The Unique Identification (UID) project is a classic example of outsourcing of government services to corporates as the project is governed and controlled by a few organisations. It could be the last step in the dismantling of welfare policies that started in 1991-New Economic Reforms, said Usha Ramanathan.
Addressing a seminar, ‘Unique Identification-UID an Identity Crisis,' organised by People's Watch, a non-governmental organisation, here on Monday, Ms. Usha, an eminent independent law researcher and an expert in poverty and law, explained in detail the serious implications that the project could have on people.
She started the talk by explaining that the central proposal of the project rode on the initiative that there were many people in India, especially the poor, who had no identity and, therefore, were not known to the State. Once they could demonstrate that they existed, the UID would help them towards reaching services and entitlements which the State provided to its poor.
All that was needed to do was enrol and to do that the people had to give simple and basic information to the enrolling agency which would be passed on to the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India), which would get it ‘de-duplicated' ( to make sure that they have not been given a number already; the biometrics are to help achieve de-duplication through the use of fingerprints and iris metrics) and allot each individual a unique 12-digit number.
One of the major matters that the legal expert touched upon was the question of voluntariness as it was claimed that enrolment was voluntary. However, she maintained that the compulsion would not come from the UIDAI, but other agencies might demand that a person must have a UID number to be provided a service. Banks, for instance, might make UID a prerequisite to open or maintain accounts and a few banks had already earmarked space for UID numbers.
One of the much talked about claims was that UID would make the Public Distribution System (PDS) and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) more efficient and plug leakages and pilferages.
It was this aspect of the UIDAI where the project piggybacked on the schemes and services of the government. However, after resistance from the MNREGA activists that the scheme in itself was fragile for the fragile people and you could not piggyback on them, they had turned to Financial Inclusion (FI).
Ms. Usha said that all that the UID could do to the maximum was possibly prevent leakages at the last delivery point where the ration shops provided goods to the public. She criticised that even the idea that the UID was a State project was a myth as the project had been without the authority of law since its inception. It continued to run without a feasibility report or budget.
Explaining how the Western countries and Chinese had abandoned biometric identifiers, she said that China, which initially thought of having biometrics, later found that for such a hugely populated nation it was not only feasible but there were also serious implications if implemented.
Ms. Usha referred to how millions of toiling masses in agriculture, construction work and other manual labour had worn-out fingers due to a lifetime of hard labour and had what is known as ‘low-quality' fingerprints. This was precisely the demographic that UID aimed to help — those who were outside government records and welfare schemes. This project, she said, did not allow the poor to self-identify themselves but was “de-citizening” them.