Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram has taken on Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) boss Nandan Nilekani and Planning Commission Deputy Chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia over the controversy-ridden project to give every Indian resident a unique ID number.

On Thursday, Mr. Chidambaram wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, asking him to “instruct” the Planning Commission to bring a note to the Cabinet on the status of the UIDAI, so that there is “clarity” on which agency – the Registrar-General of India (RGI) or the UIDAI – will carry on with the task of capturing the biometric data of the population, as the latter has sought to have its mandate extended.

The UIDAI comes under the nodal authority of the Planning Commission while the RGI functions under the Home Ministry.

The terse one-page letter comes not just in the wake of a Standing Committee of Parliament rejecting the UIDAI Bill, but two articles in the media attacking Mr. Chidambaram for obstructing the progress of the scheme; indeed, in his letter to the Prime Minister, the Home Minister has said: “Some inspired stories have appeared in the media painting the MHA black and presenting distorted facts. I enclose two extracts – one from the Economist and the other from the Hindustan Times.

The work of the RGI, which had been asked to collect biometric data of all usual residents in the country and then send that data to the UIDAI for de-duplication and generation of Aadhar numbers, the Home Minister says in his letter, was “proceeding well and is expected to be completed by mid-2013.” Meanwhile, the UIDAI, Mr. Chidambaram writes, was “also” authorised to collect biometric data first for 100 million people, and subsequently, of up to 200 million people.

Now that the UIDAI wants its mandate extended, the Home Minister has sought clarity on its status: “Since there is no clarity on who will capture the biometric data — the RGI or the UIDAI — a few months ago, I had requested the Planning Commission to bring a paper to the Cabinet or the appropriate Cabinet committee and obtain a decision in the matter,” he has written, adding that he himself had spoken to Mr. Ahluwalia several times on this.

The problem, government sources said, had arisen because the Home Ministry felt that the data collected by the UIDAI was not secure, and had not been verified by a government servant. While the RGI has actually visited households, the UIDAI has invited people to come to designated centres, where the data collection has been done by hired organisations.

Mr. Chidambaram has, therefore, sought “clarity on the issue so that the work of capturing biometrics can go forward.” He ends his letter to the Prime Minister saying: “In my respectful submission, it would not be in the interest of the government to allow the controversy to be played out in the media.”

The problem, sources say, is that the logical order of the UID project has been back to front. First came the assurance of a unique identity, then fund allocation, then feasibility study and the Bill to govern it, which has been rejected by the Standing Committee. And this, after Rs. 672 crores has been spent by the UIDAI till November 2011.

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