In Which Basab Gets UIDed

A couple of weeks back, I was in the Infosys Bhubaneswar offices. On Friday, which was my last day at work before my vacation, UID enrollment was going on on campus. SBI, one of the agencies entrusted to enroll people into Aadhar was going to be at Infosys for a week.

I decided that I must get enrolled. There would never be a better chance. And so I did. But it took me two trips and 3 hours.

UID or Aadhaar as it is called is India’s unique identification project. It is a massive, in fact the biggest, biometric identification program anywhere in the world. It is quite different from programs like the US Social Security programs or any country’s passport or driving license programs. It’s sole focus is on unique, infallible biometric identification. It does not have any benefit or purpose associated with it. Rather, it is designed such that any benefits program (like the Public Distribution System) or regulatory purpose (id of bank account owners) may use the Aadhaar infrastructure.

It will be cheap, fast and near infallible. Say you walk up to a bank to open an account. You fill up a form that states your name, UID number and maybe even father’s name and address. Then, you peer into a lens that scans your iris and sends its data and the data from the form to the UID system. The UID system simply sends a Yes or a No – Yes this person, whose iris you scanned, is who he claims to be (name, father’s name etc.). The system will never send back your name, father’s name etc. Just a yay or a nay. Clever.

Actually, it is clever in other ways too. By avoiding a direct connection with any benefits program, it entirely avoids the politics surrounding any benefits program. Also, the government plans to run only those parts of the system itself that it absolutely must. The rest is being outsourced. So we will hopefully not build up a huge bureaucracy to run Aadhar, just a small one.

The original team that worked on the UID project had many team members (and its program manager, Raj Mashruwala) who came from tech companies in the Bay Area. I attended a talk and panel discussion about UID by some of them at Google in Mountain View a few months ago.

Most Indians are cynical about corruption and so a common refrain you will hear about Aadhaar is that politicians and bureaucrats will never let it succeed because it will make leakages in benefits programs so rare. One of the panelists at the event was an ex-IAS officer, now entrepreneur. He said that pols and bureaucrats, especially the ones in New Delhi, won’t mind at all if petty corruption of the kind you find in PDS and NREG went away. In fact, pols might want to take credit for eliminating this most visible form of corruption. The big bucks are anyway in scams like the 2G scam, where UID has no role to play.

So anyway, back to my own odyssey to get enrolled in Aadhaar. At 5pm on Friday, I wound up my work and went and stood in line. There were probably 15 people in front of me. A form was handed out, which I filled out, but not after having to ask for help. Why is there a “Relationship” field after “Father’s Name”? It may not have been this exactly, but there were a few totally befuddling fields to enter.

The line was moving really, really slowly. When my turn came, it was close to 645pm. And then I discovered why.

There were two stations. At the first station, the form you had filled out, was entered into an application on a computer. The trouble was that they (Aadhar or SBI, I don’t know who) needed the fields to be populated in both English and Oriya.

Now typing in Oriya using a QWERTY keyboard needs special skills and a special keyboard. The next best thing is to type in English and transliterate. The enrollment application used Google Translate’s transliteration service. Which is pretty nifty, but only in the hands of a trained operator. The woman at the first station was, shall we say, less trained. As a result, the Oriya part of the form was taking forever.

Eventually, I had to ask her to step aside and let me do it. I can’t read Oriya. So I would type in Roman, transliterate and then she would tell me if it was OK or not. We made some progress. But even with this arrangement, something like “R. K. Puram” proved extremely difficult.

Just after 7pm I got done with the data entry. Now onwards to station 2. Station 2 was for finger printing, iris scan and a photograph. But just my luck. As soon as I sat down, the network connection just disappeared. The operator couldn’t pull my record from Station 1.

The operator tried various things, which to me looked like a variety of paths to reach the same file folder on the other computer which was no longer connected. Then he would jiggle some wires and try the same series of things again.

Doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results is called insanity. Or a random number generator. Windows is somewhere between the two. Sometimes it actually produces results. So I let him keep trying for 5 minutes before I asked him to call his supervisor.

He called (not phone called, just called out loud). The man was getting a cold coffee at the coffee station across the hall. He got back with his drink in another 5 mins.

