Aadhaar Under Attack for Specious Reasons

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.

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9 Responses to Aadhaar Under Attack for Specious Reasons

  1. “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.”

    I would suggest that in the long run it should. It would suggest that we have a robust identification mechanism (hopefully the Aadhar) that can be used to verify and distribute entitlements (like PDS, Old age pension, NREGA allotments, etc).

    Today there are many leakages in the system and a robust id system would (hopefully) reduce/eliminate these leakages.

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    • Aadhaar should be like a service used by different entitlement programs. It may be sufficient for some but may need additional verification for others. Getting a passport might need police verification. But for say KYC for a mobile phone this might be enough.

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      • Hi Basab,

        You have made a valid point. Using it as a KYC is a great example.

        Hopefully Mr Nilekani and team have made Aadhar flexible, so that additional features can be added to it.

        Like

  2. Ayyappa says:

    I have seen this news, but it brought up number of questions, mostly it must be that I need to do better research –
    1. why is this bill being discussed now? I see that Aadhaar registration process is already underway for many months now.
    2. Duplication of registration work between different programs should have been sorted out long back?
    3. there were news that UID project is over budget and already there were additional budgets approved, but still there is more money required. How come the project is so over budget?

    In any case the bureaucracy’s ways are amazing. After so much time different ministers itself have different points of view and such a massive program being undertaken for quite so much time is still being questioned about the basics like privacy etc.

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  3. Siddharth says:

    Biometric verification techniques should replace last century’s IAM solution (user login). Aadhaar provided verification should be the gateway to access public systems – health benefits, education, attendance in govt offices etc.

    Basab – you have written well after a loooong time. Thanks

    Like

  4. Krishna says:

    I somehow see in the very criticism against Aadhaar a singular advantage in running Aadhaar and Population registry concurrently… Those whose names figure in Aadhar but not in population registry can easily be singled out for deportation (in case if they are found to be unwelcome guests), landing many a refugees or even dormant terrorists in the police net… A veritable piece of intelligence that is… 🙂

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  5. Patil says:

    Hi All,
    I don’t have Bank Acc, Electrical bill or telephone bill as POA to get the INDIA PASSPORT.
    Can i use my AADHAAR ID as POA to get the INDIAN PASSPORT?
    But in india passpoet website AADHAAR in not listed in the list of doc required for POA.
    Please anyone let me know about this.

    Like

  6. Nishith says:

    Agree with the point about negative scenario thinking , it can easily be overdone, and distract from the bigger benefits. I am not sure , however, about de-linking UID from entitlements, because that’s where the benefits lie – for poor people to have a single biometrically identifiable proof of identity that entitle them to all their benefits and which cannot be usurped by someone else.

    With a man like Nandan Nilekani at the helm, I am sure the UID taskforce can find a happy middle ground can be found in the citizens vs. residents debate (maybe a mandatory police verification in lieu of a proof of citizenship in border districts) . I mean there has to be a way, the Social Security Number (SSN) system in the US covers residents as well, with a few exceptions, and doesn’t seem to have any major security concerns.

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