Benefits of a unique identity number will not be diluted if the government allays genuine apprehensions of its critics
Jagdeep Chhokar | December 15, 2010
A start has been made to provide unique identification (UID) numbers in Tembhli village in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra on September 29. While the UID project started with much fanfare and enthusiasm, gradually some doubts started emerging, which have now acquired the form of a “No UID campaign”. Opposing positions have hardened or are at least hardening. Before matters reach a point of no return, it may be useful to take a kind of an unbiased or balanced view of what is at stake in the whole issue and what can be done.
Background and evolution
The ‘background’ of UID, at the website of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) says that the “unique identification project was initially conceived by the Planning Commission as an initiative that would provide identification for each resident across the country and would be used primarily as the basis for efficient delivery of welfare services. It would also act as a tool for effective monitoring of various programmes and schemes of the government.” The UIDAI “was constituted and notified by the Planning Commission on 28 January, 2009 as an attached office under the aegis of Planning Commission.” Its role, as stated on the website, “is to develop and implement the necessary institutional, technical and legal infrastructure to issue unique identity numbers to Indian residents.” The stated mission “is to issue a unique identification number that can be verified and authenticated in an online, cost-effective manner, which is robust enough to eliminate duplicate and fake identities.”
The three first steps described in the evolution of the UID are (a) “unique ID for below poverty line (BPL) families” given to the National Informatics Center (NIC) on March 3, 2006 by the Department of Information Technology, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, (b) a “strategic vision on the UIDAI project” prepared by Wipro (consultant for the design phase and programme management phase of the pilot UIDAI project) that envisaged the close linkage of the UID to the electoral database, (c) since the Registrar General of India was engaged in the creation of the National Population Register and issuance of multi-purpose national identity cards to citizens of India at the same time, it was decided to collate the two schemes – the National Population Register under the Citizenship Act, 1955 and the Unique Identification Number project of the Department of Information Technology.
The above is a brief, and debatably selective, description of the early stages of the UID.
National security and terrorism
National security is an issue on which one assumes there cannot be much disagreement since if the nation is in danger or suffers grievous damage, the citizens obviously suffer. Terrorism has been a constant fact and threat in this country for over 20 years now. It is a curse that the country has not been able to get rid of despite varied attempts by different governments. The geopolitical situation has of course contributed to it. That the world as a whole is now more prone to terrorist acts than it was a few decades ago also seems irrefutable.
It is in this climate of increasing global terrorism that a proposal to set up a National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) was reported to have been initiated by the home ministry. The purpose of NATGRID is supposedly to coordinate intelligence-gathering efforts of various agencies. It is supposed to harmonise the databases of various intelligence agencies and coordinate and synergise their efforts in tracking and surveillance so that national security can be ensured. The spread and threat of terrorism has made this exercise even more relevant and urgent. According to reports, some 20 to 25 databases are proposed to finally feed into the NATGRID. Some of these are reported to be those of train and rail travel, income tax records, bank account details and credit card transactions, driver licences, property transactions. The NATGRID proposal came to light around the same time that the UID scheme was taking shape.
Sources of doubt
The apprehensions about UID seem to stem from several distinct but interlinked sources. The first is lack of trust in the government agencies by people at large. It certainly is sad but also true that the visible symbols of the state such as the police do not inspire confidence amongst the people at large. The general image of the political class certainly does not evoke respect though people may pay homage to politicians in order to get their work done. The bureaucracy also does not fare much better. Added to this lack of trust are painful experiences of the Emergency and other occasions when personal information was ‘used’ by government agencies (and their henchmen) to harass and blackmail individuals. Similar experiences get repeated every now and then, to different individuals and sometimes to groups of people.
The second is technology. It is often said, and believed, that technology is value-free. Whether technology, by itself, is value-free or not, it can be nobody’s case that even the use of technology is value-free. Perhaps the most celebrated example of that is the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the holocausts of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Many of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project lived to regret what they did.
What is its relevance in the UID case? It has been reported that whenever the concerns of possible misuse of UID have been raised, the UIDAI authorities refer to their mission (“to issue a unique identification number that can be verified and authenticated in an online, cost-effective manner, which is robust enough to eliminate duplicate and fake identities”), adding that they are doing a technical job of issuing UIDs and are not responsible for its uses. The UIDAI is well within its mandate to take this position but this does not help in allaying fears and doubts.
