Usha Ramanathan

Staesman, Uagust 8, 2013

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Memoranda of Understanding, data sharing agreements and permanent enrolment centres tell a very different story from the images that the UIDAI has attempted to conjure up about the UID project. That it is cheap, at $2.50 per person, as Nandan Nilekani said in April in Washington. That the UIDAI only gives a yes or no answer, and does not share any information. That it is a finite exercise, with 600 million enrolled by 2014, and the rest in a phase that will follow. These are reassuring, perhaps, but they are not true.
On 23 November 2009, Mr Nilakeni told a gathering with a generous dash of lawyers to work on a law that would lay at rest questions that some in officialdom were asking, about passing on information on residents to the UIDAI. The law did not happen; but MoUs did. The MoUs not merely skirted the concerns raised; they reduced states to subservience, where they would act as instructed by the UIDAI, with little in the nature of reciprocal commitments. Why the states willingly fell in line is a mystery yet to be solved, especially since what the UIDAI was setting out to create was a centralized database of residents over which states would have no control.
The MoUs conform to a pattern. They refer to the relationship between states and the UIDAI as a “partnership”. Government and other agencies are reduced to ‘Registrars’ for the UIDAI. The UIDAI would set the tasks, specify the software; and the Registrars would deploy the enrolling agencies “pre-qualified” by the UIDAI. The UIDAI would conduct “periodic audit of the enrolment process and to this end shall have the power to visit and inspect offices of the Registrars and enrolling agencies”.
“Such audits,” the Kerala MOU, as a case in point, reads, “are necessary to ensure the integrity of the enrolment process….” Inexplicably, the states asked for no reciprocal authority to inspect the UIDAI and audit its working. The UIDAI would “prescribe protocols for transmission of data,” “to ensure the confidentiality, privacy and security of data,” and “prescribe limits for fees that could be charged for issuing a UID number”. The states demanded no role in any of this.
What the states had were responsibilities and obligations. The state ‘shall’ “cooperate and collaborate with the UIDAI in conducting proof of concept studies and pilots…,” appoint the Registrars from among its departments as prescribed by the UIDAI and create mechanisms and provide “logistic and liaison support” to the UIDAI. The states are to “provide required financial and other resources to the Registrars to carry out the enrolment process…”; this, of course, figures nowhere in the computation of costs of the project.
The UIDAI would issue instructions, and the state would follow them. If these were not followed, the UIDAI would make “reasonable attempts to discuss and attempt to resolve difficulties with the State Government….If the recommendations of the UIDAI are not implemented and matter settled to the satisfaction of both the parties, the UIDAI shall have the option to de-register the concerned Registrar and/or demand replacement of a concerned enrolment agency …” Unilateral, and no reciprocal obligation.
What was in it for the state governments? The MoUs said that during enrolment the Registrars may collect any additional information from residents, apart from that to be sent to the UIDAI for enrolment, and keep it with them. Even as the UIDAI assured residents that their UID number would be despatched only to them, the MoUs promise to send it to the Registrars simultaneously, which they can then append to the information already with them; and the process of convergence is set to begin.


In the beginning, enrolment was projected as a one-time activity. By 2014, 600 million would be enrolled.
Then the rest. But, of course, it cannot be that simple. A ‘Policy on
Permanent Centre Model’ has hit the stands, in a manner of speaking. Now that enrolment has reached a point where the project may be
difficult to shelve, the un-discussed aspects are beginning to emerge. The plan is to set up permanent enrolment centres to
“facilitate ongoing enrolments and updates”. Updates? Information about marriage, migration, mobile number, death or other personal changes would require demographic updates.
Newborns would need to be databased; children would have to have their biometrics taken when they stabilize which may be when they are around 15; badly captured
biometrics would need
re-enrolment. “Events like accidents and diseases” may lead to biometric authentication failures and may have to be
re-presented on the
database. And, capping all this: “Residents are
recommended to update their biometric data every ten years.” This is the first admission of a
concern that those
questioning the wisdom of the project have been voicing from the
beginning: that biometrics change, age, vanish with age and circumstance.
Re-registering the population every ten years? Has this been thought through by someone in government? Where can we find what the thinking is?
The “suggested minimum station requirement” is pegged at 1854 in 585 districts to be set up by the `Registrars’. This is a grand vision of ubiquity, where police stations, post offices and, for the moment, PDS shops are joined by Permanent Centres.
Between ‘data sharing’, re-registration of biometrics every ten years, and ‘permanent centres’, this is a very different project from what it marketed itself as being when it began.
There has, so far, been no independent audit of cost, process or outcomes. May be now is the time.

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