usha ramanathan

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WHEN the UID project was launched, it was promoted as treading high moral ground because it was said that it would provide the poor with an identity. Actually though, what was expected was “that with this number, the poor will no longer be invisible to the state”. The profiling of the poor is an undeniable part of the project. There is no attempt to deny it either. Backers of the project assert with a confidence that is plainly untested that the poor have no use for privacy. According to them, the poor are only concerned about the necessities of life: food, work, education and housing. The corollary: Privacy is an elite concept.
Is there any truth in this? Is privacy irrelevant for the poor?
We could start with the Dilli Annashree Yojana. In Delhi, there are a significant number of people below the poverty line who are not officially on the BPL list. There is an artificial ceiling on the percentage of those acknowledged as BPL, which is linked to what the Planning Commission deems to be the total percentage of the Indian population who are below the poverty line. In December 2012, the Delhi government, in an initiative that drew its inspiration from the Central government’s plan to use cash transfers as its political tool, decided to make a monthly cash transfer of Rs 600 into bank accounts in the names of women of two lakh families. To be eligible for this scheme, women are required to fill in a form, enrol for a UID number, and open an account in a bank. The form contains a series of columns, including one that asks the applicant if she has been afflicted with TB, leprosy or HIV. The form is complete only with the UID enrolment number. Once the form is ready, it is uploaded on to the system and sent to the bank along with all information in the form, including the information regarding health. There is no explanation why this information is being collected, what is intended to be done with the information, why the bank is being sent this information, and whether this will affect the entitlements under the Annashree Yojana.
Questions to those tasked with getting the women to enrol for a UID, and with filling the form, elicited an explanation that ran along these lines: the Annashree Yojana provided an opportunity to collect data and anything which the government thought may be of interest in relation to this population may as well be gathered at this point. There were no principles or norms on what information may be collected, how it may be used, whether and how it may be shared or transferred, and what the purpose of this exercise was. Nothing.
It is, perhaps, no accident that the confidentiality of health records is taking a beating in this new era where privacy is being reduced to irrelevance. In April 2013, Mr Nandan Nilekani was telling an audience at the Centre for Global Development in Washington: “You can use the ID and build credit history … Or you can build an electronic health record system. Since it is on a cloud, you can take it with you wherever you go.” The protections are nowhere in sight.
The nuclear power project in Koodankulam has been the site of agitation for over two years now, with locals and fisherfolk in the region protesting the threat that they fear the project poses to their habitat and livelihood. They also worry about the adoption of a technology which is inherently hazardous so close to their homes. Fukushima has done little to allay their anxiety. In May 2012, after months of asking the government to heed their concerns, 23,000 protesters decided to register their protest by surrendering their voter IDs. This may have been legitimate, non-violent and legal, but it was annoyance enough for the administration to provoke a revenue official to remark that if the protesters chose to surrender their voter IDs, officials of public distribution system (PDS) would be instructed to suspend their PDS cards. “Those who surrender the (voter ID),” he is reported to have said, “will not be able to get essential commodities from ration shops.”
Now, there has been a push for the voter ID to have the UID number attached to it. With what ease could the bureaucracy display its annoyance! That the convergence of data bases ~ where the voter ID, the ration card, the bank account, the scholarship register, the pension list, the individual’s record in a health facility all carry one number which can help profile a person and pick out where they are on different databases ~ will make the state, and other agencies that are able to use convergence as a tool, powerful over a people is no comforting thought. It has all manner of implications for difference, dissent, and democracy which need urgent debate.
The ease with which the erasure of individuals can be achieved was demonstrated in Kosovo. It was called `identity cleansing’, where databases were cleansed of the identity of its ethnic Albanian residents ~ ID cards, land registries, licence plates, names from electricity companies. Databasing and data convergence lend it a simplicity against which it is important to provide safeguards. The privacy right, in its various dimensions, is such a safeguard. Then there is the `right to be forgotten’ which is an element of the privacy right, and which has different meanings in different contexts.
In September 2010, when Mr Bezwada Wilson signed the statement of 17 eminent persons raising questions about the UID project (the others included Justice V R Krishna Iyer, Prof Romila Thapar, Justice AP Shah and SR Sankaran), we asked him what he had against the project. This project wants to fix our identities through time, he said. Even after we are dead. The information held about us will be fixed to us by the UID number. Changing an identity will become impossible. But, Wilson continued, we are working for the eradication of the practice of manual scavenging, for rehabilitation of those who have been engaged in manual scavenging, and then leaving behind that tag of manual scavenger. How can we accept a system that does not allow us to shed that identity and move on? How can a number that links up databases be good for us?
So far, it was the decennial census that acted as an aid to making policy. The census is confidential, and only aggregated anonymous data is released, and used. But now, outside the protection of the Census Act, the Socio-Economic Caste Census is being done with the UID number appended to each individual’s record; and this has no confidentiality clause protecting the individual. This process gathers information about age, income, employment, education, migration, condition of house, membership of groups, whether released bonded labour, ownership of livestock, whether there is a clock, fan, steel almirah, insurance policy, piped water ~ the list goes on. And the UID number is attached to it, making each individual distinguishable to all manner of agencies who may dip into it. If there is any reticence about giving personal, and household, information, then the individual, and household, may simply be excluded!
The author is an academic activist. She has researched the UID and its ramifications since 2009