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‘The idea is to be inclusive. The upper and middle classes have many forms of identity but the poor often have none’

<B>Nandan Nilekani</B>,the man at the helm of one of the most mammoth exercises being undertaken in India,issuing unique identity numbers for all residents,was at the Express for an Idea Exchange. In this session moderated by Assistant Editor <B>Mihir Sharma</B>,Nilekani explains the project and the steps taken to ensure privacy....


November 29, 2009 5:50:14 am

MIHIR SHARMA: What exactly does the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) project seek to achieve?

The most important feature of UIDAI is that it will issue a number,not a card,to every Indian resident. It will be a random number. When you look at the number you won’t be able to make out anything about the individual. We want to make sure there are no duplicates. If you look at other databases,like the ration card database,you find a lot of duplicates. We plan to have one number per person and we propose to do this by using biometrics. We will have all 10 fingerprints,a photograph of the face and possibly of the iris too because we need something that really gives us uniqueness. To make sure there are no duplicates is the most complex technological problem. If three years from now our database has 400 million names and we get one million new people who want a number,each of those one million records has to be compared against the 400 million to check for duplication.

The database will carry biometric information and very simple biographic/demographic information: name,date of birth,sex,address,etc. It will have no profiling attributes,it is just for verifiability of identity. The challenge is that a large number of people don’t have good documentation of their identity. A poor person who is homeless and uneducated typically doesn’t have a birth certificate or an address. Since the purpose of this project is inclusion—to give these people an identity—we have to be prepared for the lack of documentation. We will do the basic verification of identity; each individual application that uses this database can do additional verification that is relevant to their application. For instance,when you go for a passport,you have to undergo police verification,etc. We’ll also provide online authentication of ID—if somebody wants to authenticate himself to operate his bank account,that person can be authenticated in real time at the location. The authentication point will have a device with a mobile phone and a fingerprint reader. The person will give his name and number,put his finger on the fingerprint reader. This will lead to an online call to our central database centre that,within a few seconds,will verify the man’s identify.

ARCHNA SHUKLA: The database will have basic information which is already there on the voter’s ID card. Won’t this be a duplication?

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This is only for verification and you cannot read the database. The only answer the database gives is ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Also,nobody can read this information even if they know your details. Only you can see your own data.

ARCHNA SHUKLA: With a mammoth database,how will you ensure privacy?

We’ll secure it. People may want to hack into it and that’s a technical problem that we’ll have to solve. The online authentication is unique; as far as we know,no country has this technology.

COOMI KAPOOR: This database could be of great help to the police if you allow them to use it.

The primary purpose of this is to improve public services. This will allow us to authenticate people and ensure that the deserving get the benefits. The authentication service can be used by anyone. We know that verifying an ID is a common challenge across all our applications,be it issuing a ration card an NREG job card or applying for an LPG connection,etc. We will face certain challenges with documents. One is that documents are,in some sense,against the poor. Secondly,documents often tend to be circular in nature: for a ration card,they ask you to show your driving license; for a driving license,they ask you to show your passport—it’s a kind of loop which is difficult to break,especially for those who don’t have the documentation. Thirdly,documents are often ‘created’ or fabricated. We’ll create and verify only the ID of every person. This will be an ID verification service that can be used by anyone in the country who needs to verify someone for a variety of purposes,both in the public and private sector. All residents of India,including infants,who meet the verification norms we’ve got will be given the number. Infants don’t have fully developed biometrics so we’ll have to recapture their biometrics when they reach adulthood. To track infants,we’ll have the mother or guardian’s number along with the infant’s number. UID is not mandatory. The mandatory nature of this number depends on the user. Basically,we remove the cloak of anonymity of the individuals.

AMITABH SINHA: The database number would be of 12 digits. Since you are not issuing a card,how will people remember their numbers?

The number will be of 16 digits (12+4)—12-digits will be in the public domain,four digits will be the PIN that will be personal. So it can be memorised. Also,every product you get will have this number: ration cards,job cards,etc. Also,you’ll be issued a letter from us mentioning your UID number. The number will so ubiquitous,people will find ways to memorise it. The idea is to be inclusive. Today,the upper and middle classes in India have many forms of identity—credit cards,driving license,PAN cards but the poor often don’t have any form of identity. There are 75 million homeless people in the country and a lot of nomadic people—all of them don’t have an ID. We think UID will enhance their access to public services. It will clearly help us enhance our flagship schemes most of which are individual-oriented: NREGA,JSY for pregnant women,etc. It will also reduce the fraud in the system as there will no duplicates or ghosts who’ll be claiming benefits. It will strengthen security as anyone without the number will be noticed and can be tracked under the appropriate laws.

VINAY SITAPATI: Your focus is on the welfare aspects of the UID. But the idea originates from the Vajpayee government’s desire to curb Bangladeshi migration,and got a fillip after 26/11. Isn’t the main purpose security?

You are right,the government in 2003 did modify the Citizenship Act to create the National Citizenship Register,which is now the National Population Register (NPR) but that’s primarily an initiative by the Registrar General of India. This government took an initiative to have a unique ID for developmental purposes. UIDAI came out of that initiative.

This initiative came out of the desire to develop public services and give an identity to those who don’t have one. It is part of the 11th Plan. This is a massively complex project as our biometric database will consist of 1.2 billion records which is 10 times larger than the current largest biometric record. A lot of the technology issues are not yet sorted out. This has implications for the privacy and security of individuals.

