Nandan Nilekani-led UIDAI has always ducked questions asked through RTI Act citing non-disclosure agreements. The recent information about missing papers of contract value for a French company, however raises serious questions on Aadhaar scheme
Aadhaar or the unique identification (UID) number scheme if often touted as something that will bring transparency in the lives of crores of Indians and reduce corruption. However, when it comes to the same transparency at Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the de-facto tagging institution, even applications filed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act receive opaque answers. The latest answer from UIDAI about ‘missing papers of contract value for Sagem Morpho Security Pvt Ltd (a French company)’, however raises serious questions upon the intentions of the authority.
An RTI application filed by Qaneez-e-Fatemah Sukhrani, an urban affairs researcher, sought a copy of memorandum of understanding (MoU)/ contract executed between UIDAI and/or Planning Commission with L1 Identity Solutions Operating Co, currently a subsidiary of French conglomerate Safran Group, Sagem Morpho Security Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of Safran Group, Ernst & Young, a US company, Accenture Services Pvt Ltd, a US company and ID Solutions company and the tender cost. At the time of award of contract to L1 Identity Solutions Operating Co was a US company.
A reply dated 25 October 2013 from Shirish Kumar, assistant director general and chief public information officer (CPIO) of UIDAI reveals that the value of contract for L1 was Rs33.87 crore and for Ernst & Young it was Rs7.05 crore. With regard to Sagem Morpho Security Pvt Ltd, it states that the “effort is on find the data” about the value of contract awarded. This reply in the matter of Sagem Morpho Security Pvt Ltd is quite intriguing. Notably, L1 has undergone metamorphosis and become part of Safran Group along with Morpho Security Pvt Ltd.
According to a report from Economic Times, the UIDAI is partnering with MongoDB, (formerly called 10gen), a technology company from US which is co-funded by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This contract has not been disclosed so far. MongoDB will take data from UIDAI to undertake its analysis. UIDAI is tight-lipped about CIA’s role in it. This company’s database software is already being used to verify the speed of registration. It is yet to become clear whether this company will be in a vendor relationship directly, or it will operate through some pre-existing entity which is already working with UIDAI as system integrator, said Gopal Krishna, a member of Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties (CFCL), which is campaigning against surveillance technologies since 2010.
In the past, the Nandan Nilekani-led UIDAI had used excuse like, ‘non-disclosure agreements’ for denying information in a number of RTI applications. However, no data available for contract value is something that is really shocking.
In response to a RTI query seeking copies of the UIDAI’s contracts with four private companies—two foreign and two Indian—the authority claimed that these could not be furnished since they have signed non-disclosure agreements with them. The UIDAI is set up and functioning without the sanction of law. It enters into contracts with private companies, including foreign ones, pays them out of the exchequer and refuses to furnish copies of the contracts. Are not these contracts illegal? How could the UIDAI sign contracts on behalf of Planning Commission? Assuming, but not admitting that the UIDAI is empowered to enter into the contracts, are not the non-disclosure agreements illegal? How could any office of the government pay taxpayers’ money to private companies and not disclose the contracts (purpose for which the money is paid) to taxpayers?
The UIDAI has been informed that one of the foreign companies has links with intelligence agencies from a foreign country. This information failed to obtain any reaction from the UIDAI. The response to an RTI application seeking information on foreign company contractors was even more inexplicable. The UIDAI stated that it did not know the country of origin of these contractors and is not concerned about such facts. It added that as long as the bidding contractors had an office in India or an Indian partner and had sent a RFP, the Authority would not bother with origins. That is saying a lot about the kind of due diligence UIDAI has done in choosing contractors for “India’s prestigious world’s largest database project” of the country’s biometric and demographic information.
In answer to another RTI query to furnish copies of contracts pertaining to three empanelled Enrolling Agencies (EAs), the UIDAI did not furnish the copies of applications submitted by these companies and minutes of decision to empanel them. Instead, the UIDAI replied stating that the companies “were empanelled as EAs during the year 2010-11 on the basis of eligibility conditions provided in RFE-2010 and subject to satisfying other terms and conditions.”
Such obfuscation is characteristic of the UIDAI’s ‘transparency’. One of the three companies is a tea estate company. How does a tea estate company satisfy ‘eligibility conditions’ for empanelment, as EA is mysterious, until one reads the RFE. The RFE states, “All organizations (single agency/consortium) interested in undertaking enrolment activities for the UIDAI project shall be empanelled under Level T1, provided they meet the general eligibility criteria”. It is a free for all; anyone and everyone can join the melee of the enrolment process to capture biometric and demographic data of the people of this country.
According to Mathew Thomas, a former defence services officer and missile scientist turned civic activist, press and media have reported several instances of fraud and crimes by EAs. “FIRs have been filed. Nothing is known about what happened to these cases. Police and media are equally silent on this, and strangely so. One would have thought that the stories on them would make juicy media stories. The UIDAI too, is not forthcoming on details of these cases. An RTI query elicited a vague response from the UIDAI, almost disowning responsibility for what the EAs do. The Authority claimed that this is the responsibility of registrars, “he said.
Several activists and prominent personalities had already cautioned that the Indian government is allegedly using Aadhaar and its issuer UIDAI to counter the RTI Act. Experts opine that an information revolution in the form of RTI now has a counter revolution in the avataar of UID. The attempt to use Aadhaar to provide government subsidies by a more transparent network is allegedly just a cover up.
Nikhil Dey, leading RTI activist and founder member MKSS has stated in his article in the recently published book by YASHADA titled “Milestone 7: Journey of RTI Act” that, “There are new information laws in the making that give the state control over detailed information about every citizen. There are new draft privacy laws that claim to keep this information secure from the prying eyes of other citizens. There are secrecy clauses embedded into laws on data collection that once again seek to give the custodians of power exclusive control over information. And most threatening perhaps, are legal frameworks that legitimise the use of new technologies of information gathering to watch over every element of people’s lives under the guise of ‘good’ governance, ‘greater’ security, and ‘safer’ democracies!”
Gopal Gandhi, former governor of West Bengal so incisively cautioned, “We must ensure that tools like the UID must help the citizens watch every move of government; not allow the government watch every move of the citizens.’ As they are today, the RTI and the UID stand on contrary sides of the information debate. If the RTI is a tool of the citizens to control the government and hold it accountable, the UID is a tool of the government to control the citizens.”
Venkatesh Nayak, programme co-ordinator, CHRI, who is researching on this subject, has appealed citizens to invoke RTI to find out details of actions planned by state governments on the basis of the finance ministry’s advice to expand the Aadhaar network where pilots of the controversial UPA government’s subsidy schemes will be rolled out linking UID to social development programmes. “There simply is no information about these issues in the public domain—only the rush and urgency of implementing the pilots. All this is hugely problematic because the government is not doing its mandated duty of complete proactive disclosure of facts and figures relating to the implementation of the UID as is required under Section 4 (1) of the RTI Act,” he had said.
Even before the privacy of a citizen has been properly secured, the central government has gone ahead, putting up personal details of citizens in the technology space where not only others but the government itself can access personal data and misuse or abuse it. Sowhile RTI Act empowers a citizen; the UID’s Aadhaar number scheme empowers the government.