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How does govt justify 'Aadhaar' when its foundation has crashed?

Last updated: 20 December, 2011
Mathew Thomas

UID – ‘Aadhaar’ was touted out as a ‘transformational’ initiative -- one that would change the face of India, make it the most digitised nation in the world, with the biggest data base of demographic information anywhere and so forth.

‘Aadhaar,’ which means ‘support’ or ‘foundation,’ was to be the platform on which all government programmes and many commercial applications were to be built.

The rejection by the parliament’s standing committee (PSC) of both the NIA bill to ‘regularise’ UIDAI’s actions and the UID scheme itself, has brought the Aadhaar foundation crashing down to earth.

The rejection must have come as a shock to many, but for those who were closely following the developments, it was expected. The most important aspect of the committee’s report is that it has gone beyond a mere examination of the bill. It looked at the UID scheme in considerable detail.

The report is hence, not just a view on the bill’s legality, but on the UID project itself, its dangers, utility and feasibility also. It examined expert witnesses and provided adequate opportunity to UIDAI authorities to rebut criticism. But UIDAI seems to have failed miserably in convincing the committee.

There is near unanimity on the report, as 28 of the 31 members agreed with it. Of the three dissenting notes, one said that he was new and hence, not aware of the details. Another senior Congress member dissented without giving any reason.

Besides, the home ministry has raised concerns on national security. The finance ministry has questioned aspects of the expenditure. It is easy to dismiss these as turf wars within government. The committee, however, gave credence to objections of both ministries.

In fact, the committee has rejected the scheme on seven major counts and consequently concluded that the bill in its present form is unacceptable. It urged the government to reconsider and review the UID scheme and the bill, in all its ramifications.

The seven grounds on which the committee based its report were: lack of feasibility study, hasty approval, threats to national security, being directionless, using unreliable technology, need for privacy and data-protection and lack of coordination among government agencies involved.

The committee also questioned the legality and ethics of implementing the scheme without statutory authority. Some of the observations of the committee are scathing.

For example, it said, “The UID scheme has been conceptualised with no clarity of purpose and is being implemented in a directionless way and may end up being dependent on private agencies.”

UIDAI has contracted for biometric technology from a former US company, L1 Identity Solutions, with close links to US intelligence agencies. It is now a subsidiary of Safran of France. UIDAI has not disclosed the terms of the technology contract. From available information, it appears that L1 does the de-duplication of biometric data.

Continued dependence
The system integration contractor is another foreign company, Accenture PLC. The entire national demographic data base would be stored in foreign, private company systems, apart from continued dependence on them for identification. In these days of cyber wars, if this does not raise concerns of national security, what will?

If Huawei and Devas were considered security threats, why not L1 be thought so too? The lack of a feasibility study for such a project is indefensible. That the idea was the brainchild of an ex-corporate honcho, who should know the essentiality of feasibility studies before money is spent, makes UID’s implementation without it, astonishing.

Next, the committee talks of ‘hasty approval.’ The fact that a law was thought necessary is evident from the NIA bill tabled in the House. If a law was essential, why launch the project, without it?

This is the same government, which is at pains to uphold the sanctity of parliamentary processes, for the Lokpal bill. Why does it have double standards for UID project? The committee’s view that the UID project is ‘directionless’ has good justification. One need to see only how many times, the question has been asked, whether UIDAI would issue an ID card.

Even today, no one knows, whether Aadhaar is a card or a number in a data base. Orders were issued to print cards recently and then cancelled. UIDAI has been talking of opening up the ‘Aadhaar platform’ for building commercial applications. No one knows what this means.

There is a business portal on the UIDAI website. Is the government aware of the intention to use data gathered by spending public funds, for private businesses? While UIDAI confines itself to providing identity, it leaves its use to others, like the state government civil supplies departments. How this would lead to better targeting of the beneficiaries of Central subsidies is unclear.

The concept of UID is based on the assumption that lack of identity is the reason for inability of the poor to access welfare. This appears seriously flawed. It ignores the discretion vested in government officials in deciding eligibility. Extraneous considerations, such as caste and other prejudices and sheer helplessness of the poor are the real reasons for denial of welfare. Corruption by those who are to prevent leakage is the major cause. The government seems to have misplaced priorities.

Instead of spending on storage, preserving food grains, and streamlining the distribution system, it is embarking on a massive IT project to provide identities to people, ostensibly to target the poor.

The committee concluded that the NIA bill is unacceptable and  urged the government to review the project. Perhaps, wiser counsel would still prevail and the government may halt further expenditure on the project immediately and evaluate it properly.

(The writer is a civil activist)


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