In his opinion piece in The Hindu (Op-Ed, “Questions for Mr. Nilekani,” February 6, 2013) Major General S.G. Vombatkere criticises various facets of the Aadhaar project. The essay’s central precept seems to be the alleged coercion by way of which governments are said to be enrolling residents for Aadhaar. Maj. Gen. Vombatkere also questions the worthiness and security of the project albeit on shaky grounds. As I have argued in these pages previously, peddling half-truths does not foment a constructive conversation. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) believes in addressing concerns via facts and will continue to do so.

For service delivery

At the beginning of his article, Maj. Gen. Vombatkere implies that processes outlined by the UIDAI are “meant to bypass the corrupt bureaucratic system … and bring them into the banking system.” This is an altogether erroneous assertion. First, referring to the entire “bureaucratic system” as “corrupt” is just the kind of generalisation that prevents meaningful engagement. Second, the authority pays special emphasis in designing speedy, safe and scalable enrolment processes with adequate checks and balances. Third, the UIDAI’s mandate is to provide a robust identification and authentication infrastructure to the residents of India, especially the indigent and the marginalised. The authority is responsible for putting in place strong and secure plumbing that can enhance service delivery. Financial inclusion is one such application riding on the UIDAI’s infrastructure since possession of an Aadhaar number enables opening of a bank account. What is particularly baffling is the author’s inability to see the merits of bringing “hundreds of millions of micro- and nano-investors who are today outside the banking system … into the credit economy.”

Further, the author contends that the “Aadhaar scheme appears to have quietly metamorphosed into becoming exclusionary and non-optional.” This could not be further from the truth. People from across the country have enthusiastically enrolled for Aadhaar, many have done so to avail of their first authenticable identity. As has been said previously, mandating Aadhaar in other databases for improvements in service delivery is the prerogative of the departments concerned. Moreover, the UIDAI has always held that while it will not mandate Aadhaar, service providers could do the same while ensuring that there have been adequate opportunities for residents to enrol for Aadhaar. The very fact that the government has looked beyond its own departments to public sector banks and other agencies for enrolment assistance points to its intent to maximise registration touch points while minimising exclusion.

The efficacy of the project was highlighted by a recent study (a cost-benefit analysis of Aadhaar) released by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. The study, which estimates the costs and benefits of Aadhaar, found that substantial benefits would accrue to the government by integrating Aadhaar with schemes such as the public distribution system, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), fertilizer and LPG subsidies, as well as housing, education and health programmes. The benefits will arise from the reduction in leakages that occur due to identification and authentication issues. Even after taking all costs into account, and making modest assumptions about leakages, of about 7-12 per cent of the value of the transfer/subsidy, they found that the Aadhaar project would yield an internal rate of return of 52.85 per cent to the government.

In order to elucidate his doubts over the technological basis of the project, Maj.Gen. Vombatkere cites the UIDAI’s Biometric Standards Committee’s observation that a project of this magnitude has never been attempted before thereby rendering comparative analysis impossible. The committee simply observed that no other nation-state has undertaken such a mammoth exercise; therefore the effectiveness of biometrics at this scale is difficult to determine. In other words, the committee did not cast doubts on the operational principles of biometric technology. Thus, to infer that the committee deterred the authority from undertaking the project is fallacious. In fact, having deployed biometric technology for 300 million residents, we can vouch for its reliability. The UIDAI has also published a paper based on scientific study demonstrating an accuracy of 99.965 per cent against a database gallery of 8.4 crore. This study resulting from such a large data set is empirically repeatable and statistically accurate. At the UIDAI, we’re taking on a moonshot in trying to address a huge problem by leveraging — and creating — an unprecedented identification technology. The lack of this kind of infrastructure has taken a severe economic and social toll on the country and we believe that radical experimentation, and not incremental fixes, will result in a durable solution.

Data security

Additionally, the author raises concerns with regards to data security and privacy on the grounds that many of the vendors working on Aadhaar are not indigenous companies. Best IT technologies used in information storage, network, database, etc. all come from international firms and are used for any IT projects across the world. This does not mean data stored there is a property of those companies. Readers will concur with the view that protecting residents’ privacy assumes data security. To that end, the UIDAI aims to be a responsible steward of data. We have invested large amounts of financial, technical and human resources implementing best-in-class security systems and processes in our data centres to keep residents’ data safe. We also hold several consultations with various stakeholders to understand concerns around security and privacy. Learnings from these exercises help us ensure that the project is designed with data security and privacy in mind.

The UIDAI chooses its service providers through competitive processes in line with procurement norms laid down by the government. Thus far, the authority has not discovered any violation of the conditions under which contracts with service providers have been signed. Furthermore, the authority has always sought to engage vendors with relevant expertise and experience irrespective of their nationality. Both Indian and non-Indian organisations have contributed significantly to the evolution of Aadhaar. While Maj.Gen. Vombatkere prefers to hold the Aadhaar ecosystem guilty until proven innocent, the authority is committed to engaging the best and brightest to build this unique infrastructure.

Finally, claiming that the “the UIDAI shelters under the Prime Minister’s protective wing and continues to stonewall not only public queries and criticism” amounts to disregarding the development of this authority as an entirely legitimate, inclusive and consultative organisation. Our workings are open for scrutiny by various governmental and non-governmental bodies. The UIDAI has consistently set new benchmarks in transparency and accountability by making public all its operations and decisions. We have always welcomed constructive criticism and continue to believe that relevant and timely feedback from people strengthens our approach and resolve.

(R.S. Sharma is director general and mission director, UIDAI.)

More In: Comment | Opinion