Tuesday, March 8, 2011

249 - The perils of 'Aadhaar' - The Daily Star,

Monday 4th October 2010

The perils of 'Aadhaar'
in Daily Star 'Your Right to know'

By Praful Bidwai

An elaborate charade has begun with the rolling out of the first Aadhaar unique identity (UID) numbers by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chairperson Sonia Gandhi in a tribal district of Maharashtra. The 12-digit number for each citizen is supposed to achieve pilferage-free delivery of services to the underprivileged.

Aadhaar (support/sustenance/ foundation) promises to rid the public distribution system of grain diversion and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) of pilferage (estimated at 15-20% of funds), by collecting each Indian resident's name, address, parents' names, etc., and biometric data (photographs, all 10 fingerprints, iris scans).

This data will be used to generate a UID for buying below-poverty-line (BPL) rations, NREGA enrolment, opening bank accounts, etc. It's claimed that the UID will ensure non-duplication of identity and hence eliminate leakage. This claim is wrong and deceptive.

Aadhaar's real purpose is "national security," including surveillance, profiling and tracking of citizens. The UID will be fed into a database to be shared with NATGRID (National Intelligence Grid), which includes 11 security and intelligence agencies (like the Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing and CBI).

Such "convergence" will provide real-time access into 21 databases -- including bank and credit-card accounts, driving licences, and travel records.

However, Aadhaar is being dishonestly marketed as a social security-related scheme. Former Intelligence Bureau director A.K. Doval admits that Aadhaar was "intended to wash out the aliens and unauthorised people" but is being projected as development-oriented, "lest it ruffle any feathers." Such deception violates transparency and public trust.

Yet, National Identification Authority of India (NIAI) chair Nandan Nilekani claims that Aadhaar is about "inclusivity … and giving people, who have been denied identity, a chance."

Apologists claim Aadhaar will uniquely protect India's 250 million migrant workers against summary eviction. This is farcical, given the Indian state's record in displacing 45 million people since Independence and in bundling 1 lakh families out of Delhi for the Commonwealth Games.

It's hard to believe that an otherwise callous state suddenly wants to deliver services efficiently to the poor through Aadhaar.

NIAI starts with the premise that "in many areas [NREGA] wages continue to be paid in … cash" and there's massive duplication of job-cards.

Actually, NREGA wages have been paid into bank accounts since 2008; 83% of job-cardholders have accounts. Economist-activist Reetika Khera says: "Three ways of siphoning off money remain -- extortion, collusion and fraud. Extortion means that when 'inflated' wages are withdrawn by labourers … [but] … the middleman … takes a share. Collusion occurs when the labourer and the middleman agree to share the inflated wages …. Fraud means that middlemen open and operate accounts on behalf of labourers …."

UID can at best help prevent "fraud," not collusion or extortion, which are more common. Most fraud is materials-related. Village headmen collude with officials to create fictitious records of building-material supplies. Only transparent accounting and people's supervision/verification can tackle this, not Aadhaar.

Similarly, NIAI attributes PDS leakages to duplicate ration-cards. But, after computerisation of records and hologrammed cards, duplication has dropped -- to under 10% in most states.

Khera says: "There are two major sources of [PDS] leakage …: One, diversion of grain, en route to the village ration shop. … Two, dealers undersell (e.g., only 25 kg out of the 35 kg Below-Poverty-Line entitlement) and yet make people testify … that they got their full quota."

Aadhaar can tackle neither leakage. People will remain in the corrupt shopkeeper's grip unless there is a new supply-chain management system that lets them go to another dealer. But there isn't.

That demolishes the claims of portability of benefits and inclusivity. The NIAI documents say "the NREGS programme can be used to enrol residents into the UID programme …." But this cannot produce inclusion. It only means that Aadhaar needs the PDS and NREGA to enrol people. The PDS-NREGA don't need Aadhaar.

In fact, by making Aadhaar a precondition for delivering services, the government will exclude people without UIDs.

NIAI officials claim Aadhaar will accurately target the poor and enable access to services. But NIAI documents also say "the UID number will only guarantee identity, not rights, benefits or entitlements" -- a huge contradiction.

The Aadhaar project has grave civil liberties implications. With it, the government can profile citizens and track their movements and transactions. The designated registrars, including state governments, Life Insurance Corporation, banks and multinationals like Ernst and Young, can misuse this data.

It's likely that intimate personal details -- pre-existing illnesses or romantic relationships -- will be shared with other agencies.

Under the draft NIAI Bill, the Authority will maintain details of every identity authentication request and disclose identity information for "national security." This permits tracking of citizens.

Whenever the government gets excessive authority, it misuses it, as is the experience with our anti-terrorism acts and the Armed Forces Special Powers and Public Safety Acts.

It's unwise to rely on technology to tackle social problems like corruption. People with low-quality fingerprints (e.g. construction workers) or cataract/corneal problems can generate misleading fingerprints and iris scans. Such errors can exclude between 10 and 60 million from UID.

Biometric readings can go wrong if power supply fails -- as happens virtually daily in most of our societies.

Many supposedly secure databases/websites, including those of the Indian and US defence ministries, have been hacked. Data theft and transfer to intelligence agencies or corporations have potentially horrendous consequences.

Many countries, including the UK, US and Australia, have abandoned national ID-cards because such schemes are technically unproven and "unsafe." They also have high costs. Aadhaar will probably cost an astronomical Rs.150,000 crores.

The Aadhaar project is being pushed through without public or Parliamentary debate. NIAI was created by an administrative order -- before any feasibility or efficiency studies were commissioned. Aadhaar numbers are being rolled out even before the relevant Bill is tabled in Parliament.

The process is profoundly undemocratic and the project thoroughly misconceived. It must be halted at once.

Praful Bidwai is an eminent Indian columnist