Wednesday, March 9, 2011

267 - Aadhaar did not happen because of 26/11 - Mumbai Mirror

Nandan Nilekani, former Infosys CEO and chairperson of UIDAI, fields some persistent questions about the government’s most ambitious project ever

Chandrima Pal
Posted On Sunday, October 10, 2010 at 09:31:59 AM

As chairperson of Unique Identification Authority of India, former Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani is steering the country’s most ambitious project ever at the cost of Rs 1.5 lakh crore.

Aadhaar, as the project was recently christened, is being rolled out at a furious pace, keeping Nilekani on his toes, as he works out the tiniest details of those magic numbers that are expected to radically change the very fabric of civil society by stringing together all of the country and resuscitating government schemes aimed at grassroots India.

But there are also those persistent questions, especially from social commentators and civil rights experts, who have misgivings about how the unique number could be a potential weapon in the hands of the state law and order enforcement agencies and private stakeholders who could easily manipulate or merge the database - which would track everything from your grocery bill to your last vacation - to their advantage.

In other words, there are concerns about the kind of intrusive role the state could play and how an individual’s right to privacy could be compromised once the entire country is covered by Aadhaar.

Any discussion on Aadhaar is thus a potential minefield, especially when you manage to catch the government’s most-trusted technocrat between two important rollouts - that in Delhi for the homeless and in Karnataka. But we put Nilekani on the hot seat nevertheless and decided to fire away.


Indians already have many IDs. We have our passports, PAN cards, ration cards, driving licences etc. What was the need for another ID at such a huge cost instead of refining what we already have?

NN: Aadhaar is different because it actually provides a foundation for all the other IDs. This 12-digit number will be common to all other cards but unlike them, Aadhaar is a mobile ID, something you can carry anywhere you go and which can be authenticated anywhere in the country, online.

Most importantly, the existing IDs are available only for a certain section of society. A vast majority of our people do not even have any way of identifying themselves because they do not have access to the privileges and benefits rest of us enjoy. Aadhaar will bring them into the mainstream, and by giving them an ID, make them part of an inclusive growth.

After Tembhli in Maharashtra, it was a homeless group in Delhi which recently received their UIDs. How do you go about deciding who is next?

NN: We have planned a rollout in seven states over the next few months including Maharashtra, Delhi, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand.

Enrolling has begun in several places at night shelters with the help of state enrolling agencies and NGOs.

As you can see, our focus is on people who are marginalised and vulnerable, the migrants and the homeless. They are the ones who need Aadhaar the most, and that is how the rollout has been planned.

Does the very idea of biometric ID violate human rights? Does it not amount to profiling by the state?

NN: There is absolutely no basis for this assumption. The idea behind Aadhaar is very simple and unambiguous. We have large number of people outside the system who have absolutely no access to bank accounts, mobile phones or can even pay rent. Aadhaar, the project, has been designed keeping their concerns in mind and with an aim to provide them with a basic identity.

Nilekani at Tembhli village where Aadhar was launched

Does that mean that concerns over the misuse of a citizen’s personal information made accessible by UID is mostly confined to urban, affluent India? There are questions about our sensitive personal information falling into the wrong hands.

NN: Even today, without the UID, your credit card details could be accessed by someone who may manipulate it and your privacy may be breached. It is important to understand that Aadhaar will ultimately bring you more benefits than make you vulnerable.

In fact, we are confident that in the next six months, as the rollout gains momentum and more and more people get their Aadhar numbers, the benefits of this project will be obvious to everyone.

Concerns have been raised about how the government has been avoiding a debate on a public forum over the possible misuse of UID. Do you think there is a need for a dialogue to allay some of the fears arising out of the lack of transparency?

NN: It is absolutely incorrect on your part to say we have not been transparent. The project has been designed with the highest standards of transparency. We have a website that is very important as it shares every possible detail of the project.

But what about a discussion on a more public platform?

NN: We have held a series of discussions with all our stakeholders, both state and the private ones. We have had a wide range of discussions with lawyers and civil society experts and ensured every due process was followed before rolling out the UIDs.

So does this mean the concerns over UID are not universal?

Our research and experience indicates there are a large number of Indian citizens who are left out of public benefit schemes. They are the poor and those who migrate to different states and big cities for their livelihood.

These are the people who are eagerly awaiting this number. So these concerns you are talking about may be confined to a very small group. But even then I am sure once the project has been fully rolled out, all these questions will take care of themselves.

How exactly will UID power NATGRID (See box)?

This comes under the purview of the Home Ministry.
There is a notion that Aadhar was conceived of after the terror attacks on Mumbai when the state felt there was an urgent need of better surveillance. Comment.

NN: The project was conceived in 2006, way before the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. The primary and only purpose of this project as envisioned by the government is to improve public delivery system, to bring the marginalised into the mainstream and to help them access health, employment and other benefits easily. It was not because of security concerns.

When will Mumbai get its first UIDs?

Maharashtra’s Nadurbar district got the very first set of UIDs in the country.  Everyone, including the CM is very keen that it is one of the seven states where Aadhaar will roll out fully. So answer to your question, very soon.

NATGRID - What the fuss is all about

A brainchild of Home Minister P Chidambaram, NATGRID intends to link 21 databases across government and private agencies to ‘flag potential terrorist threats.’

To be completed in the next couple of years this grid will enable security and intelligence agencies to access any information at the click of a mouse.

Only 11 selected government agencies will be able to access the grid and a special mechanism will prevent any leakage of data.

These agencies are: Intelligence Bureau (IB), Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Military Intelligence, Revenue Intelligence, National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and National Security Council (NSC).

The databases that will be linked to the NATGRID include rail and air travel, phone calls, bank accounts, credit card transactions, passport and visa records, PAN cards, land and property records, automobile ownership and driving licences.

Former head of Mahindra Special Services Group Raghu Raman has been hired on an 18-month contract as chief executive officer of the project.