A number of questions on the Unique Identification (UID) project continue to remain unanswered while the project itself is necessitated by the government's policy shift to play an indirect rather than direct role in providing services, a panel of researchers told journalists on the sidelines of a public talk on the subject at St. Xavier's College here on Saturday.

Usha Ramanathan, researcher on jurisprudence, poverty and rights, said it was not enough to “airily” say that the project was going to reduce costs, corruption, and help in better implementation of social sector schemes.

“It needs to be shown how it is going to help the homeless, the Public Distribution System [PDS] and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act,” she said.

“The Unique Identification Authority of India [UIDAI] says we only produce a number. They are not taking responsibility to answer the ‘how.' What scrutiny has the UID gone through? How many phases does it have? There is no answer to whether it is a government project in a corporate form. If the government had to own the project, they would have to answer many questions that the UIDAI is not answering,” Ms. Ramanathan said.

In the absence of a cost-benefit analysis, “all manner of social and fiscal costs have not been accounted for,” she said.

Ms. Ramanathan also raised concerns over the issue of consent and privacy. On the one hand it was said that the UID was voluntary, but on the other it was expected to be ubiquitous.

“How will it be ubiquitous unless it is made compulsory?” she said, adding that the government was resorting to “coercion” by getting various agencies to seek the number, for instance, banks and ticket-booking facilities.

“It's a myth that voluntariness exists. It certainly doesn't,” she said.

Ms. Ramanathan criticised the argument that the UID would become “self-sustaining.”

“That means that it is going to be a profit-making model” riding piggy-back on public money and social sector schemes, she said.

On the issue of privacy, Ms. Ramanathan pointed out that the “information portfolio” had expanded with additional columns for mobile phone numbers and email addresses on the enrolment form. Moreover, despite the “information consent” option on the form, personnel had ticked it without asking the person.

“Although Nandan Nilekani [UIDAI chairman] made light of the issue of privacy, he has agreed that we need to address it. There is no privacy law, neither a debate on it. There is no standard for liability and no finiteness as to till when information can be held,” she said.

Citing an experience from Delhi, Ms. Ramanathan said data collection was done in an “irresponsible and non-serious” manner.

R. Ramakumar, associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, said the UID project was incompatible with the type of state policy and schemes. “It will work if the state wants to move from direct provision of services to indirect provision of services, from universal provision to targeting of services.”

“The concept of ‘mobile PDS,' as furthered by the UID project, benefiting migrant workers is ‘deceptively attractive' as the ration shops we have today are non-mobile,” he said. “There is the possibility of shop owners turning away migrant workers as the stocks stored with them were meant for the resident population.”

He said the UID cannot be compared to the social security number in the United States, which was “guided by extremely stringent privacy laws.”

J.T. D'Souza, managing director of SPARC Systems Limited, demonstrated a fingerprint reader that accepts fake fingerprints.