Sunday, March 6, 2011

192 - Nilekanis Faceless Indian gets Prisoner Number - My Digital

By Sanu Sandilya, Sharang Limaye, Thanuja BM
 Aug 29 2010 , AP, Karnataka and New Delhi

Patancheru, a sleepy town in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, has been witness to the test phase of history’s most ambitious human mapping endeavour ever, the unique identity project, UID.

The present exercise, named ‘proof of concept’ (PoC), is being described as ‘pilot for the pilot stage’. The actual pilot stage, or the first phase, is expected to kick off this week, when prime minister Manmohan Singh visits Tirupati on Wednesday to formally roll out the first lot of UID numbers with the official launch of Aadhar, as it has been branded for the masses.

By February next year, some 100 million “faceless Indians” would have entered the government’s database, validating or otherwise the execution and scalability of the operation. Right now, the PoC, which will also allot identity numbers to mapped citizens, is being tested in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Bihar.

Nothing much is known about the benefits of the programme that, in its first phase, will allot identity numbers, and not identity cards, to 600 million citizens by 2014, or almost a half of India’s 1.18 billion people.

Doubtless, the UID project is good in intent. It seeks to improve service delivery and public distribution system, as with ration cards, pension and healthcare, though its exact benefits are yet to be quantified. “We are presently hoping only to allocate UID numbers; a lot of benefits can come, but it depends on how the application is developed and implemented,” concedes BB Nanawati, deputy director-general of the UID Authority of India (UIDAI).

This is one reason why, aside from its noble intentions, sceptics and social scientists alike, among them Ashish Nandy and Adre Betielle, question the ethics of a concept that may end up alloting “prisoner numbers” to citizens, raising “prisoner of conscience” questions at the ‘PoC’ stage itself.

At the academic level, the biggest doubts relate to issues of human mapping and its potential misuse by authoritative governments, as well as the security of data and invasion of privacy by private sector profit seekers. On the ground, at a more human level, people this numbering programme seeks to target do not understand its purpose. And there probably lies its biggest challenge. More of that later.

“We carried out the PoC exercise in 10 regions of Andhra Pradesh, eight of them rural and two urban. The aim was to define biometric standards in the Indian context and to identify and weed out any technical glitches in the process of capturing the data,” Sreeni Tripuraneni, chairman and chief executive officer of 4G Identity Solutions (4G), a Hyderabad-based company, which implemented the ‘PoC’ in Andhra Pradesh, told Financial Chronicle.

The state has recently issued iris-based biometric cards to around 45.9 million citizens. The implementation of this project gave the state an edge over others and helped it being chosen for the PoC stage.

The test stage saw more than 2,000 people lining up in Patancheru, 36 km from Hyderabad, over three days in April, to submit biometric data, including facial image, fingerprints and iris scans. Personal identification information such as name, gender and age were also collected. The biometric data collection exercise was held twice over 56 days across the 10 locations. Clearly, not everyone was impressed with what happened.

Participants were led to believe that the first phase had been a failure, necessitating another round of data collection. Actually, this was not quite the case, but deliberately designed to be so. Clarifies Sudhanva Kimmane, director of Karnataka Comat Technologies, who is helping the neighbouring Karnataka government roll out its pilot project, “This programme is going to have two terms. PoA (proof of address) and PoI (proof of identity). One of those will be needed by the candidates to get their numbers.” Of course, the citizens know none of this.

Some residents of Patancheru were under the impression that cards akin to ration cards would be issued once the PoC phase ended. But that did not happen. What use just a number then, they seem to ask.

“We were not informed about the purpose of this data collection exercise. All that we were told was that it was very important to get oneself enrolled,” Lalitha, a housewife, said. Some complain about the scanty number of collection centres, which saw many people skipping the voluntary process. “Long queues at the data collection centres put us off. I did not participate as it meant wastage of valuable time,” says Shatrughna, a shopkeeper.

K Vijaylakshmi, member of DWCRA, a women’s self-help group and resident of Patancheru, complains, “We were not informed about the PoC happening here. We only came to know of it through friends.”

Looking at the unenthusiastic response in the first phase, the UIDAI decided to pay Rs 70 to each participant in the second phase to make up for the lost wages for the day. Critics say such inducements for what is essentially designed to be a voluntary programme betray the concept’s weakness and failure to convince the common man of its do-good philosophy. Apologists say the PoC, as the name suggests, is designed to identify and plug gaps and enhance learning, before being executed on a countrywide scale.

Next door in Karnataka, where a similar PoC exercise is on in Hommaragalli gram panchayat in HD Kote district, 180 km from India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore, there is equally as much to learn, although local residents like Deveramma are more aware of the trickle-down effects of IT and the opportunities it has brought to her village youth.

In early May she along with her family members above 18 years was asked by the village accountant to visit the high school for finger printing and identity photographs. “We were told it was a central government scheme. Miss aashare loss aagathe (you will lose if you miss this opportunity),” we were told, Deveramma says, adding she is now waiting for the allotment of her unique number.

