Last week, the finance ministry denied reports, citing unnamed government officials, on the front pages of two national dailies claiming that the government had decided to prune the budgets for India’s marquee initiative to provide every resident with a unique identity (UID) number.
While the formal denial put the lid on a potential controversy, it is unlikely to have dampened resistance to the project from within sections of the government as the programme, Aadhaar, begins to gain critical mass. Some sections of the government have for long been bristling against the project, but have been unable to come up with a credible counter argument.
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The resistance is not surprising; any good idea that seeks to change status quo in the delivery of government services and subsidies is bound to be challenged by the entrenched order. So far, the supporters of Aadhaar in the government have been ahead of the opposition. But from two recent challenges faced by the project, it is clear that the resistance cannot be taken lightly and is likely to recur as the project comes closer to fructification.
Aadhaar is barely a year old. Its mission is to develop and implement the requisite infrastructure that will enable allotment of unique identity numbers to Indian residents that can be verified online. The roll-out is expected to begin sometime after August.
The first serious challenge came from a group of non-profit organizations that warned that they would make out a legal case to spike the initiative they perceived as a threat to individual privacy. The basis of this was rendered redundant after the government signalled its intent to enact, for the first time, a law to safeguard individual privacy. It will include specific rules that will fix the criminal liability of offenders.
The government then followed up by including similar penal provisions in the draft National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010, that it proposes to introduce in the monsoon session of Parliament due to begin on 26 July. To protect against misuse of an individual’s data, including fingerprints and eye scans, the legislation lays down that misuse can lead to a three-year jail term and a fine of Rs10,000; further unauthorized collection or dissemination of an information pertaining to an individual will invite a similar jail term or a fine of Rs1 lakh, or both.
The latest challenge, however, may have resulted in some indirect damage to Aadhaar. The inspired leaks from some government officials sought to convey that the plug was being pulled on Aadhaar. For one, they have definitely flagged attention to the underlying costs of the programme. In the process they have raised the stakes for Aadhaar; unsuccessful implementation is not an option any longer. This is unfair, yet a clever strategy on the part of those opposed to the initiative.
It is something that has never been attempted before; and, the sheer scale of the operation in providing a UID based on biometrics to over one billion residents is staggering by any standards. Already the odds are against it, raising expectations only increases the stakes involved.
At the same time, worryingly so, an idea has gained ground that Aadhaar would be like the proverbial magic wand that would in one stroke resolve everything that is wrong with the public delivery system. Theoretically yes, but in practice there are imponderables. The risk to Aadhaar is that given the build-up of expectations, this failure, too, would accrue to it.
This is because it depends on what the growing list of stakeholders—ranging from state governments and the Reserve Bank of India to arms of the Central government that are paying out subsidies and funding the rural employment guarantee scheme—in Aadhaar seek to do with the information. All that Aadhaar does is to provide a unique identity number to every resident and it is for the concerned agency to use that information. For example, it is for the home ministry to verify whether a foreign national holding a unique number is a legal resident of the country. If it chooses not to do so, then it is the home ministry’s failure and not that of Aadhaar.
The proposal has gone through several hoops before being articulated as a formal initiative under the leadership of Infosys Technologies Ltd co-founder Nandan Nilekani three years after it was first initiated. The concept was first discussed as a “Unique ID for BPL (below poverty line) families” on 3 March, 2006, and was entrusted to the information technology ministry to execute in a year. However, on 3 July 2006, a processes committee was set up under the chairmanship of Arvind Virmani, then principal adviser in the Planning Commission and at present executive director for India at the International Monetary Fund. Thereafter, it went back and forth between various committees and got its stamp of approval from an empowered group of ministers in 2008, setting the stage for the notification to be issued for the formal creation of the Unique Identification Authority of India on 22 January, 2009; Nilekani took charge after the United Progressive Alliance retained power in the 15th general election in April-May 2009.
At this stage, despite the challenges, the odds look just about stacked in its favour, suggesting that Aadhaar is an idea whose time has come.