The Sunday Story The Supreme Court's Interim order defining Aadhaar from subsidies has left the Centre grappling with the future of the Unique Identification programme. It must now provide a clear roadmap to citizens and address their genuine concerns.
Unique, universal, ubiquitous: three words that Mr Nandan Nilekani used to describe the ambitions of the UID project. Every person across the population of over 1.2 billion was to be uniquely identified. Every person was to be enrolled. The number was to be ‘seeded’ in every data base, and the system re-engineered, making the UID number indispensable to every individual and every system. The UID project is based on these ambitions.
Biometrics was the UIDAI’s route to uniqueness. Except that very little, or nothing, was known about biometrics when the project started. How much did the UIDAI know about the efficacy of biometrics when it made its decision to capture fingerprints and iris scans, and to use biometrics to ‘de-duplicate’ the whole population? In a ‘notice’ inviting a biometrics consultant, the UIDAI was saying, in January-February 2010: “there is a lack of a sound study that documents the accuracy achievable on Indian demographics (that is, larger percentage of rural population) and in Indian environmental conditions (that is, extremely hot and humid climates and facilities without air-conditioning). In fact, we do not have any credible study assessing the achievable accuracy in any of the developing countries.... The ‘quality’ assessment of fingerprint data (in the UIDAI’s ‘preliminary assessment’) is not sufficient to fully understand the achievable de-duplication accuracy.” Yet, the decision had already been made, that the fingerprints and iris scan of the entire population be stored on the UIDAI database. Later reports on enrolment, and fingerprint and iris authentication, revealed deep flaws in the system, and escalating costs; but no one seems to have been paying attention to the emerging evidence.
The UID project has been weak on respect for the law. Despite the potential for surveillance, tracking, tagging, profiling and even exclusion that the project holds – say, migrant workers develop calluses in their hands that makes matching their fingerprint to that on the UID database a hard task – there has been no law protecting the rights of people, or detailing the liability of agencies that handle personal data. Through the years since the project was launched, there has only been the executive notification by which the UIDAI was set up in January 2009; which, among other things, says that the UIDAI would ‘own’ the data. It was December 2010 when, bowing to pressure from civil society activists, a law was tabled in the Rajya Sabha, which was then referred to the Standing Committee. In December 2011, the Standing Committee delivered a scathing report which asked that the project, and the law, be taken back to the drawing board; there were too many problems with both.
In response, the government did nothing; the report passed by them like an idle wind, which Shakespeare had taught them to respect not. From then, until now, the law is non-existent. This has allowed the UIDAI to expand the fields of data it collects, aggressively push for making enrolment mandatory to access any service or legal right, enter into data sharing agreements, and shrug off the idea of responsibility when there is identity fraud, or where authentication failures occur. The fait accompli is being created in a rush.
January 2013, and anyone not enrolled for a UID began to be threatened with consequences that included not receiving subsidies more recently for LPG gas, scholarships, wages, and marriage registration. From being a facility, it had become mandatory. Yet, as recently as August 2013 in Parliament, and in September, 2013 in the Supreme Court, the government was saying that the UID was voluntary – because when one went to enrol, they were giving their consent! On September 23, 2013, the Supreme Court stepped in to direct that “no person should suffer for not getting the Aadhaar card in spite of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory”. That is, the UID is not to be mandatory.
The government’s response has blown away the fig leaf of ‘consent’ and voluntariness. On October 4, 2013, the government was back in court asking that it be heard urgently on making the UID mandatory. The implication: that the government is asking that its authority to coerce enrolment on pain of exclusion be recognised. Given that even such acts as registering a will, or a lease deed, or drawing a salary have been made dependent on being enrolled in states such as Delhi and Maharashtra, this could spell bullying by the state, as detractors of the project warn. Even if it were to be made mandatory just for, say, LPG, that would help achieve the UIDAI’s proximate purpose of databasing everybody. Once universality is achieved, ubiquity could follow with greater ease. These are two admitted ambitions of the project. In the meantime, the project is experimenting with biometrics and uniqueness, on the entire population.
And this is where the concerns about the project are currently poised.
(Usha Ramanathan works on the jurisprudence of law, poverty and rights.)