By sheer coincidence I ran into my childhood friend Usha, after ages. Our conversation drifted through nostalgia and reached the Aadhaar Scheme. It turned out that she had written several scholarly articles on Aadhaar! (Usha Ramanathan is a lawyer— No, not the sleight-of-tongue or raucous agitator type. She does painstaking research and publishes serious stuff on economic and socio-legal issues.) I confessed that I was not an Aadhaar number holder: like many harassed citizens, I was absolutely paralysed by the confusion surrounding it. So she forwarded the articles she had authored on the subject. I learnt much from those and combined it with what I had already gleaned. Here’s the sordid story:
The Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) was set up in January 2009. The original aim was to create a system whereby the poor and undocumented people would be given an identity, such that they could gain inclusivity in social progress. It was neither mandated by law to enroll into the scheme nor was the UIDAI given legal powers to enforce enrolment. It was purely voluntary and was to coexist with a myriad of other identification methods (which the poorest had no access to), like PAN, Driving Licence, KYC, Voter Id etc. It was therefore not comparable to US Social Security Number scheme. The aim was lofty, but the execution abysmal. Here’s how.
In July 2009 ex-Infosys Boss Nandan Nilekani was appointed Chairman of July 2009. In a “bold” move, the UPA government also gave him the status of a cabinet minister. Legally, a cabinet minister needs to be an elected member of parliament♣. And, the Chairmanship of UIDAI is technically “an office of profit” which a minister should not occupy. The government made exceptions to both, ostensibly to give him the necessary “teeth” to make reforms. Later events proved, Mr. Nilekani could not “bite”, but only “bark”.
Mr. Nilekani made brave promises that 50% of India would be covered by the UID- Aadhaar scheme by 2014. In Washington, he boasted that Aadhaar was capable of being rolled out to other parts of the world. But by 2012 it became clear that it was nowhere near success even within India: there simply were no takers from the target segment! In a rear-guard action, the UPA government brought in threats of “exclusion” from a number of schemes, notably cooking gas subsidy. The voluntariness and inclusivity myths were broken! There was a political backlash and the government was forced eat its own words, albeit in a wishy-washy way. This left the common man completely nonplussed.
The process map for a huge project of this size was badly thought through. How huge? One reasonable estimate is that the project costs Rs.15000Crores excluding the expenses on registrars, enrolers, introducers, NGO resources and importantly, identification equipment. We can only guess the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) would be around Rs.45000Crores, as the government has been opaque about the TCO. For a comparison, the Decennial Population Census costs about Rs.2000Crores! The government walked into this extravaganza without a detailed Cost Benefit Analysis, which is de rigueur for such projects.
How do you cover a population of 1.2 billion (or even half of it) with an office of 300 people? IT guys know the answer: outsource everything! What happens when outsourcing is done without controls? IT guys know this one too: GIGO —Garbage-in-Garbage-out. So it was! Some stories:
• Volunteers in New Delhi recorded details from homeless workers; but how do you mail the Aadhaar card or acknowledgement to someone who has no address? What do you do when a construction worker has migrated to another unknown site? The cards never reached the intended beneficiaries.
• Quality of data suffered . Names, ages, sex etc were wrongly recorded and were passed through inadequate quality control. In one hilarious case in Hyderabad, Aadhaar Card was issued to Mr. Kothameer (coriander in Telugu), son of Pulav, resident of Mamidakayavuru (Telugu for Mango village). The photo on the card was of a cell phone! More photos—of dogs and trees were discovered.
• Delays in clearance were enormous; one old man remarked that coriander (ibid) was lucky to get its card while he didn’t get his even after a year!
• Although Aadhaar is a more a number than a card, UIDAI claimed replicating the card was not possible. But evidence of fake cards kept coming in.
Another practical problem that the UIDAI underestimated was: how do you prove a person’s identity? Aadhaar accepts other identity proofs like Bank Account and PAN. But we are talking of the poorest of poor who are undocumented! So, like Banks, they permit “introducers”. But then the introducer has to be reliable. So Aadhaar introduced a convenient rule: the introducer has to be known to the Registrar but not necessarily the applicant! This rule opens the process to risks varying from negligence to organized graft; in border districts it can lead to infiltration and treason as well.
The Aadhaar scheme fumbled on another identity issue: use of bio-metrics. The primary identifier used in Aadhaar is the fingerprint. In India where the proportion of manual labour is higher, this can pose a problem as the ridges in the finger become unsuitable for taking prints. To compensate, Aadhaar takes the fingerprint of all fingers: but which specific finger do you choose to establish the identity? Subsequently, the iris was included as a supplementary identifier. This has problems too. Corneal disease, cataract and ageing can make it difficult to establish the identity through the iris. While the UIDAI proclaimed that the iris was a permanent identifier, research in the US indicates there may be reason to revalidate the iris snapshot every 2 years! The George Bush administration dropped the bio-metric plan for unique identification, because the technology was still not fully understood. UK dropped a similar plan, some years ago. Sure, it is not wrong for India to have a plan that is more advanced than the advanced countries; but apparently no attempt to understand technology issues faced in even smaller populations like UK and Israel. So now we have two unreliable identifiers supporting each other. Somehow, newspaper reports of the poor old woman, who was refused an Aadhaar card because her finger prints were not recordable, does not surprise us!
Security & Privacy
Even an IT novice knows that when you combine data from various silos into a centralized data base, the security vulnerabilities are heightened. Whereas the original aim of UIDAI was to give the poor an id number, some additional objectives were added alongside later. The Aadhaar will be linked to all other records like your Bank account, PAN, DL , Health record etc. Earlier, these were in context-specific silos; now the Government (or a hacker) can know your entire persona in one sweep. This raises some privacy issues, which the UIDAI has not clearly spelt how it will overcome. To add to the risk, the ownership (and therefore the management responsibility) has been shifted in 2012 from the Government to “for-profit” private companies called National Information Utilities.
Clearly, a project for social change has been reduced to a technology gimmick. Pray, who are the technology partners? L1-Identity Solutions (it has the ex-CIA chief on its Board), Safran (the French Government is its largest shareholder) and Accenture. In response to an RTI question about these companies’ identity, the UIDAI evaded the issue by saying it did not know their country of origin! So we have private companies owning our data and (“unknown”) foreign agencies accessing them. In these days of money-laundering and terrorism it is natural for a government to gather data about citizens. This is not wrong. But is our data in safely controlled conditions with the correct agencies?
When the project began, we expected that Nilekani would bring the best practices of the Private-Sector to the Government. I suspect he has brought in the worst. If KYC is a sham, (see my post Know Your Customer) UID is a scam. Unfortunately the new NDA government seems to have done nothing about it. Will Indian citizens continue to be harassed?
♣Note: Nilekani tried to set this right by standing for the South Bengaluru constituency in 2014. He lost by a huge margin. His sponsor —the Congress— was also trounced in the national elections.
Recommended reading: You might like these articles by Usha.