R.S. Sharma's response (“UIDAI clarifies on Aadhaar,” Op-Ed Page, Sept.15) to my article titled “Aadhaar: On a platform of myths” (Edit Page, July 18) demands comprehensive rebuttal. In my article, I had raised three arguments related to Aadhaar. In these three respects, I characterised the arguments of the government as “myths”. Mr. Sharma tries to refute my arguments and calls them “half-truths”. This response is to challenge Mr. Sharma to point out where exactly are the half-truths in my article.
My first argument was on the compulsoriness of Aadhaar, sought to be thrust through its linkages with the Home Ministry's National Population Register (NPR). I stand by it. The NPR is a part of the larger Multi-purpose National Identity Card (MNIC) project, begun after the Kargil war to cleanse India of “illegal immigration”. Registration in the NPR is compulsory. The information about individuals that is compulsorily required in the NPR includes a “National Identity Number”. It is the UIDAI's mandate to provide de-duplicated ID numbers to the NPR; and the ID number that would appear in the NPR will be the Aadhaar number. To quote Home Minister P. Chidambaram: “The MNIC has to be issued to every citizen, for which the Government has decided to set up a UID authority.”
However, there is no mention of the collection of biometrics of individuals in Citizenship Rules 2003, which empowers the NPR. The collection of biometrics was stealthily made part of the NPR sometime after 2003. This stealth measure allowed the UIDAI to piggyback on NPR, thus allowing for quick enrolment. Mr. Sharma's effort is to hide this link, by stating that Registrar-General of India is just one of UIDAI's many Registrars. But are not the RGI and the UIDAI arms of the same government? Or, is it that the UIDAI considers control of “illegal immigration” as a “developmental initiative”?
Secondly, at four places in his response, Mr. Sharma states that Aadhaar is not comparable with identity initiatives in the West. At no place, however, does he state what the specific problem in such a comparison is. Mr. Sharma cherry-picks from the U.S. federal statute to make his overstretched claim that the Social Security Number (SSN) is necessitated by law in the U.S. Yet, he neatly overlooks my arguments based on the U.S. President's “Strategic Plan” in 2007, which aimed to reduce/eliminate the use of SSN to identify individuals. How can Mr. Sharma claim that the SSN has “evolved” into a “de-facto identifier” in the U.S., when its own President is trying to reduce/eliminate its use?
Thirdly, Mr. Sharma' position that biometric technology has “limitations” and will be used only “as appropriate and as required” represents an enormous climb-down from the UIDAI's earlier claims that biometric errors are insignificant. It is plausible that this climb-down is inspired by the enormous difficulties faced by the UIDAI in de-duplication and the rising costs therein.
There is much to write about errors of biometrics, but it would suffice here to state that the UIDAI's Biometric Standards Committee had listed the limitations of this technology in its 2009 report. While noting the possibility of high error rates in using fingerprints under normal conditions, this report had shied away from providing any estimates of error in the use of IRIS images, owing to the “absence of empirical Indian data”. It suggested the use of IRIS images only “if they [the UIDAI] feel it is required”.
However, this cautionary note did not prevent the UIDAI from plunging into IRIS data collection, even as no cost-benefit analysis for the overall project is anywhere in sight. Will anyone in the government stand up and be accountable for these spending decisions?
(R. Ramakumar is with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai)