Tuesday, March 8, 2011

242 - Stiff resistance dogs India's ID plan - Asia Times

By Indrajit Basu

KOLKATA - Tembhali is little known beyond its neighborhood in northern Maharashtra. Yet, as Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi descended by on Wednesday, the tiny hamlet with less than 1,500 residents suddenly became the center of attraction in the global arena of e-governance.

India's prime minister and the ruling Congress party's leader were helicoptered in to officially flag India's most ambitious attempt to transform the way the state reaches its citizens - and also the world's largest identity program.

The so-called Unique Identification (UID) mission, which has been dubbed locally as "Aadhar" ("foundation"), the project will create

unique biometric identification numbers for each and every one of India's 1.2 billion people.

Ambitious yet highly controversial, UID numbers will be linked to fingerprints, iris scans, personal information, a microchip for easy scanning, and more. Led by a new government agency called the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the project is spearheaded by Nandan Nilekeni, one of India's most famous techie-entrepreneurs as the co-founder of Infosys, who has been given ministerial powers and a magnanimous (rumored to be US$3 billion or more) budget to implement the grand plan.

According to Nilekeni, among the scores of advantages for the country's people, the millions of India's poor who are without access to the government's plethora of welfare schemes would benefit the most from the new identification system. Much like the mobile telephony, the UID number would connect the poor to the broader and advancing economy of India, he says.

"The government has taken up this project for two reason; one is there are large number of Indians specially those who are urban migrants and rural poor who do not have any form of acknowledged existence by the state and therefore they face the challenge of harassment in their lives. They do not get access to public services either. So the one of the main purposes of this program is to make life easier for the millions of poor, migrants and marginalized (expected to be over 300 million) people. As well as to give inclusion to them," said Nilekeni.

The other is to make all government welfare schemes far more efficient by ensuring that they reach "each and every deserving poor", he says.

Even as the impoverished tribal farming community in Tembhali - many of whom do not even own the land they till - wonder how a unique identity, as Manmohan declared on Wednesday, "can change their lives", UID is meeting stiff resistance from civil liberties groups, privacy advocates, and legal eagles.

Critics condemn the UID as a blatant intrusion to privacy, a tool that will increase bureaucracy and corruption, and say that in addition to being hugely expensive and even illegal, the UID goes against basic human values.

"This project, has been initiated without any prelude: there is no project document; there is no feasibility study; there has been no cost-to-benefit analysis and there are serious concerns about data and identity theft," said Gopal Krishna, Member Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties.

Worse, Krishna added, a project "that could change the status of the people in this country, with regard to security and constitutional rights has been initiated without any legal authorization; just on the basis of an executive order".

The strongest opposition to the project has been generated by the fact that it aims to create a huge digital database containing sensitive personal information in one central location. This is a security risk of "immense" proportions, according to critics.

"Given that the country has hardly any capability in securing its digital database, and an absence of privacy laws, UID's plans of storing its data in one centralized database is an immense risk," said Sunil Abraham, an activist at the People Union for Civil Liberties. "The trouble with a centralized infrastructure is that if it is compromised, then all of it will be compromised, which can result in the collapse of the country's information systems."

Nilekeni deflects these criticisms, saying that the UID Authority will use "the best expertise for security and we also have a policy of proactively publishing strategy policy report and committee reports on our website as well." But arguments against the project stretch on.

"The other opposition is the use of biometrics for ID," says Abraham. "Our fear is that most parts of the country do not have power and if the system mandates that every time a rural resident has to prove his identity biometrically for say collecting subsidized food, chances are that the process will be slower and more prone to failure because of lack of infrastructure."

That, according to critics, could give rise to newer complication or even manipulation of the biometric data - and hence an additional opportunity for corruption.

"A typical unlettered person does not understand the complexities of biometric data collection and verification," says Jiti Nichani, a researcher and an advocate, Alternative Law Forum. "Given the rampant bureaucracy and corruption in the country, this would give yet another reason for the corrupt to siphon off the largesse of a welfare scheme elsewhere; corruption will increase manifold as a consequence."

Still, its flip side is not really devoid of selling points; some of UID's beneficial characteristics are undeniable.

For one, experts say, for every rupee spent on the government's welfare schemes, lack of identity of a poor Indian results in just 15 paisa reaching them. UID then can really revolutionize the way government services are delivered.

Besides, inability to prove identity is not only one of the biggest barriers that prevent the poor from accessing benefits and subsidies, or stymie the government from reaching out to the deserving. It also stops the government formulating appropriate welfare polices, plugging leakages, and above all, eliminating fraud and duplicate identities.

UID, say its proponents, will no longer allow someone to represent themselves differently across a number of agencies, which could solve a lot these problems.

"A UID will enable the poor grab the right to education, get jobs on migration, get medical benefits and even open a bank account and get a mobile phone connection," said Nilekni. "The transformative capability of the UID scheme can be enormous."

Nevertheless, providing an identity to one billion plus Indians in a country so devoid of basic infrastructure is a Herculean task.

Its real challenge may not lie in the concerns that critics have raised, but perhaps in the politics of governance and its reforms. Experts say the success of the project depends on the effective use of political authority, and how Nilekeni and Manmohan manage to address corruption in the political and official systems.
Nilekeni though is undaunted. "I am aware that there are a lot of challenges and this is a humongous project," he said. "But there is a lot of political will and support, and the government is firmly convinced that this project could change the face of India."

Indrajit Basu is a Kolkata-based correspondent for Asia Times Online.