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Usha Ramanathan, Replies ,


On September 23, 2013, the Supreme Court ‘s directed that “no person should suffer for not getting the aadhaar card in spite of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory”. Reacting to an argument of Mr Anil Divan, Justice Puttaswamy’s counsel, the judges added that “when any person applies to get the Adhaar Card voluntarily, it may be checked whether that person is entitled for it under the law and it should not be given to any illegal immigrant”. The order regarding making the UID mandatory  was made in the context of the questionable legality of the project, and the instructions being issued, as it has been in Maharashtra, that  teaching and non-teaching staff and judges of the High Court would not get their salaries unless they have a UID. The latter part of the order on `illegal immigrants’ echoes those who wanted, and got, an amendment to the Citizenship Act in 2003 authorising the creation of a National Register of Citizens. This was inherently illogical and opportunistic; for, the rhetoric of threat from the outsider drew upon the Kargil standoff in 1999, when it was Pakistan that was seen as sending in terrorists who needed to be identified and dealt with, but the politics of the day made the migrant from Bangladesh the `threat’. The Home Minister of the day saw them in every shadow. The UID project is a part of this enterprise.


The UID Project, with Mr Nandan Nilekani at its helm, has developed ambitions of its own in the four years since it was set by executive notification. In these four years, what observers and analysts have seen of the project has produced disturbing questions around what constitutes identity and how it will be established:1


Is the UID a card or a number?


Is the UID project about identity or identification?


Is it about control and tracking or transparency?


Is it about information or data?


Is it a unique identity (UID) or a “Know Your Customer” (KYC) tool?


Is the UID voluntary or mandatory?


Is the information collected kept on a government database or with private companies?


Is the UIDAI part of the state, or an entity that transits through the Planning Commission to become a private company when it reaches “steady state”?


Is the UIDAI a back office for the National Population Register (NPR), or is it a competitor in the race to enrol?


Is the UID part of a surveillance apparatus, or is it only to deliver entitlements?


Is biometrics unimpeachable or this an experiment?


Is it a game changer, as it is claimed in public rhetoric, or an app, as Mr Nilekani speaks about it in more spaces such as the World Bank?


Over the past four years, in the context of migration, what has been very worrying is the support that the UIDAI has received from those working with migrant workers. Even as the project was being rolled out, Mr Nilekani and his team met groups working with migrant workers to tempt them with visions of a `portable identity’ which every migrant worker would carry, which would help them access entitlements and subsidies. At that time, some groups and networks did allow themselves to hope that the UID would indeed only be what they were told it would be. There was even an MoU that the National Coalition of Organisations of Migrant Workers signed with the UIDAI on 29 July, 2010, renewable after a period of two years. The Coalition signed on “to enable migrant workers and their communities throughout the country” to enrol for the UID. (By all accounts, that MoU has not been renewed; and very few enrolments were actually carried out under this MoU.)


Since the beginning of the UID project, its Chairperson, Mr Nandan Nilekani and his team have shown an indefatigable interest in `enrolling’ everyone on to the data base of the UIDAI. The Coalition appears to have had a faith, based on raised expectations, and not on evidence, that the project would produce an impeccable identity document that would protect migrant workers, and that would help them reach their entitlements and benefits wherever in the country they are.


A close scrutiny of the project has however revealed multiple facets of the project which cast doubt on the veracity of the claims made, and raises questions about the intent and consequences of the project. Since 2010, much has been researched, debated, analysed and written about the project. This is a project where


  • There is still no feasibility study
  • There is no cost:benefit analysis
  • There is no law that protects the holder of the UID number from misuse and abuse, and it is by now clear that no agency is willing to take on the risk of liability for identity fraud or for wrongfully denying a person their identity
  • There is no law of privacy. Instead, the UIDAI has been working overtime to effect `convergence’ of databases currently held in distinct silos, making surveillance, and social control, more than merely possible. There is no protection against tagging, tracking and labelling. And, the Natgrid, CCTNS, NCTC, PII, MAC are only some of a variety of other acronyms conjured up over the last 3-4 years which will give intelligence agencies an easy instrument for invading the lives and practices of people.




