OPINION

Politics of Identity - A Discussion on the UID Project

March 01, 2010
Ruchi

By February 2011, India will become the first country in the world to issue its residents biometric-based numbers (UID) to establish identity. For this purpose, the Central Government has constituted the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) under the Planning Commission. The UID number is marketed as a fundamental enabler for efficient delivery of government services and inclusive development. As per the Authority, benefits of the UID number include elimination of leakages in welfare programs like PDS and NREGA, and facilitation of targeted education and health interventions for underprivileged children.

A less publicized purpose of the UID number is to improve national security. The impetus for UID came after the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. In January 2009, the Center issued notice to maritime states and two UTs to issue identity cards to all coastal residents. In an interview in the aftermath of the terror attacks, Chidambaram announced Government's decision to set up the UID authority. The UIDAI was established in February 2009, within three months of the attacks. By the Authority's own admission, “The UIDAI is only in the identity business. The responsibility of tracking beneficiaries and the governance of service delivery will continue to remain with the respective agencies”. Presumably “security” is not just a peripheral but the primary purpose of the project.

The UID project underscores the need for transparency of objectives of government programs and the importance of civil participation to ensure democratic end-use. Covert objectives are tantamount to subversion of democracy. Public opinion and approval of this undertaking are contingent on its stated altruistic goals; the Indian populace is unlikely to sanction a project for its own increased policing. Furthermore, since UID is a tool and not an outcome, it is susceptible to misuse by vested interests. Therefore, it is necessary to preemptively block dangerous outgrowths with legislative measures. While continuous engagement with the civil society is necessary to develop a comprehensive list, some obvious safeguards are outlined below.

First, non-enrollment should not be treated as criminal. There's a history of States using anti-terrorism/anti-insurgency pretexts to flout or curtail civil liberties; often political issues are treated like law and order situations. Enrollment is currently discretionary, likely 'cause of the impossibility of universal enrollment of a billion plus. However, there could conceivably be a push for universal enrollment in border, coastal and/or “red” states leading to potential harassment of undocumented individuals, esp. poor migrants.

Second, governments should not use UID numbers to trump individual choice. States should not be allowed to specifically target individuals from insurgent areas, inconvenient political groups etc. Moreover, state agencies should be barred from using UID numbers to withdraw essential services in any area to coerce relocation or discourage migration.

Third, social security services should not be withheld due to non-enrollment. The UID number is envisioned as a tool to monitor implementation of government schemes and programs. Therefore, it is likely that these schemes will mandate UID enrollment before providing services. In the case of social security services, the onus of enrollment should be on the organization, not the beneficiary. Also, the enrollment cost (estimated @ Rs. 20-25 per number) should not be taken from social security scheme outlays.

Fourth, private organizations should be debarred from pooling data to form comprehensive individual profiles to prevent invasion of privacy. The Authority aims to make the UID number the preferred mode of identification for both users and public/private organizations to drive revenue through its identity authentication service. Given an incontrovertible unique number for one individual across all of his/her life transactions creates the tremendous risk of this data being pooled to recreate the individual's life history

Fifth, expenditure incurred should be rationalized and transparent. The UID project comes with no expenditure caps; estimated enrollment costs alone are over Rs. 3000 crore. Unsurprisingly, there is deep interest from multinational technology and private finance organizations. Engagement with civil society will be vital to control ballooning costs and hijack of the project for private profit.

Coming back to the project's stated purpose of forming the basis for efficient delivery of government programs. It is worthwhile to debate both the relevance and effectiveness of the UID number for delivery of welfare schemes. The problem in targeted welfare schemes is of eligibility and not identity. The varying number of BPL families in the country is due to changing eligibility criteria such as income, calories, and other wellness indicators. Moreover, the largest leakages in welfare schemes are due to organized intermediary defalcation not fake beneficiaries. At best, the UID number will address the latter less significant problem.

Additionally, the design of the UID number reduces its effectiveness. The number will only store name, DoB, gender, parent's name, address (permanent and current), photograph and biometric info (ten fingerprints and iris scan) and will only verify identity of individual; defining and tracking beneficiaries, governance of service delivery will all need to be managed at the individual state government, program or scheme level and entail additional expenditure. This approach leaves a huge lacuna in execution and renders already nascent benefits more uncertain.

For instance, UID will alleviate only a small subset of leakages in NREGA and PDS, two of the biggest social security programs. Moreover, this increased efficacy will be contingent on beneficiary identification through biometric readers, which are susceptible to damage and sabotage. Even in the case of mobility, the benefit of UID will rest on administrative and systemic change by delivery organizations to allow transfer of benefits on proof of identity instead of requiring proof of eligibility again. E.g., ration cards for migrating family.

Last, there are considerable dangers to successful implementation. The UID project will require enormous technical capability and reliance on thousands of disparate intermediaries (“registrars”) for accurate and honest enrollment of each resident. In India, all large databases are riddled with errors; some voter lists alone are incomplete and erroneous by as much as 40 percent. Furthermore, the benefits of UID implementation are contingent on near universal enrollment, which is jeopardized by two risks. First, enrollment of individuals without documentary proof of identity rests on the “introducer” system, similar to opening an account at a bank. This strategy is both irrelevant and inadequate for migrant workers (especially those in the unorganized sector) and legions will remain unenrolled.

Second, in the absence of universal coverage (target enrollment at 600 million people or ~50% of population four years from launch), there will need to be alternatives to the UID to obtain service, verify identity etc. Since, enrollment in UID will not be mandatory, but “demand driven” to “access the benefits and services associated with it”, the benefit (one number to prove identity for life) will need UID to be accepted as preferred proof of identity by all significant private and public organizations. Given that UID verification will be chargeable (up to Rs. 10 per verification), private organizations may prefer alternative proof of identity thus further reducing incentive for voluntary enrollment.

The UID project is one of the most ambitious programs in India, without precedence or parallel anywhere in the world. Given its scale, centralization of power and potentially invasive use, there is need for transparency of its purpose with the civil society and a collaborative design process to ensure that democratic ideals of the country are upheld and derived benefits outweigh its costs.

Note: A few people are organizing for a concerted effort to mainstream discussion on UID – if you would like to join, please email me gupta (dot) ruchi (at) gmail (dot) com

Ruchi blogs (infrequently) at http://bourgeoisinspirations.wordpress.com/ and can be reached at gupta.ruchi@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter @ http://twitter.com/guptar
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