VIKAS DHOOT: Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar has said states have found 1.5 crore bogus ration card holders milking the Public Distribution System. Can the UID help fix such situations?

UID by itself will not solve the issue. The application of UID in a given context will solve it. If a state decides to have UID in all its ration cards,then somebody who has a ration card with the UID cannot come again on another ration card with another UID. So UID will ensure there are no duplicates. We are providing a capability to agencies to re-engineer their public service deliveries but the decision to re-engineer has to be theirs.

SURABHI AGARWAL: How will you motivate the upper- and middle-class to register for this as most of them already have different kinds of documentation?

Suppose the income tax department decides to incorporate UID in the PAN cards. If someone doesn’t have a UID,it will act as an enroller on our behalf. If a person already has a UID number,it will issue a PAN card with a UID number. Initially,you may not need a UID but sooner or later,you’ll get in touch with an agency which is UID compliant.

ARCHNA SHUKLA: But you said UID is not mandatory?

UID is not mandatory but a given application/ agency that uses this number in their operations may decide that UID is a must. We think that UID will be demand driven. Once you have your ID for life,it can be authenticated anywhere in the country. People will want to have this number,especially the poor. This system will be self-cleaning: there will be one record per person,so you will have an interest to make sure your data is clean. It will also have benefits for registrars like banks or states. It will help to control leakages in public delivery systems,it will reduce the verification costs for the agencies. It will be easier to reach anybody and would thus make social programmes more accessible. Also,for those arms of government in the revenue business like the income tax department,it will help them to increase the taxes. Over time,everyone will have an UID and thus it’ll become difficult to evade taxes.

SHEKHAR GUPTA: When did the idea of the UID first come to you?

I had written a whole chapter on this in my book. Over time,the design has become more sophisticated. And the government decided to set up the UIDAI under the Planning Commission. So it was a good fit.

AMITABH SINHA: Is the design of the scheme complete now?

The broad design is over. Now we are in the phase where we are receiving feedback from different agencies.

SHEKHAR GUPTA: The central argument of your book,Imagining India,is that in India it takes a long time for an idea to be debated and discussed before it is implemented. Has a critical mass of debate and discussion preceded this?

Absolutely. The idea has been around for a long time so it has reached maturity. Increasingly,our social programmes are getting into direct benefits: health insurance,education for all. We are moving towards cash transfers. As more public spending moves in that direction,it needs to be more efficient. With the concept of inclusive growth,it is important to carry everyone with us. So from the people’s side and state’s side,the time has come for this. Technology has reached a level that makes it possible to pull this off. Whatever we’re proposing now couldn’t have been done five ago.

M.K. VENU: According to income tax records,there are barely four lakh people in this country with an income of Rs 10 lakh and above a year. Potentially,the number should be five million and above but they don’t come under the net because they don’t want to. Will UID help in the regard?

Different arms of government will see the benefits and implement it in their sphere of influence. The banking system may say that every account should have a UID. This will happen over time and it will ensure that the money in the system is accounted for.

M.K. VENU: Could this act as an incentive for people to come under the tax net and accrue the larger benefits arising out of it?

Yes. Also,at the top end,you’ll need this to get a driving license,a passport,a ration card,a PAN card or a bank account. People getting benefits will need this too,so from both sides it’ll become a prerequisite.

DHIRAJ NAYYAR: Is it not a possibility that banks may continue to deny bank accounts to the poor even after they have UIDs? They may insist on other requirements?

Both the public and the private sector banks and the RBI are part of our verification committee. We are trying to see how having a UID can give automatic benefits. We have already announced a tie-up with NREGA. We think this has the potential to get a couple of hundred million people into the system.

UNNI RAJEN SHANKER: Will this be linked to the Census?

We have an agreement with the Census Bureau,the ministry of Home Affairs and the RGI. As part of next year’s Census,there will be something called the National Population Register (NPR) and we have an agreement with the Home Ministry that the data feeds which are common to us will be synchronised. This is the how we can ensure a number to everybody.

SMITA AGGARWAL: What will be your liability towards the agencies since they are paying you for the data?

No,they’re not paying for the data. We plan to charge for the address verification and not for basic verification. Basic verification will be free.

PRAGATI VERMA: The database management will be outsourced. Who will be responsible if there is a security breach? Have you laid down the security and privacy norms?

No,it is being done. We’ve had consultations with the government agencies,which cover identity in some form or other,as well as with all the regulators—SEBI,RBI,PFRDA,IRDA,TRAI and 12 state governments. By January,we hope to meet all the states and the Election Commission. In the next 10-12 months,we aim to build the platform,the technology,and approve the biometrics. Within the next 18 months,we hope to issue the first set of numbers. And four years later,our goal is to have 600 million people in the system.

SMITA AGGARWAL: It’s about six months since you’ve been in this job. What have been your frustrations in being part of the system?

I have no frustrations at all. I have had excellent cooperation from everyone and extraordinary support from the PM. I’ve no complaints.

COOMI KAPOOR: What were the things you had to leave before taking up this job?

I quit all my private sector responsibilities,stepped down from all international boards,put all my money in non-discretionary organisations. Basically,I had a clean slate before coming here.

Transcribed by Jaya Jumrani

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First published on: 29-11-2009 at 05:50:14 am

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