  • The UIDAI `owns’ the data base,
  • And expressly intends to profit from the sale of the data and of services linked to the data
  • Mr Nilekani has chaired committees in the past three years which have recommended that the UID be made mandatory so that it will drive people to enrol; where data held by the government is proposed to be handed over to private agencies – they will be, the TAG-UP report says, private companies with a public purpose; profit making, not profit maximising. The first of these have already been set up – the GSTN Network. And data is to be the new property.


Most damaging to the project, and something that cannot but worry those working with migrant workers, biometrics, which is intended to be the way by which the identity of people will be established, is still in its infancy. In January-February 2010, the UIDAI put out a notice inviting a biometrics consultant to help the UIDAI decide how it could carry on with the project with the use of fingerprints and iris. The consultant was informed in the notice that “there is a lack of a sound study that documents the accuracy achievable on Indian demographics (i.e., larger percentage of rural population) and in Indian environmental conditions (i.e., extremely hot and humid climates and facilities without air-conditioning). In fact, it went on, “we could not find any credible study assessing the achievable accuracy in any of the developing countries. UIDAI has performed some preliminary assessment of quality of fingerprint data from Indian rural demographics and environments and the results are encouraging. The “quality” assessment of fingerprint data is not sufficient to fully understand the achievable de-duplication accuracy.” And so on.


In November 2011, more than a year after the enrolment had begun,  the Mission Director and DG of the UIDAI, Mr R S Sharma, said in an interview to Frontline in November 2011: “Capturing fingerprints, especially of manual labourers, is a challenge. The quality of fingerprints is bad because of the rough exterior of fingers caused by hard work, and this poses a challenge for later authentication. … Issuing a unique identity will not be a major problem. But authentication will be, because fingerprint is the basic mode of authentication.” This places migrant labour, especially in a difficult place, where if they are unable to authenticate because of what their work does to their fingerprints and, even, their iris, their identity would be in question. In March and September 2012, a fingerprint authentication report – which talks of green, yellow and red fingers which are to be labelled and used for authentication – and an iris authentication report – which starts with the assumption that iris never changes, and neither age nor weathering affects the iris and bases its conclusions on this miracle of changelessness – send out alarm bells about authentication. And, more recently, this year there is a document that the UIDAI has put out admits that biometrics will need regular re-enrolling. Biometrics is, indeed, uncertain and untested technology. And the human body does change, by age, illness, accident, drug use, and a host of other circumstances.


This number contrasts starkly with a system where a photo-ID with the sarpanch’s signature, countersigned by the state labour department, and with the skill indicated on the face of the ID card, becomes the interstate migrant worker’s secure identity, gaining credibility with use. This is establishing an ID, not reducing the body to being a marker.


The UIDAI has been preoccupied with speedy enrolment; unseemly haste may mean that the information that is recorded about a person may be inaccurate and is likely to misidentify them, but this has not particularly worried the project authorities. The introducer system has collapsed. Biometrics is still in its infancy, and the reports produced by the UIDAI themselves suggest that there are huge gaps in possibility and performance. The UIDAI is already talking about re-enrolment at regular intervals. Why would faith in this system survive all this?


Speed in enrolment has given short shrift to accuracy, even to the point of distorting identity, and that does not seem to worry the project proponents at all. At his World Bank talk in April 2013, Mr. Nandan Nilekani said: An introducer “will say ‘I know this person, he’s Ram Singh approximately born in 1977’, so, we give a date of birth. He has a home, he has a home; otherwise, if he is a homeless person, we’ll give him an address c/o Homeless Shelter or whatever. Basically, then, the introducer stands as some sort of guarantee in some sense for that person. Then that person’s data is entered, and he gets an ID. So, that’s how these people get into the system… Remember, fundamentally you get only one ID in the system. So the ID that you give at the time of your enrolment is your name in this system for the rest of your life…which is why I refer to this as a 21st-century Ellis Island…what happened at Ellis Island, let’s say in the 19th century or Nova Scotia in Canada in the 19th century?
“You had all the boatloads of people coming from Europe, Eastern Europe, Croatia, Poland, wherever, Ireland, Italy, all that. And they would land at Ellis Island and they would have very complicated names. And the immigration officer would say, ah, no, I think from now on you be Sam David. And, from that day onwards, in the New World, he would be Sam David, no matter what his name was in the Old World. So, we do the same thing, you know. This person was out of the system, except physically he is in the same place, but virtually he is outside. He comes in and gets a name and that’s his name in our system for the rest of his life. So think of it as a 21st-century version of the Ellis Island.”


