UID is taking heat from both the right and left these days. On the left, activists claim that the program is overly invasive and restrictive. From the right, critics within the government make nearly the opposite claim – that the program is neither invasive nor restrictive enough. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to question the logic of the UID program, some of which we shall raise below, but many of the criticisms that have achieved prominence in the press recently make little sense. It’s time we put these nonsensical criticisms behind us and have a real debate over the course this important program should take.

Unique ID Authority of India chairman Nandan Nilekani. File photo : Mint.

Huh? We’re not legal scholars, but that certainly doesn’t sound like an inviolable guarantee against compulsory extraction of information. Advocate Shubho Roy agrees. According to Roy, “the present interpretation of 20(3) is that a person cannot be forced to say what he has in his mind." Compulsory extraction of information, such as requiring the address of those who apply for a voter registration card or the demographic information of those who apply for a National Rural Employee Guarantee Scheme card, is perfectly acceptable for the government to do.

A second criticism made by the left is that it will lead to an erosion of government services. In particular, critics say that UID will be used to engineer a shift from in-kind benefits, such as those provided through the public distribution system (PDS), to cash transfers. Yet the underlying technology of UID is delivery-agnostic -- UID would be equally useful for delivery of in-kind benefits as it would for delivery of cash transfers or for universal benefits as targeted benefits. For example, consider how easy it would be to implement a universal PDS (something that many of the critics, and the authors as well, are in favour of) using UID. Provided UID was universal, the government could simply tie benefits to UID numbers and no other form of identification or enrolment would be necessary. (Even though UIDs are tied to individuals while PDS benefits are tied to households, and non-citizens may obtain UIDs, these issues are relatively unimportant. Requiring individuals rather than household heads to show up to receive benefits only entails a minor increase in inconvenience to beneficiaries. Similarly, the number of non-citizens living in India, while large in absolute terms, is very small as a share of the overall population).

Meanwhile, the ministry of home affairs (MHA) has been attacking UID for a nearly opposite set of reasons. MHA, led by Union home minister, P. Chidambaram, claims that the system for gathering data to enrol residents in UID is not sufficiently invasive and that UID numbers should not be provided to non-citizens. Chidambaram would prefer the system used by the Registrar General of India’s National Population Registry (NPR), in which the application process includes a public vetting of applicants’ information and non-citizens are shown the door. Yet this process is both unnecessary and unworkable. It is unnecessary because the current UID enrolment process does a more than adequate job of ensuring that a UID holder can be tracked down if the government deems it necessary, which is the central concern from a security perspective. And for proof that the NPR enrolment system is unworkable, one only need look at the excruciatingly slow progress made by NPR so far in enrolling citizens – with only 8 million enrolments are a year and a half on the job it would take them another two centuries to finish the job.

The government shouldn’t be left off the hook entirely when it comes to UID though. First, while UID may not violate the constitution, it is high time that the government provide a little clarity on what UID can and cannot be used for and what rights citizens have to privacy of data more generally.

Second, the government should tone down the rhetoric when it comes to cash transfers. Montek Ahluwalia and others do the UID program no favours when they stress the potential of UID to be used as a mechanism for engineering a shift from in-kind benefits to cash transfers. The decision of whether to replace in-kind benefits with cash transfers is a complex one and deserves a lot more deliberation than many in the government appear to be devoting to it.

Third, the government must clearly demonstrate the usefulness of UID for delivery of public services. The UID team and others are working hard to do this but still they are up against the clock. Without tangible benefits to point to in the near future, any debate on UID will be moot.

Fourth, and most importantly, the UID bill should be passed, and soon. We sympathize with Nandan Nilekani’s preference for executive order over legislative action – the parliamentary debate will no doubt be full of theatrics and more nonsensical criticisms. Yet it is a necessary part of the democratic process.

UID is a hugely ambitious program which, we believe, has the capacity to radically transform how public services are delivered in India. Yet, if used thoughtlessly, it also has the capacity to lead to a reduction in privacy and government benefits. It’s high time we had a rational debate over how UID should be implemented and how it should be used.

Suvojit Chattopadhyay is a development professional with over six years of experience in India, UK and Ghana. Doug Johnson is a development consultant with experience in microfinance, impact evaluation, and payment solutions. Doug has worked in China, India, and Nepal and was a volunteer for the UID project.

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