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25 - Unique Identification Number Project: Cautious Optimism - By Arjun Ghosh

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Unique Identification Number Project: Cautious Optimism

Fri, 2009-11-13 18:00 | Arjun Ghosh
On 30 and 31 October 2009 a workshop was organized at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla on the project initiated by the Government of India to provide Unique Identification Number (UID) to all residents of India. The workshop was attended by members of the UID Authority of India (UIDAI) including Nandan Nilekani, who is heading the project, eminent social scientists and representatives of civil society groups working with various disadvantaged groups. The workshop is one of several consultative sessions being undertaken by the UIDAI in the run up to the roll-out of the project.

The workshop began with a presentation by Nandan Nilekani on the aims and objectives of the UID Project and its basic architecture. This was followed by discussions on various issues. One of the difficulties that scholars and critiques of the project have been faced with was the lack of information on what were the exact dimensions of the project. Hence, the apprehensions - related to feasibility, cost, privacy and further marginalization of the marginalized – which have been raised are based on an assumed architecture. In this article I shall record some of the proposed features of the UID project, as well as talk about some of the issues that came to light in the discussions at the workshop.

What does the UIDAI propose to do?

· The objective of the project is to determine uniqueness of all individuals within the territory of India.

· The UID is not to be treated as a determination of citizenship.

· The UIDAI will not provide any card. It will only issue a number which will be delivered to the concerned person's address.

· The UID proposes to record the following data fields:

· Name – taken as a string and not broken into First Name, Surname etc.

· Date of Birth

· Current Address

· Permanent Address

· Gender

· Father's/ Mother's/ Guardian's Name and UID Number (for infants and minors)

· Photograph

· Prints of all 10 fingers

· Retina scan/ Iris (decision yet to be taken)

· Decision is yet to be taken on required and optional fields.

· Identification will be done for all, including infants. For infants, the record will have to be updated regularly.

· The UIDAI will not register any person directly but through partners/ registrars like the NREGS/ PDS/ LIC or Passport. When a person applies for any of these services which may ally themselves to the UID, the application process will involve the recording of all details required for the UID. The applicant will then be allotted a UID.

· To begin with Registration for UID will not be compulsory. In fact, from what I gather, it would not be possible for an individual to obtain a UID separately from any service. As the scheme roles out more and more Registrars like banks, income tax department, election commission, may make UID compulsory.

· So, basically the UIDAI is looking at a time frame of 5-10 years for the complete roll out of UID numbers to all residents of India. The UIDAI is targeting the issuing of the first set of numbers between Aug-Dec 2010. In four years to enroll about 600 million people. Registering the remaining population will be more difficult.

· In case of change of address the individual can visit any partner-registrar and get the records changed after necessary verification.

· The UIDAI proposes to set up an online database for realtime verification of details.

· The data fields on the UID database will not be downloadable. i.e. a clerk at the counter will only be able to verify whether the data provided by the person at the counter is correct – the system will respond with only 'Yes' or 'No'. Thus the clerk or any agent will not be able to download all details of a person by entering the UID number. This is important from the privacy point of view. However, the UID holder would be able to view all fields of data against her record.

· The UIDAI did not commit any budget estimate for the project as this will only be clear after the technical details related to biometric become clear, i.e. whether they would use only fingerprinting or they need to include iris as well.

· The UIDAI is aware that a project of this scale has never been undertaken ever. Though the technology exists it has not been proved at this scale.

· The UIDAI proposes to put in place a Civil Society Advisory Council for a social audit of the entire scheme to make sure it sticks to its objectives.

What are the projected benefits?

· The UID will help remove duplicate names from various service lists. While this would help clean up lists for NREGS, Old Age Pension Schemes, PDS etc, it may also help clean up benami bank accounts etc. Informally, the Income Tax Department is known to have projected an additional tax collection of about Rs.40,000 crores annually!

· Currently, however, the UIDAI's USP is focussed on the benefits to the poor.

· It will be possible to put in place systems of direct remittance to the beneficiary. The proposal is to set up a network of Banking Correspondents (BC) much in the model of mobile recharge agents in every village and locality in the country. The Finance Ministry will soon come up with details of eligibility requirements of BC applicants. When the money to a beneficiary gets credited the individual can visit any BC and after biometric verification (which can be done through a kit costing about Rs.5000 and a mobile connection) withdraw the requisite amount in cash. This proposal will try to eliminate middlemen and leakages. (Interestingly, during the proceedings of the workshop Nandan Nilekani remarked that with uniqueness guaranteed it may be possible to think of an efficient universal PDS!!)

