The news that a parliamentary committee has rejected its proposed Bill must come as a jolt to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Reports say that the committee was concerned about duplication with the National Population Register (NPR), the technology, data protection, and the cost. This comes closely on the heels of the home ministry’s contention that UIDAI does not meet the “degree of assurance” required for NPR, implying that those who have already enrolled with UIDAI may have to re-enrol with the registrar general of India (RGI).
In the meantime, painstaking work by UIDAI, often spearheaded by chairman Nandan Nilekani himself, appears to be finally paving the way for Aadhaar to become a nationally acceptable ID by banks, telecom providers, oil companies, and other government agencies. It would be a shame if all this were to come to a halt because of disputes within the government.
In my view, the vastly dissimilar goals of NPR and Aadhaar, and concerns about data privacy, were bound to come into open conflict. Now that they have, it is imperative that the government moves quickly to clarify its stand on Aadhaar. Also important is examining what has led to the current impasse.
Photo by Hemant Mishra/Mint.
UIDAI has consistently said its goals are to help eliminate fake and duplicate beneficiaries from welfare schemes and to provide IDs to millions of the poor and migrants. Most states seem to agree with these goals.
UIDAI’s enrolment process calls for minimal personal details to uniquely identify a person (name, gender, age and address) and it involves physical verification of support documents. For those without them, it proposes the concept of introducers, but few appear to have used it so far. And, true to its goals of a national ID, UIDAI permits people to enrol anywhere in India with a wide choice of registrars. However, most enrolments to date have been by state governments and nationalized banks.
On data privacy, the proposed UID legislation would have required a court order or central government joint secretary’s approval before the release of personal information “in the interests of national security”. Critics felt it didn’t measure up to international norms on privacy, and the parliamentary committee seems to agree.
How do these compare with the goals and approaches of NPR?
NPR’s purported goals are internal security and curbing illegal immigration. But RGI says enrolment is “irrespective of nationality” and asks people to self-declare nationality. Also, while the 2003 citizenship rules speak of “citizens”, NPR refers only to “usual residents”—an amorphous term subsequently incorporated into the proposed UID law. So, if the parliamentary committee is concerned that Aadhaar does not establish “citizenship”, then surely the same concern should apply to NPR?
RGI has adopted UIDAI’s biometric standards and UIDAI-empanelled private enrolment agencies. One must assume then that it has no dispute over UIDAI’s technology or its collection process. Add to this the fact that most UIDAI enrolments to date are by states/nationalized banks, relying on proof of identity/address documents. So, it is hard to see where exactly concerns about the reliability of UIDAI data are emanating from.
RGI also plans its own “mother database”, which it says will be used only within the government, but it makes no promises whatsoever on data privacy. This makes UIDAI’s proposed restrictions on data disclosure superfluous in the eyes of its critics, as the same information would presumably be accessible to any government agency through NPR.
Finally, in what could be seen as a major trespass on privacy, RGI plans to display NPR lists in prominent places in villages and towns to invite objections from the public, with local authorities having the final word on who will be included. Although RGI does not explicitly admit it, this process could well lead to neighbours questioning each other’s legitimacy, a hugely worrisome prospect that has been completely glossed over by those who have criticized UIDAI for its data privacy stance.
At the end of the day, just how this complicated and time-consuming NPR process will produce more reliable data than UIDAI, help curb illegal immigration, and assure us of the privacy of our personal data is hard to comprehend.
To my mind, RGI’s stress on “usual residents” and the virtual veto power to local officials over one’s existence in an area is much more likely to lead to the exclusion of millions who are “ID-less” today. In this regard, the past record of the census leaving out swathes of urban poor is not exactly reassuring. This stands in stark contrast to UIDAI’s emphasis on “inclusion” and portability of Aadhaar, which recognizes the massive across-state-border migration of our people in search of employment. These two widely differing world views, I submit, are irreconcilable.
These are the real issues that the government must come to grips with in its response to the current stand-off. If it is serious about the need for Aadhaar to better manage its welfare schemes, it must distance Aadhaar from the shadow of NPR and give it the necessary legal and financial independence to meet its goals.
Raju Rajagopal was a volunteer in charge of UIDAI’s Civil Society Outreach during 2009-10. These are his personal views.
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