A parliamentary committee is about to reject the National Identification Authority of India Bill of 2010. Here is an article from The Hindu about it. Here is my post from a few months ago on the UID project.
The success of Aadhaar is important for India. Very important. It is a foundational pillar for nation-building (as in Aadhaar) . And it is really, really disheartening to see it being attacked and brought down.
The reasons for the opposition to the bill in the Parliamentary Committee per The Hindu article are,
Sources in the Committee say the Bill has been rejected in its current form on the grounds of the project’s high cost, as well as concerns regarding national security, privacy and duplication of the National Population Register’s (NPR) activities. One major sticking point was reportedly the Aadhaar project’s ambition to enrol every “resident” of the country, rather than every “citizen.”
A common misperception is that Aadhaar is linked to an entitlement program. It is easy to understand why there is this misperception. Today any entitlement program – PDS (ration card) or a passport – has the identification and entitlement program tied together. Sometimes, one entitlement program might use the identification from another entitlement program (a ration card can be used for many purposes other than getting rations at a Fair Price Shop), but there is no stand-alone identification program.
Aadhaar is a stand-alone identification program. It does not come with an entitlement program. It simply links a number/name/father’s name/address with biometric identifiers [Update: It is actually number/name/date of birth/address]. Every entitlement program comes with a set of qualifiers (PDS for BPL, passport for citizens…).
What qualifies someone for a government entitlement program can vary quite a bit. Aadhar cannot and should not duplicate a verification system for all these qualifiers. But once someone is qualified say by the PDS to receive a ration card, if the UID number is linked to the ration card, every time the beneficiary wants to get subsidized rice from a PDS shop, biometric identification is fast and infallible.
With that background let’s examine each of the reasons for opposing the bill.
Inclusion of “residents” as opposed to “citizens”
The people who raise this as a problem must be under the impression that the UID number by itself confers some benefit. But it doesn’t. Let’s say the Secretary in charge of PDS thinks that only citizens should get the benefit of subsidized rice and an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh should not. Perhaps he thinks that by giving a UID number to the Bangladeshi immigrant we are enabling him to “take advantage” of the PDS.
We are not. Whatever verification procedures are used by the PDS today to distinguish between an illegal immigrant and a real citizen should stay in place. The UID could be an additional layer of verification (you do have to show some government ID to get the UID) but it cannot and should not replace what PDS has in place. However, once the beneficiary’s qualifications have been verified by PDS, his UID is linked to his eligibility for subsidized rice. He uses biometric identification to get his rice.
The same logic applies to getting a passport or anything that is a benefit for citizens but not for residents.
But then you might ask, why not just have Aadhaar cover citizens and not residents. Here are two good reasons why:
- Residents may not have entitlements. But remember this is not just about entitlements from the government. There are KYC requirements for opening a bank account where UID can help. And non-citizen residents can also open accounts.
- To distinguish between a citizen and a resident is not an easy process. It is best done by other departments, like the Home Ministry. It would greatly slow down Aadhaar if they had to do it.
Issues related to privacy of those who have been assigned a UID number
Aadhaar has been designed to give answer’s to questions like “Is this man whose thumb is on the scanner, Ram Mohan?” It replies in yes or no. It does not answer questions like what is the name and address of a man whose UID number is 12345…
This is as good as it gets from a privacy standpoint. Now that doesn’t mean that it will be foolproof. Nothing is. After all there is a database somewhere where names and addresses and UID numbers are stored. But isn’t that true about any database anywhere in the world? If you want to live in the modern world and one day become a first world country you are going to have your biometric identification somewhere.
Home Minister P. Chidambaram has also raised issues about security weaknesses in Aadhaar. “The possibility of creating fake identity profiles is real” he writes. I can’t see how that would happen given that the biometric data has to belong to a real person and it can’t be someone who is already in the database.
Perhaps he means that non-citizens can get a UID number and that shouldn’t be allowed. As I have argued above, it is not UIDAI’s responsibility to qualify people for citizenship. The Home Ministry should continue using the methods they use today like police verification for passports.
The problem in tackling objections related to privacy or security is that the person who is in charge of security or privacy has to just think of scenarios where your system will break. An honest discussion about the probability of the event and it’s downside risk is never really possible if the people objecting have an agenda. And you can be sure that most people who are opposing Aadhaar have an agenda.
Duplication of work being done for National Population Register
I haven’t paid it much attention, but my guess is that the National Population Register is a program for identification plus it also classifies people into citizens and non-citizens. Why can’t the National Population Register use Aadhaar as its ID infrastructure? Or if it provides better ID infrastructure let’s do a “dare to compare” and pick the better one.
Aadhaar is not just a superior technical solution. It’s implementation is designed to be scalable at low cost. Which is why they have been making such rapid progress. It helps that Nandan Nilekani ran a multi billion dollar company tech company before he volunteered to do this. He knows how to do this. And he has just a single point agenda – he is in a position to do some good for the country and he is taking that chance. Try doing something like this with a politician at the helm.
The massive expenditure that the project entails
If you have a big country, it takes a lot of money. I have seen some estimates that the cost of enrolling the whole country the investment is just over $3B. Compare that with the cost of subsidies on food, fertilizer and petroleum at over $29B per annum. Some say that the leakages in just the PDS system are 85% out of a total budget of $12B. You do the math. And that is just the savings in one entitlement program.
The truth is that these questions about Aadhaar are not being posed by people who want India to have an identification system that brings us into the 21st century. I don’t know what their agendas are. But I do know that if 85% of PDS subsidies are leaked through corruption, the numbers are large enough that there will be powerful forces ranged against anything like Aadhaar that threatens the destroy the gravy train. I also know that a program with a $7B budget is big enough that people will want a piece of the action. And if they can’t get it, the next best thing is to bring the whole thing down.
If I can’t get mine, nobody can. India be damned.