- The Statesman,
Nandan Nilekani was appointed as Chairperson of the UIDAI on 2 July 2009. In an extraordinary gesture, he was simultaneously, and in addition, given the rank of Cabinet Minister. This gave him the status, protocol and privileges of a minister, without having to meet the constitutional requirement that a minister has to be a Member of Parliament: “A Minister who for any period of six consecutive months is not a Member of either House of Parliament shall at the expiration of that period cease to be a Minister,” it says in Article 75(5) of the Constitution. In any event, since the Chairperson of the UIDAI is an office of profit, Nandan Nilekani could not have been both the Chairperson and a minister. This device, by which he was given the rank of Cabinet Minister without the constraints of the position, was used to facilitate lateral introduction of corporate leadership into the government.
Then, having been given the dual status of Chairperson and a person with the rank of Cabinet Minister, he was appointed the head of several committees in which capacity he would be able to steer state policy towards the adoption of the UID, while pushing the Prime Minister’s agenda of cash transfer and the phasing out of subsidies along with advancing corporate business agenda. The committees included the Task Force on direct transfer of subsidies which produced an interim report in June 2011 on kerosene, LPG and fertilizer, and a final report in October 2011 by which time the Task Force was reporting on an “IT strategy for PDS and an implementable solution for the direct transfer of subsidy for food and kerosene”. This was quickly followed up, in February 2012, with the report of a Task Force on “an aadhaar-enabled unified payment infrastructure” for the direct transfer of subsidies on kerosene, LPG and fertiliser, of which Mr Nilekani was the Chair, pushing the agenda of UID ubiquity and revamping the subsidy structure. Then there was the Technology Advisory Group of Unique Projects (TAG-UP) which turned in its report in January 2011; and the IT Strategy for Goods and Services Tax Network which, it seems, has resulted in a company being set up to take control over governmental data and to make a business out of it along the lines of the TAG-UP report. There have been other reports, too, such as the report of the Apex Committee for Electronic Toll Collection Implementation in which RFID and the “unique identification” of vehicles are part of the recommendations, but this does not directly impact the UID or subsidies, even if it could have a bearing on tracking, for instance.
In January 2009, when the UIDAI was set up by executive notification, it was described as “an attached office under the aegis of the Planning Commission.” The “initial core team” was to comprise 115 officials and staff, with the officials drawn from Central and State bureaucracies. The Director General and Mission Director, for instance, was to be from the level of the Additional Secretary, Government of India. Nandan Nilekani’s appointment in July 2009, and the overlap of project head, cabinet ministerial rank and chair of multiple committees changed the nature, and ambitions, of the enterprise. Yet, even in January 2009, the notification said that the UIDAI “shall own and operate UID database…” This signalled a shift from when the state held data in a fiduciary capacity, and limited to the purposes for which the data was being collected. This was an open claim that data was emerging as the new property.
The National Identification Authority of India Bill 2010 in its draft form, and as introduced in Parliament in December 2010, gave the first indications of the structure intended for the UIDAI. It bears a remarkable resemblance to what was the being worked into the TAG-UP report. After its rejection by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance in December 2011, however, the NIAI Bill went into deep freeze.
There had been no enthusiasm for a statutory framework anyway, and once the Standing Committee sent the Bill back to the drawing board, it just vanished from the agenda.
In the meantime, in January 2011, the TAG-UP Committee chaired by Nandan Nilekani gave its report. It described a framework for the handing over of data that is with the government to private companies set up for that purpose. This is no longer a hypothetical model. In the 2012 budget, Mr Pranab Mukherjee announced that the “GSTN (Goods and Sales Tax Network) will be set up as a National Information Utility”, and it seems it has already been established in March this year, with no public discussion or disclosure, and with private banks and insurance companies as shareholders.
The entities to be created are called `National Information Utilities’ (NIU). NIUs will be a “class of institutions” that will be “private companies with a public purpose: profit-making, but not profit maximizing.”
Government projects involve two major tasks at the top: policy making and implementation. Government should make policy, but leave implementation to NIUs. NIUs should have at least 51% private ownership, and government at least 26%. The advisory group had been tasked to deal specifically with five areas in the customs and tax arenas, but the report expands the reach of the report “also (to) other projects that may be launched in the future”. Repeatedly, the report draws on the UIDAI as the model to be followed, and the elements of an NIU have been derived from how the UIDAI is structured. The UIDAI to be formally designated as an NIU is merely a half step away.
The congruence of the UIDAI and the NIU is further in evidence. NIUs, the report says, are “essentially set up as natural monopolies”. And then, in a salute to the free market vocabulary of choice, it says, that “as a paying customer, the government would be free to take its business to another NIU, if necessary”, although `natural monopolies’ that have governmental data as their property are less than unlikely to have competitors.
As with the UIDAI, “the project should be rolled out as soon as possible, and iterated rapidly, rather than waiting to roll out a perfect system”. And, in a statement that should have produced a great deal of public debate but which has so far met with a stodgy silence: “Once the rollout is completed, the government’s role shifts largely to that of a customer.” And: “On the one hand, governments by virtue of their shareholding are owners. On the other hand, the same governments are customers.”
To ensure a buy in into the project, officers from the bureaucracy are to work on deputation and be paid an additional 30% as `IT professional allowance’.
Again, as with the UIDAI, the government is to provide what it takes – in funds, buildings, credibility and coercive power and what the UIDAI notification mentions as `logistics’ and `planning’– for the project to reach `steady state’, after which it will become an NIU and take off as a business venture — dealing with data as property, and with the government as its primary customer.
(The author is an academic activist. She has researched the UID and its ramifications since 2009)