Identity politics of a different kind

The tussle between UIDAI and NPR is not about turf. It's about bureaucracy's control over us

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | April 1, 2012



India invests '3,00,000 crore every year on socio-economic schemes. In pure business terms, that’s a massive annual capital investment. In contrast public sector behemoth Coal India that had briefly become India’s largest company by market capitalisation is worth slightly over '2,50,000 crore.

The Indian state invests more in socio-economic schemes every year than the entire worth of one of India’s largest companies. In a way, then, one can argue that the Indian state is one of the largest companies in the world with a huge capital outlay and a total worth running into trillions of dollars. To ensure that every single rupee gets the maximum bang for the buck requires the beneficiaries to be accurately identified, mapped and monitored.

India is also home to a large population of illegal immigrants who not only pose a threat to national security but also dip into the schemes and benefits meant for Indians. According to some estimates, India hosts over 2.5 crore illegal immigrants on its soil. Just so you realise the enormity of the number, it’s about two Kolkatas put together. In such a scenario the logic of counting every single bona fide Indian citizen so that their activities could, as and when required, possibly be seen through the prism of national security is overwhelmingly strong. 

It’s the tussle between these two worldviews, often diverging and sometimes converging, that’s at the bottom of the constant skirmishes between the unique identification authority of India (UIDAI) and the national population register (NPR).

The idea of NPR was seeded during a local project to issue identity cards in selected border areas of Rajasthan in 1986. The national security environment of that time created an imperative so pressing that by 1993 a piece of legislation – the Specified Areas (Issue of Identity Cards to Residents) Bill – was introduced in parliament. But it could not be passed.

The Kargil intrusion was a rude jolt and a group of ministers (GoM) recommended the compulsory registration of citizens and non-citizens living in India. While at it, they also recommended that all citizens be given a multipurpose national identity card (MPNIC) and non-citizens issued cards of a different colour and design. The recommendations were accepted by the government in 2001 and the Citizenship Act 1955 was amended in 2004 by inserting Section 14A, which allowed the central government to compulsorily register every citizen of India and issue a national identity card.

Importantly, it allowed the government to maintain a national register of Indian citizens (NRIC) and the registrar general was designated as the registrar general of citizen registration. The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003 were framed and pilot projects were conducted at several places across the country to test the processes and procedures between 2003 and 2006. The results of the pilot projects were placed before an empowered group of ministers (EGoM) which recommended the creation of an NPR as the first step towards creating a national register of Indian citizens (NRIC). It’s this history one needs to keep in mind when discussing the objectives of NPR.

The Aadhaar programme of the UIDAI, on the other hand, has completely different moorings. It’s an idea of the 21st century and a thought process of an emerging, economically confident India more at peace with itself. In-built within its logic is an introspective attitude of how to ensure that the benefits of development reach every single Indian. The idea of the Aadhaar programme is also rooted in an unshakeable belief that technological solutions and a cooperative participation with the private sector can lead to a larger social good of providing sharper and focused assistance to those yet to get on the bandwagon of growth.

The UIDAI was established by the government in February 2009 with a mandate to issue a unique 12-digit number to all residents of India and maintain the UID number database. The government admits that the programme is aimed at ensuring inclusive growth by providing a form of identity to those who do not have any.

There are genuine divergences in the objectives of NPR and UIDAI. Their worldviews are from different eras. While one is rooted in a mindset of exclusion and security, the other is inclusive and participative. While these divergences can explain differences in issues like data points, methodologies and secure storage of data, it does not explain the constant undercurrent of hostility that exists between these two programmes.

Nor does it explain why the popular discourse on these two programmes rests exclusively on ‘duplication’ and additional cost to the exchequer.

In September last year a planning commission panel concluded that increased accuracy of iris as a third biometric, as compared to the use of all ten fingerprints, was marginal considering the cost implication and ‘other complexities’. In fact, a note signed by planning commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia argued that the exclusion of iris and convergence of NPR and UIDAI could cut the combined cost of the two projects by half.

By leaving iris out of the purview of the NPR/MPNIC, the cost was projected to come down to '10,328 crore from '13,438 crore. The note further said that if the UID were to take the data entirely from NPR and its Aadhaar numbers superimposed on MPNIC, the technology-related costs of UIDAI would come down to around '6,000 crore from the projected '17,000 crore for the entire 1.21 billion Indians.

This note raised three questions. First, what exactly was the cost implication? Second, why was iris as a biometric being cast aside? Third, who was this move actually benefiting?

Let’s look at cost. By the note’s own admission the total saving by combining both the projects and by dropping iris as a biometric parameter would be approximately '14,000 crore. It’s a good saving. But in the context of the substantial proportion of '300,000 crore subsidy being siphoned off every year and the obvious integration issues due to the different worldviews of the both the projects, the cost argument seemed not only misplaced, but misleading.

Let’s go to iris now. World over high-technology security companies are moving over to a combination of fingerprinting and iris as an integrated biometric solution for establishing identity. Iris is considered to be better than fingerprinting simply because it’s almost impossible to replicate. Indian ingenuity, juggad, has already shown that fingerprinting doesn’t stand a chance. One doesn’t need to look far. The manner in which NREGA payments have been subverted in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh is a case in point. Iris as a biometric parameter has the potential to prevent the loss of at least ten times the saving of '14,000 crore touted by the plan panel.

The answer to the third question is where the buck stops. NPR has always been an exercise in achieving and establishing greater control over people. In short, NPR allows the bureaucrats to practically have a stranglehold on every single Indian. Aadhaar was always an exercise in de-bureaucratisation to empower every single Indian to delink himself from the rent-seeking bureaucracy that was siphoning off his benefits in collusion with contractors and politicians.

Nandan Nilekani of UIDAI was clearly unhappy with the note. He knew that this was an intransigent bureaucracy closing ranks and trying to stave off a possible devolution of its powers. He directly went to prime minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi and explained how this note could derail this project. Both acted quickly and decisively. The plan panel had to go in for a rethink and finally decided to endorse UIDAI’s move to include iris as a third biometric, apart from photographs and fingerprints, in the Aadhaar card. The registrar general of India (RGI) followed by including iris as a biometric for NPR. This round might have gone to the UIDAI, but the battle is far from over. After all once you have tasted power it’s not easy to give it up.

Swaminathan is a National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) Fellow. He is also a Senior Fellow in Observer Research Foundation (ORF). A dyed-in-wool digital native, he is one of the few surviving members of the original tribe of Internet crazies who used floppy diskettes, DOS prompts and WordStar

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