· The UID system is likely to benefit the poor who are often caught in a cyclical process of verification of records. This would be a one time verification with all subsequent verification being taken care of by biometrics – the slogan being “the thumb is the card”!

· The UID will also facilitate migration and mobility. Since the UID vouchsafes uniqueness and identity it would be possible for a migrant labourer to easily get her BPL card transferred or open a no-frills bank account.

· Since the UID enrolls for life, it will force people to keep their record clean.

How will the UIDAI enroll people?

The major part of the difficulty would be in getting people to enroll and spread awareness about the benefits of the UID scheme.

· The UIDAI lays stress in partnering with Civil Society groups working among the poor and the marginal people.

· This issue was discussed at great length in the workshop.

· Doubts were raised on the efficacy of using NGOs as some of them could be aligned to communal and fundamentalist groups which would gain legitimacy in the process.

· It was suggested that help should be sought from organisations of disadvantaged groups like a rickshaw-pullers' association.

· A partnership with the Post Office and the panchayats was also suggested.

Difficulties and Unintended Consequences

· Though the UID proposes to enable the inclusion of hitherto excluded sections of society it may create new forms of exclusion. For instance, there are marginal groups who survive by being invisible to the state – like slum dwellers in a city who live in constant fear of demolition and displacement, or forest population living in a reserve forest. Such groups may not want the new visibility.

· Certain powerful groups – like owners of an illegal brick factory or mining agency – may prevent all under him from registering with the UID.

· Address proof for homeless people was another major stumbling block. Though the UID can sanction uniqueness of a person, even without the address, the address becomes necessary for ensuring easy access to services like banking – one of the USPs of the UID scheme. One of the possibilities discussed was that of flagging the address as “verified” or “non-verified”, which would then ensure that the UID number could be issued without address being a roadblock for benefits for which address may not be a prerequisite. However, this would create two categories of UID holders.

· Date of birth may be an issue – with a majority of Indians lacking any verifiable birth record. Date of birth becomes important for Old Age Pension benefits among other things.

· The name of a person may be another source of problem. Outside the literate population a person may actually have multiple names. With the UID this is likely to get standardized.


· One of the major fears that has been raised by many with regard to the UID project is that of privacy. Though the UIDAI has not been mandated to set up any such system, once the UID system is in place, it would be possible to track an individual. Though the UID plans to record a small set of data fields, it is possible to pile on more data fields onto a record without the knowledge of the record-holder.

· Responding to the issue Nandan Nilekani pointed out that privacy is an issue but the UID project is not the cause of it. He said today it is possible to track a person using her mobile phone, access basic details through the telephone directory and already there have been cases of the Voters' List being used for communal massacres. He suggested that we need to press for strong Privacy Laws.

· The possibility of misuse of the UID in context of a non-benign take over of state power needs to be precluded by a strong Civil Society Advisory Council overseeing the UIDAI.

· One of the suggestions was that the range of uses of the UID should be limited by law. For instance, a housing complex should not make UID/ biometric recognition mandatory for entry or taking up accommodation; job applications should not have to reveal their UID records; one should be able to buy a railway or air ticket without verifying fingerprints.

· The Free Software movement had raised an issue relating the possible threat to sovereignty due to the UID project. This fear was raised in the context of Microsoft's declaration of desire to be a partner on the UID project. Microsoft as a corporation is tied to the laws of the United States of America. Microsoft being a proponent of proprietorial software would never let out the source code of the programs it would use on any project. If Microsoft or any other provider partners on the UID project there could be three possible situations: 1) In case of an adverse international political situation a foreign government could order the software vendor to lock or cripple the UID database in India – a case of cyber-warfare; 2) it could lead to a situation of a vendor lock-in, whereby each time the UIDAI wishes to make changes to the database it would require the services of the software vendor, thus enabling the vendor continue to earn rent income; 3) the use of proprietorial software could have the unintended consequence of being incompatible with e-governance platforms which already use Open Source programing. The UIDAI team responded to these concerns: 1) The Open Source model will be used for the UID project and the Source Code will be under public ownership; 2) all APIs will be standard and published APIs and can be accessed using a variety of software; 3) Proprietorial software may have to be used for specialized tasks like biometrics for that may be the cheaper and more efficient choice at hand, but in such cases the contract with the software firms will have sufficient safeguards to prevent any vendor lock-in.

