The government should pay heed to the parliamentary standing committee's views and suspend the Aadhaar project. It would be a travesty to push the project in through the backdoor.

“…The Committee categorically convey their unacceptability of the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010…The Committee would, thus, urge the Government to reconsider and review the UID scheme.…”

This was the conclusion of Parliament's Standing Committee on Finance (SCoF), which examined the Bill to convert the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) into a statutory authority. With this categorical rebuff, the SCoF dealt a body blow to the Aadhaar project, which is being implemented from September 2010 without Parliament's approval.

Technically speaking, the SCoF report asked the government to bring forth fresh legislation before Parliament. However, a careful examination of the report shows that it does not just reject the Bill, it also raises serious questions about the idea of Aadhaar itself. In fact, the report so comprehensively questions the idea that any effort to introduce fresh legislation would require, as a prerequisite, a re-look at the foundational principles on which the project was conceived.

There are broadly five important arguments in the SCoF report.

First, it contains scathing criticism of the government for beginning Aadhaar enrolment without Parliament's approval for the Bill. Currently, UIDAI enjoys only executive authority, and no statutory authority. The justification that the government presented before the SCoF was as follows: the powers of the executive are co-extensive with the legislative powers of the government, and this allows the government to exercise executive powers in spheres not regulated by legislation.

The government also cited the Attorney-General's advice, which noted that “executive power operates independently” of Parliament and that “there is nothing in law that prevents the [UIDAI] from functioning under the Executive Authorisation.”

The SCoF rejects this position, and states that the government's legal justification “does not satisfy the Committee.” The legal position upheld by the SCoF is that co-extensiveness of powers does not permit the executive to do what it pleases; when constitutional rights and protections are potentially violated, the powers of the executive remain circumscribed by those of the legislature.

Secondly, the SCoF raises serious questions about the enrolment process followed for Aadhaar numbers. The issue of Aadhaar numbers “is riddled with serious lacunae,” and this problem can be traced to conceptualisation “with no clarity of purpose” and implementation in “a directionless way with a lot of confusion.” For instance, the Ministry of Finance felt that there was “lack of coordination” across the six agencies collecting personal information, leading to “duplication of efforts and expenditure.” The Ministry of Home raised “serious security concerns” over the introducer model used to enrol persons without any proof of residence.

The report concludes that the enrolment process “compromises the security and confidentiality of information of Aadhaar number holders,” and has “far reaching consequences for national security.” The reason: “the possibility of possession of Aadhaar numbers by illegal residents through false affidavits/introducer system.”

Thirdly, the SCoF comes down heavily on the government for proceeding with the project without “enactment of a national data protection law,” which is a “pre-requisite for any law that deals with large-scale collection of information from individuals and its linkages across separate databases.”

In its submission to the SCoF, the government had taken a dismissive view of the right to privacy of individuals. It noted that “collection of information without a privacy law in place does not violate the right to privacy of the individual.” The SCoF rejects this view, and notes that in the absence of legislation for data protection, “it would be difficult to deal with the issues like access and misuse of personal information, surveillance, profiling, linking and matching of databases and securing confidentiality of information.”

Fourthly, the report strongly disapproves of “the hasty manner” in which the project was cleared. It concludes that a “comprehensive feasibility study…ought to have been done before approving such an expensive scheme.” This conclusion follows the government's admission to the SCoF that “no committee has been constituted to study the financial implications of the UID scheme,” and that “comparative costs of the Aadhaar number and various existing ID documents are also not available.”

The total cost of the Aadhaar project would run into multiples of ten thousand crore of rupees. For just Phase 1 and 2, where 10 crore residents were to be enrolled, the allocation was Rs. 3,170 crore. For Phase 3, where another 10 crore residents are to be enrolled, the allocation is Rs. 8,861 crore. In a rough extrapolation, for 120 crore residents the total cost would then be over Rs. 72,000 crore. Is the Comptroller and Auditor General listening?

Fifthly, the report tears apart the faith placed on biometrics to prove the unique identity of individuals. It notes that “the scheme is full of uncertainty in technology” and is built upon “untested, unreliable technology.” It criticises the UIDAI for disregarding (a) the warnings of its Biometrics Standards Committee about high error rates in fingerprint collection; (b) the inability of Proof of Concept studies to promise low error rates when 1.2 billion persons are enrolled; and (c) the reservations within the government on “the necessity of collection of IRIS image.” The report concludes that, given the limitations of biometrics, “it is unlikely that the proposed objectives of the UID scheme could be achieved.”

The SCoF report cites the experience from the United Kingdom, where a similar ID scheme was shelved. It dismisses the government's contention that “comparison between developed countries…versus India…is not a reasonable one.” It states that “there are lessons from the global experience to be learnt,” which the government has “ignored completely.” It cites issues of cost overruns, fallacies of technology and risks to the safety of citizens, and notes: “as these findings are very much relevant and applicable to the UID scheme, they should have been seriously considered.”

The SCoF report has invited sharp reactions from the business press and pro-business lobbies. One report argued that, after the Foreign Direct Investment-in-retail fiasco, it is “another Indian reform massacre;” for another, it is a “setback to the government's attempts to revive faltering economic reforms;” and for yet another, the title was “UPA reforms agenda hit again.”

These predictable reactions only reaffirm the widely held belief that Aadhaar is an integral component of the neo-liberal reform programme of UPA-2. In fact, the SCoF deserves praise for standing up to pressure from powerful quarters, and not allowing the moment to be hijacked by vested interests. Ironically, till last week, the same SCoF had come in for profuse praise from none other than Nandan Nilekani himself. He had said in August 2011: “I have had the occasion to…make a presentation on more than one occasion to the Standing Committee…let me tell you they do an extraordinarily thorough job. I am very, very impressed with the quality of questions, the homework, the due diligence, the seriousness that they view these things with. And it is very bipartisan, you can't make out who is from which party because they all ask on the issue. So when you have such an excellent system of law-making...Let us respect that, let us give them the opportunity to call all the experts for and against and let them come out with something. They are the appropriate people, they are our representatives.”

The “representatives” have now spoken. For the government, the most dignified way ahead is to pay heed to the SCoF's views and suspend the Aadhaar project immediately. Each conclusion in the report should be discussed threadbare in the public domain. Biometrics should be withdrawn from government projects as a proof of identity. Alternative, and cheaper, measures to provide people with valid identity proofs should be explored. However, it would be a travesty of democratic principles if the government disregards the SCoF report and pushes the project in through the backdoor.

(R. Ramakumar is Associate Professor with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai)

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