Aadhaar's moment of truth

Last Updated : 02 July 2011, 16:43 IST
Last Updated : 02 July 2011, 16:43 IST

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On June 25, 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh generated one of the biggest feel-good headlines of UPA2. He appointed former Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani as Chairperson of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which had been set up to assign a unique number to every resident of the country.

UIDAI – billed as the world’s largest e-governance project – presented a numbing technical challenge. Fingerprint and iris samples of one billion plus Indian residents had to be collected along with details of name, gender, birth date and address. A unique identity had to be assigned to each resident in return and then authenticate it online whenever called for.

Nilekani using his stature in the IT industry assembled a smart team of engineers, who could take the challenge head on. He also started tirelessly crisscrossing the country promoting the project and tying up with different government agencies and PSUs.   

He addressed countless gatherings conveying a simple message: Indian growth has bypassed the poor and giving them legal identity was the first step in acknowledging their existence and making government services accessible.

In the last two years, there has been a little change in his script and in the response of the audience, which has by and large remained breathless and adulatory. There have been a few jarring notes. Once in a while he is accosted by individuals and organisations, who say the project takes away their privacy.  

Most memorably, on January 7, 2011, Nilekani faced an uncharacteristically unruly audience at IISc, Bangalore, which demanded strong protection to privacy. People who attended the meeting found Nilekani evasive as protesting students waved placards outside the venue, urging him to go back.  

But for the media, this reporter included, the dissenting opinion from possibly fringe protesters, sounded exaggerated, making too much of a small issue, debating an academic issue of little practical value.

Perhaps reflecting the larger prevailing sentiments on Aadhaar, Sujeet Pillai of Feecounter, says with the rise of social networking, privacy has already eroded. “We put more information on Facebook and Twitter than we share with Aadhaar. The benefits of the project outweigh the cost,” he adds.  

Many say it is only the middleclass which worries about privacy, while the poor would be more concerned about the benefits.   Trying to address privacy concerns, Aadhaar officials have maintained they collect just basic details, enrollment is voluntary and information is encrypted. Your approval is required to authenticate your identity and while revealing who you are, the system just gives a yes or no response, they say.

Over the last year Aadhaar has picked up steam and observers, who expected the bureaucracy to resist, given its anti-corruption overtone, are mildly surprised. Various government departments are embracing it in competition. Several central ministries, state governments, PSUs have begun to tie their programmes to the Aadhaar number.

Aadhaar officials say they are on course to enroll 600 million by 2014 and by October this year they expect to start enrolling one million numbers a day. The pilot projects at Mysore, Tumkur and Hyderabad have already enrolled 85 per cent of the population and the project is ramping up to other districts and states.  

Early last month the Cabinet Committee on Security in a seemingly unrelated move gave partial approval for a Home ministry project, National Intelligence Grid (Natgrid). The development alarmed the privacy advocates to again raise a cry over Aadhaar. Among other things, Natgrid, being run by an ex-army man, Capt Raghu Raman, reportedly seeks to integrate 21 databases -  railways, airlines, stock exchanges, income tax, bank account details, credit card transactions, visa and immigration records, telecom service providers and chemical vendors.

Most of us reading this article appear in many these databases, which today are islands of information controlled by different government agencies. They cover different segments of the population and may overlap to some extent. Stitching together these disparate databases together would require a mammoth exercise to uniquely identify all Indian residents. That is precisely what Aadhaar, the missing link, is doing, say critics.

”If Aadhaar ever succeeds in assigning a unique number to all residents, it will take a maximum of two years to create a common Natgrid database. Using a terminal in his office, a cop would be able to watch whatever you do -  travelling, talking, buying -  in real time.  The surveillance technology is pretty straightforward,” says noted security expert and IIT Mumbai alumni, Dr Samir Kelekar of Teknotrends.

The system is being designed to catch terrorists and criminals, say Natgrid supporters. “But why subject the entire population to potentially the same level of surveillance,” asks Sunil Abraham of Centre for Internet and Society.

Noted jurist Usha Ramanathan says since 2008 several measures such as the Collection of Statistics Act, The Information Technology Act,  Aadhaar, National Grid have come about to collect information about people. “After 9/11 in the guise of homeland security USA expanded police powers. Something similar is happening in India after 26/11,” she says.

The claims of Aadhaar benefiting the poor is untested as there has been no feasibility study, she adds. “This is a security project masquerading as an anti-poverty project,” says Abraham.  

Aadhaar has eluded a debate so far on these issues, say critics. Ramanathan says she made three attempts in November 2009, July 2010 and February 2011 to engage Nilekani, Aadhaar Director General R S Sharma and few other project officials on the issue.

“Their response has varied from ‘nobody else is asking these questions’, ‘have not come prepared to address these issues today’ and ‘we will get back to you’,” she says.    
Critics also accuse Aadhaar officials of presenting a misleading picture. Enrollment started as a voluntary exercise, but is now being made mandatory to get LPG cylinders. “They were supposed to collect only basic details, but Aadhaar enrollment forms now ask for email ids and phone numbers,” Ramanathan said.

Dubious demands

A New Delhi-based Aadhaar government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there was no discussion within the project on the potential risks it posed. “The main focus is in making a paradigm shift in governance and reaching out to the poor to ensure that the Rs 3,26,000 crore being spent on subsidy is not pilfered,” he said.

But he went on to acknowledge that Aadhaar was like ‘nuclear energy’, which could be used to either make bombs or generate electricity. “It is for the media and civil society to apply pressure for the right safeguards,” he said.  

While the engineers and bureaucrats are steamrolling the project, the laws of the land and the promised safeguards are yet to catch up with it.

Indian judiciary has also given a free hand to the law enforcement authorities to conduct surveillance. According to the latest Google Transparency Report, Indian government officials made 67 requests to remove contentious items from various Google services between July to December 2010. Only 6 requests were backed by court orders and rest were demands made by police and other executive agencies.

Why is Nilekani who has emerged as the face of Aadhaar silent about the security dimension of the project, ask critics. After all, the Infosys credo is to ‘disclose when in doubt’, they point out. “Nilekani and team are good people without any evil intention. They have never lived in villages and believe that technology can solve any problem,” says Abraham.

Ramanathan differs. “In 2009, I would have said he was unaware of the possible risks of Aadhaar. I will not attribute that innocence to him anymore. People in power tend to be blinded by it,” she says.

Published 02 July 2011, 16:43 IST

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