Do we really need Unique Identification Numbers?

Members of the civil society, especially human rights groups, say such claims by the state are suspect. There are people who think that UID scheme is a naked ‘declaration of war’ on civil liberties. In early 19th century, even Mahatma Gandhi had opposed a law similar to UID that used finger prints of Indians in South Africa as a ‘Black Act.’

The state says that it will impact on the PDS (Public Distribution System) and NREGA (National Rural Employment Generation Act) programmes, and plug leakages and save the government large sums of money. But the question is, what’s the percentage of people who benefit from PDS and NREGA? If the card is primarily for the benefit of these categories of people why has it been imposed on the rest of the population?

The project documents do not speak about other effects of the project including its potential to be intrusive and violative of privacy. Since the data of this kind is handled by multiple persons involved in entering, maintaining and using, it can be misused to target individuals and groups since the data is widely available.

Besides, the project is expected to cost Rs 45,000 crore to the exchequer in the next four years. Several countries like the US, Australia and the newly-elected British government have abandoned UID for reasons of costs and privacy. If it is too expensive for the US with a population of 308 million, UK with 61 million people, and Australia with 21 million people, why does India think it to be a priority, though we have 77 per cent of poverty-stricken people? Can’t we use our resources better through poverty eradication programmes?

While abandoning the project, the UK home secretary explained that they were abandoning the project because it would otherwise be ‘intrusive bullying’ by the state, and that the government intended to be the ‘servant’ of the people, and not their ‘master.’

The other reservation human right groups have voiced is the involvement of firms such as Ernst & Young and Accenture. They raise further questions about who will have access to the data, and what that means to the people of India? The data about citizens should remain with the country and if corporations possess they may use it to their purposes.

Constitutionality of this project, including in the matter of privacy, the relationship between the state and the people, security and other fundamental rights are raised. What the citizens are afraid of are issues of privacy, surveillance, profiling, tracking and convergence, by which those with access to state power, as well as companies, could collate information about each individual with the help of the UID number.

The UID scheme is akin to allotting ‘prisoner numbers’ to citizens. It is a project which may ultimately lead to social control of citizens, a weapon of war, and for the victimisation of ethnic groups, minorities and political adversaries.

The proposed UID legislation authorises the creation of a centralised database of unique identification numbers that will be issued to every resident of India. On the other hand it has failed to provide for provisions that preclude abuse of such a database for invading citizens’ rights to privacy and freedom of choice by national and transnational corporations.

The legislation poses a grave threat as far as citizens’ right is concerned. It will damage citizens’ sovereignty beyond repair and has the potential to target select groups through profiling of minorities, political opponents and ethnic groups if the state decides on doing it.

The undemocratic process of UID is the other issue. It was set-up through a notification of the Government of India. There were no discussions in civil society at all. In the year and a half of its inception, the authority has signed MoUs with virtually all states and Union Territories, LIC, petroleum ministry and many banks.

In July, the draft was circulated. The window for public feedback was two weeks. Despite widespread feedback and calls for making all feedback public, the authority has not made feedback available. The bill was listed for introduction in the Lok Sabha 2010 monsoon session. Why is the whole bill being hurried through? In a democracy, the public should be informed and consulted, and the wisdom of the project determined.

A bill of this kind too needs to be publicly debated. This is a project that could change the status of the people in this country, with impacts on our security and constitutional rights. That is why it is important to examine the reasons of governments of US, Australia and UK to scrap similar projects. There needs to be a wide debate prior to enacting the bill into a law. Will the Government of India at least initiate that now?

(The writer is the principal of St Joseph’s College, Bangalore)

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