This is the project chief’s casualness about the vulnerable person’s identity. That should give us pause.


Mr Nilekani and his team have identified three stages that they have told us about:  enrolment, where all the initial emphasis has been so far and which is just about increasing the data base, and where speed is all and accuracy may be treated as an experiment. Seeding, by which every transaction, public and private, will have the UID number appended to it. And re-engineering, where systems will be changed to make them UID-compatible. In this framework of ambition for the project, it matters only a little to the project if `authentication’ does not work. Seeding will make convergence of the data about individuals easy to access – what the marketeer terms as `Know(ing) Your Customer’, and what the state can use in its surveillance projects such as the Natgrid. Re-engineering will make the system irreversible, which will mean that even when it fails, it must be made to work. Authentication failure will only affect the person who the system misidentifies or fails to identify.


This, it seems, is the nature of this beast.


In a post on the Sanhati website (`Anti-aadhaar litigants and the rhetoric of fear’ dated 28 September 20132), Mythri Prasad-Aleyamma trashes `anti-aadhaar’ `litigants’ and `campaigners’ as being `xenophobic’ and `potentially Islamaphobic’ . I am her direct target because of something she quotes as being reported in the Tehelka. When Ms Aleyamma wrote to check with me if this is what i had said, i found that someone at Tehelka had inserted  a question which changed the meaning of what i had said in a conversation with their reporter. I explained this to Ms Aleyamma, contacted Tehelka, and they removed the question. Ms Aleyamma has, however, decided to leave her accusation essentially unchanged. These insinuations and unearned slurs are personal and can be ignored. But a piece of information for the reader may set the record straight on how the litigation is being fought in court: the worry about illegal migrants getting legitimised through the issuance of the aadhaar enrolment is in Justice Puttaswamy’s petition. The other petitions before the court reflect other concerns, including what mandatoriness, and the project itself, is doing to people’s lives, to privacy, to lawlessness and to vulenrability. These generalisations about `litigants’ and `campaigners’ as villains, i humbly submit (to use language that the court allows us to use to dodge rudeness) is misplaced.


Usha Ramanathan


30 September, 2013




1 I have explored these in a continuing series published in the Statesman, which have been archived at http://aadhararticles.blogspot.in/search/label/Usha%20Ramanathan


2 http://sanhati.com/articles/8110/


Above article is response to


Anti-Aadhaar litigants and the rhetoric of fear

September 28, 2013

By Mythri Prasad-Aleyamma

A week ago, I was about to forget about my boycott of Aadhaar and get my mother to enrol so that we do not lose our cooking gas subsidy. I could easily fan my family’s suspicion and laziness for any more cards and bureaucracy by quoting Usha RamanathanReetika Khera and Ramakumar, but not after the government asked for Aadhaar to get the subsidy. Then, yesterday, the Supreme Court said that Aadhaar does not have parliamentary sanction and that it is illegal to link it up to essential services and social security entitlements. The Supreme Court’s observation came in the nick of time. One felt relieved. It is not every day that Supreme Court reminds us that policy is not a thing and that it needs people’s approval embodied by the parliament. The relief goes away as one reads the fine print which is given below.

