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The UID: Gamechanger or Hype #Aadhaar

aka is a program that has costed the taxpayers thousands of crores so far with no clear outcomes

 

200 px

200 px (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

BY Rajeev Chandrashekhar

 

One of the defining attributes of the UPA Government has been its almost casual/unaccountable approach to spending public money on ‘schemes’ and dealing with Public assets like spectrum, coal, land, and so on. Words like ‘whimsical or unaccountables’ come to mind, when evaluating this Government’s spending and profligacy.

 

The profligate spending is usually on the back of so called ‘Flagship programmes’. Whilst the conventional wisdom of anything flagship is that these are programmes that would make us proud or are critical to driving the country’s development objectives – in the UPA’s scheme of things, the phrase flagship programmes has meant something very different – Flagship programmes now have begun to mean large amounts of public money being doled out without any detailed study and no precise definition of the outcomes of the spending, and most often originating from or pandering to some ‘vision’ or whim.

 

UID aka. “Aadhaar” is one such program – costing the taxpayers thousands of crores so far – but with seemingly zero thinking or preparation on specifics, no clear outcomes, but with extraordinary amounts of hype and rhetoric instead. Sadly, the hype and rhetoric haven’t been given a chance in all these years to be challenged or debated in Parliament or outside within the public, despite repeated calls for it. One of the tragic characteristics of our democracy is that we allow this type of hype to go unchallenged and untested on its merits. Needless to say, despite the lack of a discussion and debate, and indeed, despite the Parliamentary committee’s serious recommendations on this, the spending on this ‘Flagship program’ has gone on as if ‘baap ka paisa’ was involved!

 

Let me say as someone who understands technology, Governance and the issue of corruption more than just a little, that Aadhaar in its current form, is a house of cards and resting primarily on hype, and will surely not achieve any of the laudable objectives of eradicating corruption. This will become obvious to many, as the layers of hype are peeled off and the stark reality becomes obvious.

 

Here’s an abridged dose of reality:

 

1. AADHAAR DOES NOT GIVE IDENTITIES TO INDIANS
The fundamental claim is that Aadhaar gives an Identity to all Indians. This is the most explosive falsehood in the Aadhaar proposition. Aadhaar simply takes an existing ID (Real or Fake), etc) of anybody (Citizen or Foreigner or Illegal Immigrant) and issues a number, i.e., there is no identity verification, and so, there is no identity being issued. All Aadhaar does is link the potentially fake or true ID information to that ID holder’s iris or Biometric information. So if Mr. X had a fake ID all these years with his picture and address, he now continues that fake id, albeit with his iris and biometric instead of his photo. So, there is no way of knowing how many fake entries are in the Aadhaar database, because Aadhaar does no verification.

 

To compound this, Aadhaar uses a structure that is incentivized, it would seem, to generate fake applications. This structure uses small private firms which almost subjectively decide on Identity documentation, with no check on their capability or background for enrollment, in exercising no supervision of their activities, in not following up on the criminal acts of these firms and in absolute lack of due diligence in appointment of these agencies and contractors. There are several FIRs in several police stations against these so-called Enrollment agencies who have been nabbed with fake forms, and several TV channels have aired stings on this. No answers are forthcoming on what happened to these fraudulent applications – did they find their way into the database? I specifically asked a question in Parliament about instances of Fraud in Aadhaar and the Government has so far ducked answering it.

 

2. AADHAAR IS A NATIONAL SECURITY RISK, IT’S BEING ISSUED TO NON-CITIZENS AND ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS
Aadhaar has changed its tagline recently to ‘One India; One Identity’. This is again a dishonest play with words. It makes no effort at separating citizens from non-citizens. Any national Identification platform should, at the very minimum, be able to determine who is a citizen and who is not. And so, one issue that arises from this is that taxpayer-funded subsidies and cash transfers will also be availed by non-citizens and illegal immigrants. This is a significant and fundamental issue that should have been transparently debated. Benefits by definition can only be given out of the budget to the citizens that are entitled to them. In a recent Meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance, I asked the UIDAI – of all the Aadhaar numbers issued, how many are citizens and how many are non-citizens – and I was given an answer of ‘we don’t know’.

 

The Aadhaar project is also facing a challenge from the Intelligence Bureau (IB), over the UIDAI issuing the card to foreigners and refugees from other countries. This comes on the heels of a Supreme Court order on September 23, 2013 that an Aadhaar card can’t be issued to an “illegal immigrant”. The court had also said that beneficiaries of welfare programmes shouldn’t be denied benefits if they don’t have an Aadhaar card.

 

The IB has raised objections to the possibility of Non Resident Indians (NRIs) and foreigners living in the country obtaining Aadhaar cards and has said the issuance of such cards was not based on proper verification of the applicant.

