The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) will finalise the draft legislation on the UID project by the end of the month and make it available for public comment. Several civil society representatives are demanding that adequate safeguards against misuse be built into the legislation.

The UIDAI, recently renamed ‘Aadhar,' invited a group of civil society representatives to a consultation with chairman Nandan Nilekani and his team on Thursday, in part of a series of interactions. Shekhar Singh, founder member of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information, who chaired one of the discussions at the meeting, said social, economic and technical concerns were voiced.

“There were a lot of concerns about possible misuse, the possibility of using it for racial or religious profiling… [misuse] by commercial interests,” Mr. Singh said. “Then there were those who were worried about privacy, about Big Brother watching.”

Some activists brought up issues of human rights, the threat to privacy and the dangers of “surveillance,” human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover said. “We also asked ‘Where is the legal structure for all this?'” she said.

Mr. Nilekani and his team said the draft legislation was in the process of being finalised and promised that it would be released by the end of May.

“They said it would be put up for public debate and that an internet discussion group would also be set up,” said Mr. Singh. “There were lots of suggestions about what it should contain, including safeguards against misuse.”

In a meeting of the Empowered Group of Ministers on November 4, 2008, it was decided that the UIDAI would initially be notified as an executive authority, and that “investing it with statutory authority could be taken up for consideration later at an appropriate time.”

Subsequently, at a meeting of the Prime Minister's Council of the UID Authority on August 12, 2009, it was decided that there was a “need for a legislative framework.”

Among the other issues brought up were the technical feasibility of the scheme, the economic costs and actual usefulness in minimising corruption, the overstating of benefits, the need to prevent exclusion of marginal groups, the lack of adequate transparency to prevent manipulation, and the lack of an opt-out mechanism.

Ms. Grover felt that Mr. Nilekani and his team seemed to trivialise the human rights and privacy concerns, dismissing it as a “conspiracy theory.”

Mr. Singh said Mr. Nilekani initially seemed to shrug off responsibility about misuse, saying that the UIDAI was only concerned with providing the number, leaving the applications to others.

“I think there needs to be checks and balances,” Mr. Singh added. “I do feel racial profiling and such misuses should be avoided… but I am not that sensitive to privacy issues,” he said, pointing out that India as a society was not very privacy-conscious.

However, he also felt that the economic viability of the project and the justification of spending Rs.2,500 crore on a project which may not be successful in preventing corruption should be vigorously debated.

“No other country has implemented such a system. There should have been a discussion with the people before it was set up,” Mr. Singh said.

The UIDAI promised to send a detailed response to the concerns raised at the meeting and accepted the suggestion that groups be set up to follow up on technical and economic issues.

More In: National | News