Though the overall direction of the UIDAI is to make the government and governance more accessible to the poor, it is very difficult to imagine how this scheme will be rolled out among the millions of poor and marginalised in India. There are millions of homeless for whom the difficulty lies not in being able to provide an address-proof, but in having any address at all. Will they ever be able to open a bank account and be able to claim government benefits through Banking Correspondents!

The UID project also has a thrust in strengthening the central government and bypassing local governments – inherent is a notion that peripheral authorities are inefficient. It is the technological core of the central or state level institutions which will displace corrupt middlemen.

The UID project seeks to achieve through technology what politics has been unable to in independent India. If the UID project aims at combating poverty by making the distribution of money from government schemes more efficient, I would think that a similar initiative had been taken after independence – through the legislation on land reforms. But land reforms, i.e. implementing land ceiling and redistribution of excess land, has been subverted by the State in India. Land redistribution could have unleashed an income redistribution which would have gone a long way in fighting poverty.

What I am trying to hint at that people in India are poor not because of inefficiencies in governance, but inefficiencies in governance exist because the class interests of India's ruling elite needs to keep people poor and deprived. The desire to use technology to fight poverty is another attempt by the neo-liberal State to legitimise its rule through reformism. It is quite strange to suggest that the root cause of government schemes not working is because of leakages or duplicate names in the list of beneficiaries. After all one needs to study the comparative figures of how much of money is spent in poverty-alleviation programmes and how much is dolled out in corporate tax holidays or simply as largess to the corporate sector in sell-outs like the multi-crore 3G-telecom scam!

The class basis of the Indian State which has caused various 'shadow' attempts to remove poverty in the past, is likely to hit back against the UID project as well – when they find that the money making and money laundering channels are threatened by this project.

Other than the subversion that one fears at the higher end of the UID hierarchy, I fear that the project can also be subverted at the local level. If the UIDAI proposes to set up a network of Banking Correspondents, as some participants at the workshops pointed out, at the local level it could be the elite who may grab these positions and subsequently seek kick-backs at the the point of handing over cash to the recipient. Technology can be used to transfer money in a cashless manner to the recipient's bank account but the recipient cannot utilise the value without encashing the money.

However, scepticism apart the UID project is a valiant attempt to set the system correct. Given the huge sums of money which are written off as tax holidays to corporates and lost to the exchequer through corruption at various levels, the cost of the UID project seems worth giving a try. The UID is likely to enable the citizens to make greater demands from the state – for having implemented the project the State can no longer blame leakages.

A curious dilemma faces the UIDAI. To make the project attractive and rationalise the costs involved, it needs to advertise the possible benefits it may entail. But the UIDAI itself is not mandated to implement or decide upon the way the UID will be used or what sort of government schemes will be run. Its mandate from the Home Ministry is to give every resident a number and guarantee uniqueness and verifiability. There is nothing anyone can tell the UIDAI on how the number should be used!

Another point to note is that the stress of the UID team is on partnering with “Civil Society” groups. I wonder whether political parties are considered to be part of such “Civil Society”! Certainly there is great scope for the democratic movement to get involved in critiquing the project with an aim to making it more responsive and more effective. There is a great need to generate greater public debate around the project so that the social exclusions can be minimised and the project can be made genuinely people-oriented. There is need for greater vigilance to ensure that the rent-seeking classes do not tinker the project to protect their interests. This is a political issue and political intervention is the need of the hour.

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Indian Insitute of Advanced Study Nandan Nilekani National UID Unique Identification Number
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by Arindam (not verified) on Tue, 2009-11-17 15:45
This is a timely article and

This is a timely article and Arjunda: good arguments on the inefficiency and the class issue!
Though I wonder that there were no details in the workshop regarding the security paradigm that is probably the central concern of the UID. At least, that is what I always thought and this is also corroborated by the fact the UID project has been mandated by the Home Ministry and the UIDIA does not have any say on how the UID database is to be used. It is therefore surprising to see them spelling out so many uses and efficiency-enhancing functions of the UID without having the scope of advertising these so-called advantages! This, all the more, reaffirms my hunch (and many others' I guess) that the project is primarily for national security purposes and it is important therefore how transparently the project is implemented. All this talk about the other service-related benefits that citizens will stand to gain from this project is more an exercise to build general consensus and trust in favour of the project. It is actually high time that all political parties and mass-organizations come out with official and recorded positions and interventions on the UID project. That is really necessary for a democratic, participative and non-exclusionary implementation of the project.