While the Unique Identification project will not solve all the problems of the poor it will open “a ramp of access” to various benefits from the state, said Nandan Nilekani, chairman, Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).
“The whole idea is to unlock access to people who are outside the system.” Citing the example of people from Bihar in Bangalore who, for the last 10 years, have had “zero contact with the formal system,” he said, “In our cities there are millions of people who are non-persons.”
He clarified that the UID would not confer any citizenship rights or other privileges but would only be used as a means of uniquely identifying the residents in the country.
At an interaction at The Hindu here on Wednesday, Mr. Nilekani said he had received a few hundred mails from Indian professionals round the world expressing interest in participating in this “complex, high-risk project.”
“The largest database [in the United States] of this kind is of 120 million people. We are talking about 1.2 billion people. It is the only country where we are talking about online authentication,” Mr. Nilekani said.
But the target was achievable: “If anyone can do it, India can,” he said. It would take around 18 months to issue the first UID and 600 million people would be covered in four years.
In response to questions on the ease of enrolment, especially for the poor, Mr. Nilekani said the barriers to getting a UID number would be reduced because, “we will have a large number of registrars and because we will have a proactive strategy working with civil society NGO groups for outreach.”
On the project costs, Mr. Nilekani clarified, “Remember that in a country where spending maybe 100-200 thousand crore rupees on all kinds of subsidies and direct benefits, this is a one-time expenditure that will lead to a perpetual improvement in the quality of benefits.” The return on investment would be “well worth it from an economic perspective.”
Addressing concerns about the UID database being misused by an “Orwellian State,” Mr. Nilekani said, having one large centralised database would necessitate being “careful in terms of checks and balances, in terms of the legality, in terms of privacy, and making sure that this database is not misused in some way.”
But he added that “? the social benefits of giving UIDs to the people who are left out today are so massive that we should do it and come up with a way to mitigate the risks on the privacy issue.”
Even government agencies such as the police would only have access to the database “under the appropriate laws,” Mr. Nilekani explained. “As long as the legal system was followed, on the principle of security, the database could be “opened up for a suspect,” he said.
He conceded that there could be errors in authenticating people based on biometrics. “Biometrics is not an exact science,” he said.
While fingerprinting was the most straightforward biometric available, iris scans were more reliable, he said. But the equipment for iris scans was expensive and the process was cumbersome. Many people could object to it as being invasive and there were also very few suppliers of iris scan technology, he said.
A Biometrics Committee with stakeholders from different Ministries would come up with the final biometric set and take a decision on whether iris scans were required or not in the next few months, Mr. Nilekani said.