As the Prime Minister hands out the first official AADHAAR numbers in the tribal district of Nandurbar on Wednesday, civil society activists in the capital are questioning the very basis of the ambitious Unique Identification (UID) scheme.

“Even basic procedures have not been followed before launching such a massive project,” said Usha Ramanathan, an expert in law, poverty and civil rights. “The people of India, as well as Parliamentarians need to be informed, consulted and involved in a debate about a project that could have wide-ranging impacts. It should be halted before it goes any further,” she said, during a meeting here on Tuesday.

The project, first called the UID Authority of India and then renamed AADHAAR, aims to create a database with a unique identity number for every resident of the country, authenticated by fingerprints and iris scans. Its supporters, led by UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani, claim it will benefit the poor and bring inclusivity and efficiency to government schemes. Its detractors, who are in the nascent stages of forming a campaign against it, warn that the project will allow the government to play Big Brother, and raise concerns of profiling and exclusion.

“No legal backing”

In a statement signed by eminent citizens, including retired Supreme Court judge V.R. Krishna Iyer, historian Romila Thapar and social justice campaigner Aruna Roy, activists questioned the undemocratic process behind the project. UIDAI was set up through a government notification as an attached office of the Planning Commission without any discussion in Parliament or civil society. Despite having no legal backing – a draft Bill was approved by the Cabinet last Friday – the Authority has signed contracts and agreements with States, banks and a large number of technology companies, said the statement.

“Historically, it has always been dangerous to issue a number or card to a population,” says Ms. Ramanathan.

She raised issues such as the possibility of profiling, tracking and surveillance which could be increased by the converged information that a UID database would provide.

Apart from the dangers, activists also questioned the efficacy of the project. “Mr. Nilekani claims that UID will allow better delivery of public schemes such as PDS or NREGA. Yet, he intends to use the existing NREGA and PDS databases to enrol people for UID, so where does the ‘inclusivity' aspect come in?” asked Reetika Khare, a developmental economist at the Delhi School of Economics.

“It is a myth that technology will promote inclusivity. All it means is that anyone left out will become disenfranchised for all purposes.”

She added that while the UID might help prevent duplication of PDS beneficiaries, most of the leakage in the PDS system came from dealer fraud.

Activists asked why the government seemed to be steamrollering the project through without allowing time for public debate. Even while the pilot studies are still throwing up problems such as poor people without stable fingerprints or with iris scans affected by malnourishment-related cataracts, the Authority is rushing to formally launch the scheme.

The statement demands that a feasibility study be carried out, to demonstrate the benefits to social welfare schemes, examine the effects on privacy and detail who will have access to the UID database.

“Without guaranteed security against data theft, the wisdom of holding this in a central registry may need to be reviewed.” With Rs. 45,000 crore planned to be spent on UID over the next four years, activists demanded a cost-benefit analysis to see what the final cost would be for the end user and cardholder.

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