The inability to deliver goods and services is a key developmental failing in India. In spite of vast amounts spent on poverty alleviation and social sector schemes, the efforts of the Union and state governments have been, to put it mildly, rather ineffective. If there is one reason that can be singled out for this state of affairs, it would be this: In India, there is a fat layer of politicians and bureaucrats who skim the cream off developmental funds and leave the poor with little or nothing.
Today, with the aid of technology, the country is at a threshold where this fat layer can be bypassed. Technology now allows individual recipients of aid to be identified and money routed directly into their bank accounts. A 16-digit unique identity number is to be created for each citizen who wants to avail these benefits by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Yet this simple expedient is today being vilified and the danger is that the project may never take off. As reported in Mint on Thursday, a coalition of 100-odd non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of the Leftist variety are ganging up to mount a legal challenge to the existence of UIDAI.
Who are these NGOs and why are they so opposed to the UID project? What motivates them and what are the political forces behind the growing storm against UIDAI?
One big argument against UID is that it violates the Right to Privacy. From this flow arguments such as the use of UIDAI data by intelligence and security agencies.
Behind these surface arguments lies a big, unsaid fear: If the UID project succeeds, it will render Leftist politics pretty much irrelevant (more about this anon). If a poor person gets money that is due to him directly in his bank account, he will have no reason to plead with tyrannical local officials or grovel before his elected representatives. This scenario, which can get real in the near future, terrifies many.
The fact is that “development” in India is a giant racket. At one level, there is a nexus between local officials (from the secretary of the village panchayat to the district magistrate and all the way up to the state secretariat) and local politicians (members of the legislative assembly and members of Parliament). After they’ve looted their share of money, there is precious little left for the poor. At another level, NGOs enter the scene. Governments use them to implement many schemes. Their “business model” will be rendered defunct when the use of UID becomes widespread. Direct cash transfers via UID threaten everyone in this game.
At the apex of this corrupt layer are the “intellectuals”. These individuals live in big cities, work in universities, are active in, or work for, the media and various political parties. They provide justification for the existing “developmental discourse” in India. When the base of this gigantic enterprise of loot is threatened, then these intellectuals too will be without any work. It is this least productive and parasitical layer that is most vocal against UIDAI.
UIDAI chairperson Nandan Nilekani has time and again spoken against the use of UID data by security agencies. He has also said UIDAI is not in the business of verifying citizenship of those who register with the authority. Here is a counter argument: What is wrong with security agencies using such data to apprehend terrorists and other anti-national elements? If anything, the use of such data will ensure that security agencies don’t round up a big number of “suspects” and then use unlawful methods to extract non-existent confessions from them. In fact, if the pool of suspects is narrowed down considerably, as the use of such data does permit, then ferreting out terrorists is going to be a much more humane procedure.
If such suspects challenge their detention, then the security agencies will have better proof for their detention and prosecution than they do now. At the moment, courts have to give wide latitude to police and other agencies because of the possibility of errors during investigation. With current procedures, the chances of miscarriage of justice are much higher than they are likely to be if more selective approaches are used.
Which brings us to the Right to Privacy argument. This argument is false. The Right to Privacy is a judicially created right under Article 21 of the Constitution and not an original part of the chapter on fundamental rights. In a 2003 case, the Supreme Court held that the Right to Privacy was subordinate to the larger public interest. Surely ensuring that money due to poor citizens reaches them is a much bigger concern than the Right to Privacy, even if it is the privacy of the poor themselves?
Opponents of the UID have held up the example of Britain where identity cards have not worked because of widespread opposition. The fact is that in Britain, opposition to national identity cards has existed historically in the English consciousness. In India, where poverty is pervasive, the Left should know that such luxury is obscene.
Is UID a threat to privacy? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org