Moreover, he alleged, Aadhaar numbers were being given indiscriminately, including to migrants without papers, creating a serious threat to national security. The executive order was “mala fide” as the whole object of rushing through the Aadhaar scheme was to “secure political gains.”(The Hindu. 24.09.2013)

The allegation is by the petitioner Justice K.S. Puttaswamy, retired judge of the Karnataka High Court. Not just him. Usha Ramanathan, who has exposed Aadhaar on various counts most notably as a potential tool for infringement of privacy had to say this to tehelka on asked what her important moment was in the court room yesterday:

Another important issue raised by the SC ruling was the issue of illegal immigrants. The court questioned the council representing the government stating that illegal immigrants should not be registered under UID, however, they replied that presently all residents are being registered, citizenship is not an issue.

The importance of this is that, since this issue is on record, the government will be forced to fix the process of identification which presently leaves a lot to be desired. As Mr Nilekani said, presently it is like the Ellis Island Phenomena, where someone can come and say “my name is Podolski”, but the officials say that “no, you are John Smith”, UID doesn’t care about your identity, they just want to get you registered.[1]

Clearly, it is not enough to have a sound argument to win a case, a rhetoric of fear is necessary too. It is not enough to argue that Aadhaar does not have parliamentary sanction, that it could potentially violate privacy by handing over large amounts of data to corporates and the government or that linking it up with social security is exclusionary. The spectre of the illegal migrant has to be brandished. That some Bangladeshi Muslim migrant might eat up our paltry welfare system. That citizenship might change hands in exchange for a scan of iris and an image of a thumb and finally that terribly important and extremely sacred word: ‘national security.’ Think of terrorists and infiltrators flashing an Aadhaar card at a cop, getting in and attacking the country. It would have been better to have gotten their foreskin imprint too!

The accusation is that people are being registered without regard to their citizenship and identity. So Aadhaar is now being accused of practicing indiscriminate inclusion? And perhaps, not caring enough about identity which nobody knows what exactly is in the context of Aadhaar. Identity as a unique bodily mark or identity as belonging to a place or family or a community? Same with citizenship. Is it belonging to a country or being able to access certain social and political rights or both? Supreme obfuscation.Is this a case of the judges hijacking an issue and using it to say something else that is dear to their heart: the danger of illegal migrants to national security? Perhaps small talk between a retired judge and a current one across the court room that got reported in the papers? We do not know.

I feel that the struggle against Aadhaar is not separate from struggle of migrants for social and political rights. It will also be good to critically think about some concepts that appear like phosphenes in the course of the Aadhaar debate, like identity and citizenship. Perhaps, as Clavell (2011) points out, one needs to reverse one’s thinking on surveillance technology. We tend to think of the surveillance in Aadhaar as technology that has social and political consequences. So, we think of the iris scan and the attendant tracking of movement, transactions and entitlements as social and political consequences of a technology. A longer and harder look, however, might reveal that it is a social and political process, one that wants to create legible citizens and spaces, with technological consequences. So to have this uncorrupt, wormless, odourless public distribution system, (no black marketing, no hoarding), we need this iris scan. To get the illegal migrants out, we need this finger print. This is where Nandan Nilekani meets Supreme Court meets Anti-Aadhaar litigants.

I demand that the anti-Aadhaar litigants immediately withdraw their xenophobic (and potentially Islamophobic) references to “illegal immigrants” and stick to their original plan of opposing Aadhaar on the basis of potential data theft and privacy violation by corporates and governments and as a means of exclusion from social security entitlements.


Clavell, Gemma Galdon.2011. The Political Economy of Surveillance in the (Wannabe) Global City in Surveillance & Society, Vol 8, No 4 .

[1] Usha Ramanathan responded, after this article was written, that she does not subscribe to the fear of the other. I feel, however, that this lack of fear needs to be actively pursued as a political project and the litigants and campaigners against Aadhaar must incorporate it in their work.

[Mythri Prasad-Aleyamma works on migration and urban studies at French institute of Pondicherry.]

– See more at: http://sanhati.com/articles/8110/#sthash.AQ3DhhUW.7p6DRZGE.dpuf



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