Policy Watch : UID Aadhaar Under Cloud

The UID (Aadhaar) Bill (National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010), pet project of Home Minister P Chidambaram and the UPA Government, is already underway in several states. Yet, a huge question mark now stands over its very existence. The Parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance has delivered a huge blow to the Aadhaar project, endorsing many of the apprehensions, concerns and objections which many activists had been raising (See Liberation April 2011).

The Parliament’s SCoF said, “…The Committee categorically convey their unacceptability of the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010…The Committee would, thus, urge the Government to reconsider and review the UID scheme.…”

In the first place, the SCoF is severely critical of the fact that the Aadhaar project has been underway since September 2010, without bothering to seek or get Parliament’s approval.

The SCoF also felt that the process of enrolment to get Aadhaar numbers, “compromises the security and confidentiality of information of Aadhaar number holders.” The SCoF noted that India has no law to protect the privacy of data collected from individuals. In the absence of any such legal protection of confidentiality, the SCoF feels that “it would be difficult to deal with the issues like access and misuse of personal information, surveillance, profiling, linking and matching of databases and securing confidentiality of information.”

The SCoF is strongly critical of “the hasty manner” in which the Aadhaar project was cleared, without any comprehensive study of the costs involved. A whopping Rs. 72,000 crore would be a rough estimate of the costs, if the project were to be implemented.

Above all, the SCoF report has questioned the very claim of ‘unique identity’ as established by biometric technology. The scheme, in the SCoF’s opinion, rests on “untested, unreliable technology.” The Biometrics Standards Committee has warned of a high error rate in fingerprint collection. The feasibility of IRIS imaging for India’s huge population is doubtful, and even within the Government itself, reservations have been expressed over it.

The SCoF has pointed out that a similar project in the United Kingdom was withdrawn. Rejecting the Government’s claim that the experience of developed countries should not be compared with that of India, the SCoF reports feels that “there are lessons from the global experience to be learnt,” relating to escalating costs, exaggerated claims for technology, and risks to the safety and privacy of citizens, which the Government has “ignored completely.”

The rejection of the UID project, headed by former CEO Nandan Nilekani, by the SCoF is a major blow to the UPA Government. The project is being mooted in the name of facilitating access of the poor to welfare measures. All over India, there is a deeply felt and asserted demand among the poor for identity and social security. The UPA Government is exploiting this felt need to push the misconceived idea of UID, which will basically provide a database of private information for corporate capital and security agencies. The uncertainty of biometric identification, especially in Indian climate and social circumstances, makes it the least suited method for providing the poor with secure identification.

Both in the case of FDI in retail and now, UID, the UPA Government acted with suspicious haste, seeking to push through projects without discussion or debate even in Parliament, ignoring the objections and protests in wider society. It seems that these policies, like so many others, are being scripted by corporate and imperialist interests, behind the scenes. In both cases, the Government has come a cropper, at least for the moment. The SCoF report on UID has strongly vindicated the objections being raised by many informed quarters.

Now, the Government must put on hold the entire Aadhaar project immediately. Instead, it must acknowledge that the poor are deprived of social security, rations etc, not so much because someone else usurps their identity or because they are unable to prove their identity, but because the social security and ration measures are themselves so exclusive and restrictive. If the social welfare schemes are restricted to a narrowly defined ‘BPL’ category, a poor person cannot benefit, even if he or she can provide ‘unique’ identification, until and unless they possess proof of being in the BPL category as defined by the Government! In fact, the obstacle race will only be made harder for the poor, who will have to match fingerprint and iris scan data before getting access to social welfare and food rations!

Instead of spending thousands of crores on doubtful technology and UID, the Government should spend on expanding and universalising the social security net, so that the poor do not have to keep proving their poverty credentials in order to access what is their right.

Liberation Archive