The third is the threat of exclusion. While it is often said, and correctly, that the accessibility of entitlements will become easier if one has a UID, what is left unsaid is the flip side of this equation that if one does not have a UID, there might be absolutely no access to entitlements! This introduces an element of coercion in the whole scheme of things. With the UIDAI having signed memorandums of understandings with 33 states and union territories, 11 banks, and other institutions such as Life Insurance Corporation of India, Department of Posts and the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas “to deliver Aadhaar to residents”, the possibility of having a UID effectively compulsory becomes more real.
Yet another source of doubt is the way the scheme has been ‘promoted’ or is being ‘sold’. Whenever an article appears in the media even mildly critical of the scheme, it is almost immediately and invariably followed by a couple of pieces praising the scheme generally extolling its pro-poor virtues, completely ignoring all apprehensions or an almost summary dismissal of the apprehensions. In these days of increasing citizen awareness and the diversity of opinions in India, it seems incredible to have a scheme, which has only positives and no negatives.
The way the UIDAI was created, by a kind of an executive order without any public debate, is also a source of apprehension. The draft of a National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 is now finally available. The bill appears to be largely aimed at granting the statutory status to the Authority rather than its regulation. It does not contain details of implementation, which are covered by ambiguous phrases such as “as may be specified by regulations”.
A major issue pertaining to the UID is that of identity. Undoubtedly, the imperative of having a valid and undisputable proof of identity is indisputable. A verifiable identity is the gateway not only to the vast array of essential services but also to the individual’s exercise of citizenship. Given the uneven development in the country, it is also a fact that very large sections of the population find it impossible to prove their legal existence and a missing identity proof remains at the core of their systemic denial. Included among these millions are the urban homeless, the nomadic, the displaced, the forcibly evicted, the refugees of violent conflict and above all the mobile migrants, particularly those who have crossed their state boundaries and have drifted into cities from their villages for work and employment. A lack of identity becomes the trigger to their systematic exclusion – they cannot claim subsidised ration, access public health service, demand inclusion in pro-poor schemes, get their children into schools or even find rental accommodation. They cannot open bank accounts, remit money or get loans – social security is too far a cry. They are the first to be picked up by the police and last to be saved by the state, if at all.
On the other hand, there are those flush with ration cards, voter IDs, credit cards, licences, passports, residence proofs, bank statements, credit cards and credit card histories, frequent flyer and lounge access cards and, of course, the now omnipresent PAN. All of these, in various combinations and circumstances, assert their identity beyond doubt.
A unique and indisputable identity to all residents of this country, regardless of their fortune or fate, is obviously essential. If that process can also clean up, integrate, converge and de-duplicate, thereby arresting leakages and fraud, thus bringing new governance to the tarnished act of development, so much the better. But is the UID scheme, as currently formulated and being implemented, the most efficacious way of doing it? This is the question that cries for an answer.
Providing a valid, unambiguous and verifiable identity to those who need it; allaying apprehensions of those who have them; and ensuring national security are not, and need not be, mutually exclusive. It should be possible to do all these in an inclusive way. That the poor want the UID whereas the rich are protesting against it, as some so-called analysts have been saying, is not only simplistic but also mischievous. It amounts to exacerbating the cleavages in society that are already bad enough and which the nation does not need.
With polarised positions developing fast, the only way out is transparency, openness, and dialogue so that something like an acceptable consensus can be achieved which can only happen by wider public participation. It should happen as the National Identification Authority of India Bill goes through the legislative process. All stakeholders need to work towards expediting that.
Given the wide extent of the impact that the UID is likely to have or at least can have, socio-political questions need to be squarely faced. It does not do any good to any one for the UIDAI to say that it is only doing a technical job and is not responsible for the use and consequences of what it creates. It owes it to the country to bring the concerns to the attention of whoever are the appropriate authorities to deal with these concerns. It may also be wiser to acknowledge the negatives and work to reduce their impact rather than trying to brush them under the carpet.
The questions about UID are not technical or technological; they refer to the functioning and governance of society. These can, need, and should be responded to by the government of the day of which UIDAI is a part.
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