 

So here’s the bottomline – Given the sloppy and/or unverified identities at the enrollment stage and issuance to non-citizens and illegal immigrants, Aadhaar is creating a database that has serious issues about the integrity of the information in it. This, in turn, leads to several dangerous issues that arise – especially when it is bandied about casually as ‘The Identity’ – in terms of national security and citizenship and many issues that flow from that. As anyone who is privy to the concept of citizenship, Citizenship as defined by our constitution has to be verified and not accepted on declaration. In its current form, Aadhaar cannot be an identity.

 

3. AADHAAR DOES NOT IMPROVE TARGETING OF BENEFITS AND SUBSIDIES; INCREASES COSTS
The fundamental use of Aadhaar, i.e., that of identifying citizens that are entitled to specific benefits – falls flat. Because it continues to use the same data that is causing the corruption and leakage i.e., BPL cards and other traditional forms of ID. In summary, the data that Aadhaar uses is the same historically compromised data and identification. There has been no evidence or any data put out by the Government that there is any improvement on targeting subsidies. Neither the Government nor UIDAI had put forth any real evidence to justify the tall claims of preventing leakages in subsidies including the DBT in LPGs. In fact, the LPG cylinder issue is a clear case where Aadhaar has proved that it is not helping leakages. In certain areas like ATM banking, by insisting that banks upgrade to Biometric ATMs whose costs will be passed onto consumers, banking costs will increase.

 

4. AADHAAR RAISES SIGNIFICANT PRIVACY ISSUES
Aadhaar involves collection of a large amount of people’s data and centralization of this data in their databases. Predictably, real issues of privacy arise, in a country like ours, where privacy laws are not robust and the issue itself not fully or adequately debated. The privacy issue is even more dangerous given the track record of Governments and bureaucrats in India. As the New York times wrote “Unsurprisingly, some people see the idea of a centralized identity database as a dystopian nightmare. Privacy advocates contend that the government will use it to track citizens, a serious concern in a country where the government carries out extensive wiretapping and surveillance.”

 

5. AADHAAR IS INCONSISTENT WITH THE WAY THE COUNTRY IS EVOLVING
As a matter of fact, given increasing federalism and financial devolution, what is required is more state level identification and databases. The model of having a central government managing subsidies directly to its citizens from Delhi is inconsistent with the future model of Governance. The current ‘one shoe fits all’ model of subsidies and benefits developed in Delhi will evolve into one with increasing financial devolution to states; states will form their subsidy and benefit schemes.

 

And for some unpeeling of the hype:

 

(A) AADHAAR IS AN UNPRECEDENTED EFFORT AT IDENTIFYING INDIANS, IT IS TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION
Aadhaar’s hype and PR machinery has been very impressive, but running too far ahead of its reality. To call it “technological leadership” is surely letting the hype get hugely ahead of reality. Aadhaar is a data collection exercise and creation of a biometric database. That’s it. Further, it uses foreign hardware and software. Technologically, it is not unique; it has been done before elsewhere. What is significant is the size and scale of this effort, but even there, there have been and there are several efforts of large scale data collection by Government of India agencies with its citizens – by Election commission, by Census, the National Population Register effort, which have received none of the publicity that the Aadhaar effort has.

 

(B) AADHAAR IS UNIQUE AND PORTABLE
Saying that Aadhaar is unique and portable, is saying the obvious – as if other IDs are not! The reality is that ALL IDs are unique and portable, be it passports, driving licenses etc. Actually, while passports can be used in India and all over the world, Aadhaar cannot, since it does not determine citizenship.

 

The need for a national identification program remains. Aadhaar started with good intentions, but it is mystifying why it has morphed into this. What should have been a demonstration of technology being deployed in a cost effective way to improve Governance, and deliver benefits through a robust diligenced citizen identification process and highly reliable database, is a far cry from that.

 

The question today should be why has it come to this. Why these short cuts? Why the reluctance to acceptance the Parliamentary Standing Committee recommendations on merging Aadhaar with the other expensive project of the National Population Register, especially in these times of financial hardships in Government? Why did the Government not allow this project to be discussed all these years in Parliament?

 

I now read and hear that Aadhaar is a part of the ‘vision’ of the future leadership of the Congress. The brutal reality of vision is that unless it comes attached with specifics, the fate of the vision will be failures like this. Hype and rhetoric are no substitute to real targets and outcomes. Since vision and solutions are the new buzzwords in Delhi, both vision and solutions need to be real and money spent on them justifiable. Neither is true in Aadhaar.

 

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The author is a Member of Parliament in Rajya Sabha

 

Read more here – http://www.openthemagazine.com/political_hotline/power-blog/the-uid-gamechanger-or-hype

 

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