The next catastrophe to hit UID will be on breach of privacy, which will happen sooner than later

 Surabhi Agarwal 

Tech czar and soon to be politician Nandan Nilekani joined Twitter last week and already has some 650 plus followers. The man shunned all forms of social media during the last four years as the chief of the unique identify (UID) or Aadhaar project. So this sudden change in strategy is being considered as symbolic of his future avataar. There aren’t many people who doubt Nilekani’s intentions to contest elections, anyway.
At UID Authority of India (UIDAI) headquarters, officials were just coming to terms with the possibility of a Nilekani-less UID project when the Supreme Court dropped a bomb by directing government to not mandate it for availing citizen services. Interestingly, the order last week coincided with UID’s third anniversary of rolling out the first UID number in Tembhli district of Maharashtra in the last week of September 2010.
Without doubt, the government has been jolted out of its momentum by the Court order. From working on a break-neck speed to meet deadlines under the direct benefits transfer (DBT) initiative, user departments are not even sure if the mandatory linkage with UID is legal anymore. Nilekani’s team has got into the rescue mode, already. The UID Bill being pushed for a fast clearance and the petition for a review of the Supreme Court’s order is being readied.
But, it is not the first time when the UID headquarters are dealing with a major crisis. In its four year existence, the several wings in the Jeevan Bharti Building in Central Delhi have become used to courting controversies. But, the charade should stop now. The Centre should take this current crisis as an opportunity to put paid to all ideological, structural and legal issues against the UID project for once and all.
Here are a few questions to mull over.
Question 1: UID is a voluntary scheme and doesn’t give proof of citizenship as it is meant for all Indian residents. The national population register (NPR) which is being created under the home ministry is also for all residents and not just for citizens. It also uses the UID technology as the backend but unlike UID it is mandatory and legal. Why?
The government needs to come clean on the intention behind both the schemes. It should either divide their roles coherently or merge them into one. This way it will save itself considerable trouble post the Supreme Court order. The NPR — since it is mandatory and legal — can be the front end for the direct benefits transfer scheme and since it is linked to the unique identity or Aadhaar number at the core, the databases can be de-duplicated and the money can be easily transferred just like the way it was being done when linked through UID.
Question 2: Why does somebody who is on a deathbed needs a UID number to write a will or is the person who has registered his/her marraige using the number more married than the one who has registered it without the number?
Yes, one could argue that the potential benefits of linking all government services through a unique number are enormous. But, in the short-term, the government should realise that the infrastructure of Aadhaar is limited currently and it is trying to overhaul the century old governance mechanism of the country in a jiffy. So states like Delhi government which have mandated the Aadhaar number for availing the smallest of public utility services should give up on a few brownie points that they could earn with the party high-command and think about the hassle they are causing the general public, especially when the polls are just about the corner.
Instead, the Centre needs to get its thinking heads together and draw up a list of services which should be linked to the UID number in order of priority. Better to target the technology on welfare schemes with a high percentage of leakage than wasting crucial resources on something like marriage registration in the beginning. The positive press in derived from a large scale benefits will outstrip the negative reactions caused by a few disruptions here and there. Yes, LPG is one such scheme which will benefit hugely from UID linkage but who stands to gain the most from the savings– the government and not the citizen right now. So, the centre needs a strong test case which will give directly benefit the citizens in a profound and measurable way. The public distribution system, anyone?
Question 3: Even if the government passes the UID Bill in the next session of the Parliament, who takes care of the privacy issues? Isn’t my data with UID being referred to by various government agencies for verification and service delivery? What if they create a profile based on my transactions or some user agencies misuses my data?
The UID Bill takes care of the penalties and contingencies in case of any misappropriation with regard to resident data only if it takes place within UID. However, to make sure that other government agencies which are linking to UID are also taking the necessary precautions to protect the sensitive data, a privacy Bill was contemplated. It has been almost three years that the Bill has been mooted. It has been drawn and redrawn several times since, but the Bill looks nowhere near completion yet. So, the government needs to fast track the privacy bill and ensure that it is passed within a year or so. Otherwise, the next catastrophe to hit UID and the government will be on issue of breach of privacy, which will happen sooner than later, you can take it from me.


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