Mr Sharma. The government is hunting for other solutions.

“To minimise inaccuracy, we will link the UID number of a new-born or children below 15 years with that of their guardian,” said Mr Sharma. Besides the government schemes, a host of institutions such as schools, telcos, banks and insurers are to rely on the UIDAI to verify applications.

Schools, for example, are likely to use UID numbers for enrolment of new students, as well as entrance exams. But chances of that happening are fast fading because of typical biometric issues related to children.