In his article “Aadhaar: on a platform of myths” (Edit Page, July 18), R. Ramakumar points to the failure of the U.K. National I.D. card project, the non-mandatory nature of the Social Security Number (S.S.N.) of the United States, and the possible failures of the biometric identification system to strengthen his case against Aadhaar. By doing so, he questions the motive of the project and the intentions of the government.
At the onset, it is important to state that while myths are dangerous, half truths are even more damaging. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has consistently allayed misplaced fears by articulating facts. For the benefit of the readers of The Hindu, we wish to clarify the contours of the Aadhaar project.
Firstly, the need for the intervention has to be understood. Millions of residents in India, especially the marginalised, lack nationally valid and reliable proof of identification. Aadhaar — backed by biometric de-duplication — is a secure and robust identification infrastructure that covers two shortcomings in the existing identity databases: fraud and duplication. Importantly, mandating Aadhaar in other databases for improvements in service delivery is the prerogative of the departments concerned. Moreover, UIDAI has consistently 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.
It has to be further clarified that there are no penal consequences if a person does not choose to get an Aadhaar number. The Registrar General of India (RGI) is one of the important registrars of the UIDAI (which follows a multi-registrar approach) having the responsibility of preparing the National Population Register (NPR) under the Citizenship Rules 2003. The UIDAI will issue Aadhaar numbers to residents who enrol for Aadhaar through the RGI.
Secondly, viewing the Aadhaar exercise through the U.K./U.S. prisms is unfair since both those highly developed nations face problems that are dissimilar to those faced by India. Resultantly, the solutions also may need to be different.
The S.S.N. scheme in the U.S. was originally established for the sole purpose of administering the Federal government's social security pension scheme. However, it has evolved from a single-purpose to a multi-purpose identifier and acts as the de-facto identifier for taxation purposes, to open bank accounts, to receive benefits from the state and for private services.
Though the S.S.N. is not mandatory for U.S. residents, it is a requirement for all employed residents and some other categories of individuals.
Service providers (government and private) are allowed to mandate S.S.N. in order to deliver services. Though U.S. privacy law does state that services cannot be denied if an individual does not reveal their S.S.N., it is important to note that the same law also requires that S.S.N. be disclosed if mandated by federal statute. Further, the law only requires that the individual be informed if it is mandatory or voluntary to disclose and under what authority the S.S.N. is being sought and how it will be used. While comparisons between India and the U.S. are not warranted, the fact remains that identifiers are an essential and integral need of an efficient public service delivery system. In India, just as the resident has the option to get an Aadhaar, a service provider may choose to use Aadhaar as an identification framework for delivering their services.
The U.K. also has de-facto identifiers in the form of National Insurance and National Health Service (N.H.S.) numbers. The comparison of the introduction of a mandatory I.D. card in the U.K. in the context of security with a developmental initiative of the Government of India of Aadhaar is misleading and incorrect. Further, equating views on the impact of the U.K. I.D. card project to the Indian scenario is unjustified.
Finally, the manner in which biometrics are being used in the Aadhaar project and the difference between a 1:N (during the time of enrolment) and a 1:1 check for authentication needs to be understood. At the time of enrolment, the resident's biometric data is compared to all other data sets in the UIDAI's CIDR (Central Identities Data Repository) to ensure uniqueness. During authentication, the resident's data is compared to the data linked to her/his Aadhaar number thereby significantly reducing scope for errors. The UIDAI recognises that no single technology is perfect but a combination of technologies can help reduce the possibility of inaccuracy. Therefore, in addition to collecting fingerprints, UIDAI also captures iris scans and a photograph. The Authority is aware of the technological limitations and is therefore using technology as appropriate and as required for the purpose of developing the identity infrastructure for India. Furthermore, since services cannot be denied in cases where residents may not have adequate and/or imperfect biometric attributes, the Authority has put in place an exception handling mechanism which ensures that the technology is reasonably supplemented so that it does not become an impediment between entitlements and beneficiaries.
The Government of India spends a sizeable proportion of the taxpayers' money on hundreds of welfare schemes for the benefit of millions of people. To that effect, it recognises the importance of establishing an effective identification infrastructure for its residents and is committed to creating the same in a cost effective and secure manner. In fact, deliberations with regards to creating such an infrastructure have been taking place within policy circles since 2006. Therefore, to allege that such a critical project has been undertaken without due diligence is in fact a myth. The UIDAI has engaged in a series of consultations with multiple stakeholders and continues to do so as it implements the Aadhaar project,
State-of-the-art technologies used in online railway reservation by the Indian Railways and the telecom revolution have convincingly demonstrated that India is capable of using high-end technology in the service of the common man and that we don't always need to follow the progression of developed nations to solve our unique problems.
The Aadhaar project has a pro-poor, inclusive agenda which is an enabler for better delivery of services and enhanced transparency in governance. Comparing it to other I.D. projects in the western world without understanding its context is over-simplistic and needs to be countered.
(R.S. Sharma is Director-General and Mission Director, UIDAI.)