He tried the same thing a couple of times. But not for too long. He seemed to have had some experience with the mysterious ways of Windows. He rebooted. Another 7 minutes.

Now, finally, the operator had my record. The iris scan was a snap. Next was the finger printing. No problem. And then, what should have been the easiest thing, taking a photograph with webcam, didn’t work. And finally, that’s when I gave up.

I had a scheduled call at 730pm. I left at 725pm, disappointed. I wasted 2.5 hrs of my life and had nothing to show for it.

People say that the profit motive automatically brings in efficiency. This was a clear example of how that is often giving credit where credit is not due. SBI is enrolling people into Aadhaar because it has a vast network and great reach which positions it well to profit from the exercise.

But I doubt if SBI is making money at this. Their costs per day per enrollment center are fixed. They probably get paid per enrollment. But if enrollment is this slow, how can they turn a profit? Simple things like investing a little bit in training, better software and a wireless network instead of wires going all over the place could easily increase throughput. But apparently it hasn’t occurred to them yet.

I also didn’t understand why Aadhaar requires information from enrollees in both English and the local language. Couldn’t it be in one or the other?

Anyway, my story ends on a positive note. I went in to the office on Monday evening just for this. Somebody had already confirmed that my record still existed. All I had to do is get my biometrics recorded. I did and now I am enrolled in Aadhaar.

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10 Responses to In Which Basab Gets UIDed

  1. s anand says:

    Just tweeted but 140 characters is less than what i need. So much of this problem is with the fact that SBI handled it. Karvy in Mumbai does it quickly, efficiently. Also, we too were confronted with the Marathi form till we were told it was optional and meant primarily for those who had NO other proof of id, proof of address . The problem with UID is that they are not communicating this properly or the state govt is simply piggybacking on UID to get info much of it having been collected in the census forms earlier.
    Good luck anyway !

    Like

  2. Shiv Agarwal says:

    LOL! Similar experience during my visit to India. Anyways, I don’t think the revenue is based on number of people enrolled/day rather it is plain and simple number of days enrollment was done irrespective of number of people enrolled. These things are basic flaws in the way business is done in India whether it is an organization like SBI or Airtel where it took me 2.5 hours to purchase a basic 3g wireless connection – Same issues of un-trained people, 3 people to cater to 50 customers and inefficient infrastructure (read electricity). In a population of a billion and such cheap labour I am always surprised at the ratio of the service personnel vs. customers at any business.

    Like

  3. Vinod Mehta says:

    Congratulation to be part of Aadhar. I still don’t feel confidence enough to share my bio-metric details with Govt. Thank you for your post at least it set some expectation on level of service I will be expecting.
    Good luck.

    Like

    • Lehana Singh says:

      Well I have myself worked for UIDAI and team Nandan. This is really a group of spirited people. The IAS officers and other Govt. Officials here are of a different creed.

      This is perfectly safe. Having worked on nitty gritties of UIDAI, I can tell you that there is no harm in submitting your Biometrics and the Govt. have nothing to do with it. The whole program have been outsourced and will be completely managed by a MSP in future.

      Like

      • Sandeep says:

        UID still evokes suspicion of the govt and big corporates. May be you can dispel some fears.
        What is the assurance that health providers won’t trade patient data at a cost to insurance providers who may benefit from it. After all, all one needs is a number to link the both. And there is huge incentive to do so.
        There is also talks of making UId mandatory for various things like opening bank accounts etc, which will lead to discrimination as banking companies access personal info and make it basis for accepting/denying requests.
        Personal databases with Aadhar data would start being sold in no time at a price by unscrupulous elements.

        Like

  4. Do you think this is a good insight into how the CXOs of the technology companies should visit the ground level users of their technologies and figure out issues. When you are talking about Clouds, people at ground level are struggling with wires to connect two computers?

    Like

  5. suranga date says:

    One of the more strange features of this project is that no one announces any schedules for having adhar enrollments in communities. My family and I ended up going for ours after hearing rumors from folks about huge queues, 2-3 hour waiting in the hot Mumbai summer sun, and all kinds of stuff. No one announced the camp, how long or where. Everything was happening by word-of-mouth.

