The importance accorded to the Unique Identification (UID) project is reflected in the constitution of a special group of Union Ministers headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to oversee its implementation. Some details about this audaciously ambitious project are yet to be finalised, but the broad plan is to cover some 1.2 billion people in the country by allotting each a unique number and creating a data base containing their photographs, biometric information (such as fingerprints), and a few details such as name, sex, and age. The idea of a unique identification system goes back to the National Democratic Alliance government, when Home Minister L.K. Advani proposed the issue of Multipurpose National Identity Cards (MNICs) in 2001. While the MNIC project suffered from the image of being principally a doubtful internal security measure — inspired by such motives as distinguishing illegal Bangladeshi immigrants from Indian citizens — the UID project has been packaged and promoted as primarily a mechanism to improve the delivery of government schemes for the poor and the marginalised. Unlike the MNIC scheme, the UID will comprise a number and not a card; will be available to all residents and not only citizens; and will be demand-driven as opposed to mandatory (although this does not preclude government agencies at the Central and State level from mandating enrolment).
With proper implementation, the transformative potential of the UID scheme in enhancing access to government services should not be underestimated. In becoming a single source of identity verification, it could enable the easier roll-out of wide number of services such as bank accounts, passports, driving licences, and LPG connections. Proof of identity and greater financial inclusion could lay the basis for checking fraud and corruption, avoiding duplication and targeting intended beneficiaries in a range of programmes such as the NREGS and the PDS. The attendant risks of such a potentially game-changing scheme — which include risks or hacking, privacy invasion, and the possible misuse of information by a future ‘Orwellian’ government — are real. The UID project should be open to wide public debate and Nandan Nilekani, the former co-chairman of Infosys who heads the Unique Identification Authority of India, has made a good start by seeking opinions, allaying apprehensions, and discussing details of the project with a wide section of people in government and civil society. He has the ability to draw the best IT talent required to implement a project that could set a new paradigm for government service delivery. What it needs is a legal framework that enables the creation of a unique identity system with adequate safeguards to protect privacy and confidentiality.