The Statesman
26 Jul 2013

Usha Ramanathan
Four years into the UID project, on 31 January 2013, Ministers in the Central Cabinet were asking, what is the UID? A card? A number? Or both?
There has been much perplexed questioning in these four years. 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)? 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 or an app? Is it a crow or a cuckoo?
Despite the opacity of the project, its encounter with Parliament being disastrous, and many questions being raised about it, the project has surged ahead. How did that happen?
Mr Nandan Nilekani answered that in his April talk at the Centre for Global Development in Washington. “Our view was that there was bound to be opposition,” he said. “That is a given. So, how do we address that? One was, do it quickly… Second was, do it quietly … Third was, we said in any case there is going to be a coalition of opponents. So is there a way to create a positive coalition of people who have a stake in its success? So, one of the big things here is that there is a huge coalition of, you know, organisations, governments, banks, companies, others who have a stake now in its future. So, create a positive coalition that has the power to overpower or deal with anyone who opposes it.”
Quickly. It was announced very early in the project that the numbers would begin to roll out between August 2010 and February 2011. Enrolment actually began on 29 September 2010, well within target. This was a demonstration of efficiency which was to show up the difference between the UID project and any other such task undertaken by the government. The problem, of course, was that this haste left no time for field testing, or to verify the feasibility of the project or its details. Details such as, biometrics as unique identifiers across the swathe of population and across time; introducers who do not know the persons they are introducing to the system but who are “approved introducers” because they are known to the Registrar; “biometric exceptions”, that is persons for whom neither fingerprints nor iris work to enrol or to authenticate; the errors that rampant outsourcing was introducing into the system; the leakage that One Time Passwords has made likely, and the faked and spoofed fingerprint and the ease of identity fraud.
These were still in the realm of the little known or unknown, but decisions to adopt biometrics had been made even before the experiment was to begin. Haste has meant that an untested system has been imposed on an entire population, and whether it will work or not will be known after a passage of time. The problem is compounded by the fervour with which the UIDAI, and Mr Nilekani, have been working to have the number seeded in all databases, and to have systems re-engineered to accommodate the UID.
Quietly. There has, in fact, been no public debate on the project. The government has not spoken except to make the UID mandatory. Mr Nilekani and his team have been hard selling the UID to individuals and institutions, so that their adoption of the UID number would push up enrolment. The quiet on the consequences of the project is especially deafening, and no amount of questioning has produced more than a sullen silence. That explains why Aruna Roy has been speaking out against the project as being disrespectful of the poor and imposing on them a project about which they have been told nothing, the implications of which are unknown to them, and where they have been informed – after being initially told that this is an inclusive project – that they will lose their entitlements if they do not enrol and get themselves a number.
The silence has been used effectively in the non-provision of information. When information was requested on the “full name, address and websites of the foreign companies which are of US and non-US origin or control”, there was something brazen about the response that “there are no means to verify whether the said companies/organisations are of US origin or not”. These companies were Sagem Morpho, L1 Identity Solutions and Accenture Services – with close ties with foreign intelligence agencies such as the CIA and Homeland Security! RTI activist Rakesh Dubbudu asked for the Detailed Project Report which Ernst and Young produced for the UIDAI, but it was denied to him, citing breach of privilege of Parliament as the reason – presumably because the UIDAI had made it part of its submissions to the Standing Committee of Finance. When the contracts with companies that are holding our data were asked to be disclosed, commercial and competitive interest was cited while refusing to give information.
Creating a positive
coalition to overwhelm opposition: state governments, central ministries and departments, banks, oil companies, the medical establishment, schools … the list continues to grow of those who are being encouraged to demand the UID as a prerequisite to services. On 29 June, Mr Nilekani reportedly said in a speech at the IIM Bangalore that they were in preliminary discussions with embassies to use the UID number to “simplify visa application procedures”. The passport, it would seem, is not sovereign document enough! Is
anyone in government
In May 2010, a team of corporate heads including the leadership from Chlorophyl, Pidilite, Future Brands, and Procter and Gamble with a few others put together a document for the UIDAI titled “Aadhaar: Communicating to a Billion”. The UID was a product to be branded and sold, and the group’s prescription was to “create a simple uncomplicated construct that is not open to multiple interpretations”. The message of basic data + biometrics producing an identity was indeed simple. When it did not generate the enthusiasm that the UIDAI had perhaps hoped it would, mandatory enrolment did the trick. Alongside, by dwelling on the corruption and leakages that are commonly perceived problems in service delivery, and the `last mile’ being somewhat intractable, the UID has been promoted as the wand that will wish all this away. At the Centre for Global Development, in April, Mr Nilekani fed the audience a wild fantasy: “Today, we have reached a point where large intractable social problems – not all problems but many of them – can be solved using what we have.” May be it was hyperbole; just may be.
Mr Nilekani says to “think of this (the UID) as an app that answers the question ‘who am I?’ and then you can build all kinds of applications on it.”
This is how the business model is being currently marketed.
The author is an academic activist. She has researched the UID and its ramifications since 2009