A veteran of ID programmes, Deveramma, who hasn’t quite heard of a man named Nandan Nilekani, already possesses a ration card, a Yeshasvani health card, a voter’s ID card and an NREGA card. She still made it a point to ask village officials and friends what this new identification parade was all about. Nobody gave her a convincing reply. “Everybody believes it will give us a lot of benefits,” she says.

If you look at it quite closely, Lalitha of Patancheru and Deveramma of Hommaragalli belong to the privileged lot. Wasn’t the unique identification conceptualised to give an identification to the faceless Indian, the dispossessed among the dispossessed? While that may well be true, it may not quite turn out that way, admits Nanawati.

We asked UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani, who first ideated the project in detail in his tome Imagining India, why the identity issue was turning out to be so and why the marginalised were not being allotted the numbers first. He gave a direct and matter-of-fact response: “The PoCs were undertaken to test the technology on ground and to test other aspects of the infrastructure. The rollout will be in the rural areas and the first set of people to get Aadhaar numbers will be people who require a form of identity.”

Nilekani also says UIDAI will start rolling out Aadhaar numbers in the next few weeks with multiple registrars which are mainly state governments, banks and financial institutions, of which some 220 enrolment agencies have already been empanelled by his authority across states and Union territories. “The rollout is based on the readiness and preparedness of the registrars. The state governments would be deciding the particular district in consultation with UIDAI based on their plan of action.”

UIDAI, Nilekani’s brainchild, was set up as he and his backers in the government believed the inability to prove identity was one of the biggest barriers preventing the poor from accessing benefits and subsidies. No nationally accepted, verified identity number exists that both the citizens and agencies can use with confidence. Different service providers often have different requirements of documentation they demand from citizens -- the forms that require filling out and the information they collect on the individual. Such duplication of effort and identity problems increase the overall cost of identification and cause inconvenience to the citizen.

“Undoubtedly it is going to be a Herculean task and a logistical challenge. We will make special efforts to reach out to groups who require the Aadhar number the most. It will take time. However, it is our priority,” says Nilekani.

Any process that uniquely identifies a resident and ensures instant delivery of a host of social welfare programmes, helps to eliminate duplicate identities and fraud. The entire process of unique identification involves biometric data collection, storage and analysis. Collectively, biometric technologies are defined as “automated methods of verifying or recognising the identity of a living person based on a physiological or behavioural characteristic.”

Free thinking liberals believe such data collection and analysis open up possibilities of manipulation both by the state and private vested interests. And the purpose of eliminating fraud may degenerate into a massive fraud on citizens instead. Says Ashish Nandy, political psychologist, social theorist and contemporary cultural and political critic: “This step of giving identity will lead to a more strictly regimented society. I am not in favour of this as this will lead to more surveillance and a censorship environment.”

India’s leading sociologist Andre Beteille is more circumspect. “The consequences are difficult to anticipate,” he says, “but I have faith in the capability and integrity of Nilekani. He is socially very conscious. My main area of discussions with him was that the caste and community difference should not be an essential component in the project.”

In mapping the scope of the Aadhar project and its democratic underpinnings, even Nanawati of UIDAI unintentionally betrays the extent to which number tagging can pervade a citizen’s life. “The UID number may not be mandatory by law, but in the other sense it will be as in the US where people cannot move a step without the social security number where also it is not mandatory. It will become necessary rather than mandatory,” he says.

That necessity could also make citizens hostage to private sector profit seekers. Though the number programme seeks to rely on a robust and alert security infrastructure, data theft and misuse can never be ruled out. Nanawati admits iris- and fingerprint mapping gives a high percentage of accuracy, but it could still be open to fraud, no matter how much improbable those chances are. Which is why Bob Jamieson, director of global operations at Life Safe and Security Underwriters Laboratories, says, “The standards should allow usage of changing technologies as fingerprint, facial geometry and hand geometry change with time and iris scan has medical concerns.”

Others believe that UIDAI’s standards are quite foolproof. M Hanmandhu of IIT Delhi’s electrical engineering department who has researched into biometrics, robotics, artificial intelligence and medical imaging, argues that UIDAI’s “minutia pattern” of iris scanning is foolproof and the manual pattern of biometric test is more reliable. “I do not think the iris and face can be spoofed easily if the updating process goes on accurately. Iris and face scan upgradation should be done in five to six years as this changes from time to time.”

There are other concerns relating to data theft as well. For one, UIDAI will store its biometric data in Bharti Airtel’s data centre, and not in the government or state-owned BSNL servers. Storage of data with private hosts leaves scope for data theft and invasion of privacy as is seen in sms advertising by real estate agents and sundry service providers, including prostitution rackets, despite strict Trai guidelines on the “do-not registry” to be maintained telecom operators.

While that may well be a long term concern, advocates of human number tagging say it gives us a real good chance to technology-leapfrog and bring the unaccounted for within the safety net. The programme to provide ID is an opportunity for India to design a 21st century system of identification that could be a significant improvement over the 19th and 20th century systems in use in the developed countries like the US and Italy. A good design for UID could last for centuries without changes.

The faceless Indian would soon find out.