    The actual operation seemed to go smoothly, with 4 stations, 1 supervisor lady who constantly took rounds, and two guys who simply managed folks cribbing in queues, and directed (polite) folks like me inside. 🙂

    I saw the young people manning the stations, doing an excellent job, explaining what was to be done, to the folks who were not so computer literate and a bit apprehensive of machines, but I didnt see anyone getting anxious as such. The transliteration into marathi was very expertly done, and almost instant.

    I dont know really how much this card will be actually used eventually, given that various governments often act as spokes in the wheel, but this will certainly throw up a huge number of well trained , computer savvy, minimally educated young folks, who can possibly use that skill to get ahead in life. (I am not talking about Btech (CS) folks here).

    I wrote about it here

    Like

  6. Raj Mashruwala says:

    Basab,

    We met when you replaced Phaneesh and when I ran TIBCO. I discovered your site recently. I spent 18 months on designing Aadhaar. While I am no longer volunteering at UIDAI, I will pass some of your learnings to my friends at UIDAI. To respond to some of the issues you raised,
    1. What you see as ultimate system is a combination of the core system provided by UIDAI and custom software developed by local vendor for SBI or a registar. While UIDAI supplied software is rather simple — mandatory 4-6 fields and optional 5 fields, local registar frequenly adds complexity. For example, networking of two machines is not part of UIDAI software. UIDAI software was intentionally designed for a stand alone computer.
    2. Field training continues to be issue as I read reports across various states. UIDAI provides operator training, has empanneled training agency and has instituted third party operator certification. Every operator must go through certification. It appears this is still not sufficient.
    3. Enrollment center management. We have a long way to go here. Respect for resident dignity is non-existent.
    4. Local language. Since you enrolled, there is I believe improvement in the software for local language. The decision was made to use two languages — English and local. I still believe this is a correct decision. When a local villager goes to a ration shop and is going to get authenticated, it is best done in a local language. I believe this area will become much more robust as time passes. Auto transliteration is not trivial and we embarked on solving that problem. The dream is to use this data to standardise India’s physical address system — we are one of the few countries where no standardized addressing format exist (I am referring to a postal address for example).

    Hope this helps
    ….Raj Mashruwala

    Like

    • Lehana Singh says:

      Dear Mr. Raj,

      Though I am bit surprised but excited to see you on this forum. If you remember correctly, I was working with the consulting team for UIDAI. Some 2 months ago, I also visited this exciting blog and tried to quench a bit of doubts of outsiders to this project. Still, being senior member of team, You can provide a better perspectives about the security issues.

      @ Sandeep et al (all those, who have raised doubts about the privacy and other Issues at UIDAI)

      As stated earlier, I have myself worked with Mr. Raj and others for this UIDAI project. One of the hallmark of this project was that, it has vendor, platform and technology neutrality. While procuring the bio-metrics (BSP) system, it was ensured that there is no bias towards any one particular modus operandi to
      1. Ensure their is no favor to any one vendor (there are 7-8 major OEM’s for Biometric in world)
      2. If in future, one vendor quits or is forced to quit, others are able to replace him
      3. There are 3 vendors working simultaneously, so there is a great level of internal competition between them to ensure quality of data processing, masking and encryption. Also, their revenues are based on some confidential metrics guided by parameters, which ensure utmost quality and data safety.
      4. The test probes have been designed in such a manner that there is literally nil scope for some sub-optimal or illegitimate operation.

      There are hordes of other details, but these are the only public details, which I can give for arguments as I am bound by my professional ethics of confidentiality.

      The level of encryption and complexity in the whole system, makes it literally impossible for anyone to misuse the data. This includes even the internal users and handler of this data.

      Lehana,

      Like

    • Raj,

      thanks for stopping by. Indeed, the process appears to differ from registrar to registrar. Later even Infosys Bhubaneswar decided to switch to a different registrar that offered online forms that could be filled out prior to going for the biometric scans.

      The dream is to use this data to standardise India’s physical address system — we are one of the few countries where no standardized addressing format exist (I am referring to a postal address for example).

      Anyone who can do this, will win my undying gratitude. Getting directions in India can be quite an adventure in itself.

      https://6ampacific.com/2008/08/23/getting-roadside-directions-in-india/

      Like

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