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30 January, 2012

Unique identity number game

BRP Bhaskar

The Indian government has decided to expand the scope of its ambitious programme to give each citizen a unique identity number, ignoring concerns voiced by civil society groups who fear misuse of the data gathered by the authorities.

The 12-digit number is generated using a code, named Aadhar, and the individual’s identity is established by a combination of biometric data such as fingerprint and retina scan. The person will be given a letter with the number on it. Verification of identity will be done online.

So far more than 120 million people have been given UID numbers under the programme launched in 2010. By March end, 200 million are expected to be covered.

The programme is being implemented by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDIA), headed by Nandan Nilekani, one of the founders of the IT services major Infosys.

At a high level meeting, the government last week sorted out the differences between UIDIA and the Home Ministry which had cast a shadow over the programme.

The Home Ministry had felt that UIDIA was covering the same ground as the Census department which was preparing the National Population Register.

Under the formula agreed upon at the high level meeting, UIDIA will gather data in respect of 600 million people. To avoid duplication, UIDIA and the Census department will share the biometric data they collect.

As happens so often with government schemes in the country, the UID project is fast outstripping the cost estimates. Expenses for five years, originally estimated at Rs 32 billion, are now set to exceed Rs 88 billion. Officials are, however, unperturbed. They assert that the programme will yield substantial savings to the government by plugging the loopholes in the delivery of various services.

The government spends about Rs 3,000 billion a year on food and other subsidies and payment of wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. A big chunk of the money goes into the pockets of middlemen. Once the beneficiaries of the schemes get UID numbers, all payments will be made directly to them, eliminating the middlemen.

A pilot project for direct distribution of NREG wages through an Aadhar enabled payment system has already been introduced in some parts of Jharkhand state.

While UID does not provide for profiling, critics say it will be possible for the authorities to create profiles by accessing the information stored at different locations. They argue that even if there is no invasion of privacy the project is unacceptable as it vests the state with awesome power over the citizens. They believe the UID project is a national security programme camouflaged as one meant for efficient delivery of service.

The government is proceeding with the UID programme without a legal framework. The National Identification Authority of India Bill it brought forward in 2010 was rejected by Parliament’s Standing Committee, which found it defective. The committee asked the government to come up with a new draft after reviewing the working of the Aadhar project but this has not been done.

Supporters of the project allege that politicians ganged up against the measure as it will minimise their role in the distribution of benefits under various government schemes.

In the absence of statutory backing, UIDIA is going ahead with the number game on the strength of an executive order issued by the Planning Ministry.

The law which governs the decennial census operations enjoins upon the state to protect the privacy of the people. It is, therefore, not possible to use census data for other purposes. To overcome this limitation, the government assumed the power to gather information for preparing a population register by getting Parliament to amend the Citizenship Act.

The National Population Register is an expanded version of a scheme prepared by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government, which was in power from 1998 to 2004, to issue multipurpose national identity cards to residents of border areas with a view to checking infiltration.

UID numbers are allotted on the basis of information provided by applicants at designated data collection centres.

Doubts raised by critics about the reliability of the data gathered in this manner remain uncleared. A sting operation conducted by a Hindi television channel showed that it is easy to establish false identities as there is no mechanism for proper verification of information provided by the applicants. - Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 30, 2012

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