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The politics of Identity

In February 2011,India will become the first country in the world to issue its residents biometric-based numbers to establish identity.

Written by Ruchi Gupta | Published: January 11, 2010 1:11:38 am

In 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 publicised purpose of the UID number is to improve national security. In January 2009,the Centre 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 “Governments 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”. So once the UIDAI has finished with its business,who will use it,and how? One has to ask whether “security” is not just a peripheral but the primary purpose of the project.

UID is a flexible tool and the Authority’s neutral attitude towards its end-use leaves abundant room for abuse. Thus it is imperative that government programs delineate all objectives and there is a robust and inclusive debate to ensure democratic end-use. Public approval of this undertaking is contingent on its stated altruistic goals — but these must be clearly enumerated. Given the record of our security agencies and their adherence to democratic principles,the Indian populace is unlikely to sanction a project for its own increased policing. Therefore,it is necessary to examine efficiency issues as well,and pre-emptively block dangerous outgrowths with legislative measures. While an open and informed debate is necessary to develop a comprehensive list,some obvious safeguards are outlined below.

First,non-enrollment should not be treated as criminal. There is 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. However,there could conceivably be a push for universal enrollment in border,coastal and/or “red” states leading to potential harassment of undocumented individuals,especially 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 programmes. Therefore,it is likely that these schemes will mandate UID enrollment before providing services. In the case of social security services,the onus of enrolment should be on the organisation,not the beneficiary. Also,the enrolment cost (estimated @ Rs. 20-25 per number) should not be taken from social security outlays. Fourth,private organisations 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 organisations 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 rationalised 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 organisations. 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 indicators. Moreover,the largest leakages in welfare schemes are due to organised 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,photograph and biometric info (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.

Last,there are extensive loopholes to successful implementation. The benefits of UID implementation are contingent on near universal enrollment,which is jeopardised by at least 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 unorganised sector) and legions will remain unenrolled. Second,in the absence of universal coverage (target enrolment at 600 million people or 50 per cent of population four years from launch),there will need to be alternatives to the UID to obtain service,verify identity etc. In India,all large databases are riddled with errors; some voter lists alone are incomplete and erroneous by as much as 40 per cent. Since,enrollment in UID will not be mandatory,but “demand driven”,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 organisations. Given that UID verification will be chargeable (up to Rs. 10 per verification),private organisations may prefer alternative proof of identity thus reducing incentive for voluntary enrollment. The UID project is one of the most ambitious programs in India,without precedence or parallel anywhere. Given its scale,centralised power and potentially invasive use,there is need for transparency of its purpose with civil society and a collaborative design process to ensure that democratic ideals of the country are upheld and derived benefits outweigh its costs.

The writer is transitioning from the corporate world to activism for state accountability and development. She blogs at bourgeoisinspirations.wordpress.com

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