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Unique Identity or Aadhaar scheme- Some Pertinent Questions

Wednesday, Apr 03 - 2013 | By Sidharth Rath

Of late, the much talked about ‘Aadhar’ scheme is again in the fore centring on the Congress-led government’s decision to use it in direct transfer of subsidy component in food, fertilizer and fuel to the bank account of the beneficiaries. On the anvil is the so- called Food Security Bill which is also based on Aadhaar. Aadhaar is the brand name of a 12-digit unique identification number which the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) set up for the purpose, will issue for all residents. According to the government this number would, inter alia, eliminate duplicate and fake identities in government and private databases in a cost-effective manner. In other words, as against obtaining identity proofs like voter’s card, PAN of Income tax, passport, ration card, etc., Aadhaar would now be the sole and unique document of valid identity. The UID programme will provide an identity card bearing that unique number for every citizen. This would, apart from facilitating easy verification of identity, make availing of government or private services hassle-free, help welfare programmes reach intended beneficiaries and serve as basis for e-governance in banking, insurance and such other value-added services. Apparently, it looks to be a very novel proposition. But, the scheme is not free from controversies. The UID project has raised many questions about data convergence, imperfect technology, national and personal security, extraordinary expenditure, exclusion and inclusion, and the source of power to gather, hold and use data about individuals. The crosshairs of argumentation are driven by apprehensions about both the feasibility of its operation as well as the very desirability of its introduction. So, arises the need to examine the various facets of this much-hyped scheme based on available facts, logic and reason.

Birth history of Aadhaar
Aadhaar or Unique Identification project was initially conceived by the Planning Commission which claimed that unique identification numbers generated for each resident across the country will be used to deliver welfare services. The Congress-led UPA II government was so keen to implement the project that it went on establishing the UID Authority of India (UIDAI) on 28 January, 2009 with considerable powers and resources as an attached office under the Planning Commission without any approval from Parliament or discussion in the public domain about the necessity of such a scheme. It only declared that the UIDAI was being set up for developing and implementing the necessary institutional, technical and legal infrastructure to issue unique identity numbers to the Indian residents and any other category of people that may be specified. Subsequently, the government with a view to ratifying the decision through appropriate legislation tabled the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 (NIDAI), in December, 2010. But the bill was referred to a Standing Committee on December 10, 2010 for scrutiny. The report that the Standing Committee adopted on December 8, 2011 and placed before Parliament on December 13, 2011, is full of severe indictments. According to the report, the project has been conceptualized “with no clarity of purpose” and “directionless” in its implementation, leading to “a lot of confusion”. The Standing Committee also observed that while framing of relevant law is under way, the continuance of the project is “unethical and violation of Parliament’s prerogatives”. The collection of biometric and personal data and issuing of UID numbers do not have any statutory sanction until the Bill is passed by Parliament.

There is every merit in this observation. In the absence of a Constitutional provision or legal framework, all the actions of the UIDAI are technically unconstitutional and illegal. There is no transparency either on decisions or on expenditure, no oversight and no mechanisms for accountability in the functioning of the UIDAI. Nandan Nilekani, the current Infosys chief nominated by the government to head the project, has been given sweeping powers. Technically, if the Bill is not passed for any reason and if Parliament is of the view that the authority should not function, the exercise would have to be discontinued. Yet, the Congress-led UPA II government which is now virtually reduced to a minority following withdrawal of support by two of its main constituents has gone ahead with rolling out the project which is envisaged to cost as high as Rs 1.50 lakh crores roughly. This smacks of subversion of democracy. That is why there is doubt what prompted the government to be in such a pressing hurry to launch such a crucial as well as highly debatable scheme bypassing Parliament.

Declared objective of the scheme-  fallacies galore
The government and the Planning Commission claim that the UID scheme will enable inclusive growth. Individuals who are residents in India and satisfy the verification process laid down by the UIDAI will be able to establish unique identities with banks and communication companies. Microfinance, micropayments, customer acquisition, KYR (Know Your Residence) for KYC purposes will be solved with the Aadhaar number. Besides having the lists for NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), Old Age Pension Schemes, PDS (Public Distribution System) etc. in order, it may also help clean up benami (fictitious) bank accounts and thus put in place systems of direct remittance to the beneficiary. Setting up a network of Banking Correspondents (BC) based on Aadhaar, much in the model of mobile recharge agents in every village and locality in the country, would help the beneficiaries withdraw the credited amount of subsidy in cash after necessary verification. It would thus eliminate middlemen and leakages. Since the UID vouchsafes uniqueness and identity it would be possible for a migrant labourer to easily get her BPL card transferred or open a no-frills bank account. The UID is thus, according to its protagonists, focussed on the benefits to the poor.

Unfortunately, the arguments put forth in favour of UID are not that sound as they appear. As rightly put by the critics, exclusion and leakages are not caused by the inability to prove identity – they are caused by the deliberate manipulation of the system by those who have the power to control the flow of benefits. For instance, BPL families who have valid ration cards are unable to get their quota of foodgrains – not because the validity of the card is disputed, but because the ration shop owners exploit them and force them to take less than their due. Scholarships meant for them are denied to children from Dalit families – not because they cannot prove they are Dalits but because a corrupt nexus in disbursement mechanism pockets the money after forcing the parents to sign on false receipts. Workers, more so women workers in NREGS are paid much less than their due – not because they cannot prove that they have put in the full quota of work, but because the unscrupulous supervisors and paymasters in connivance with corrupt administration misappropriate the balance. How would the UID number free the system from these aberrations and pilferage?

Elimination of middlemen- far from reality

The very claim that Aadhaar would abolish middlemen is also not corroborated by reality. For example, the much-trumpetted ‘direct cash transfer scheme’ (DCT) of crediting monetized subsidy amount of food, fertilizers, LPG cylinders and kerosene straightaway to the bank accounts of the beneficiaries is conceived as an Aadhaar-Enabled Cash Transfer (AECT) project. But the fact is, most of the rural poor including BPL families do not have bank accounts and several villages do not have any bank branches. Moreover, to withdraw the cash subsidy, the account holder is required to be physically present at the bank, which evidently would make it highly inconvenient, if not impossible, for the old-age card holders to avail of the facility as several bank branches are located 8-15 km from their villages. It would also be equally impracticable to think that the impoverished villagers would bear additional transport cost of commuting to banking facilities located miles away by foregoing their daily wages. To circumvent these difficulties, the government has proposed a system of “branchless banking” for which a band of banking correspondents (BCs) would be recruited in rural areas. According to the government, cash transfers could be withdrawn in rural areas through BCs, who would use Aadhaar-enabled biometric devices or mobile phones to authenticate beneficiaries. The BCs would be paid a percentage by way of commission for every transaction. It is understood that the BC model was envisioned since the public sector banks were reluctant to open more rural branches. To make the model attractive, the RBI in 2010 permitted the appointment of “for-profit companies” as BCs which clearly shows that the intent has been to promote a private sector in rural banking to be run on commission paid by the government. It goes without saying this is destined to open another floodgate of corruption as mostly village headmen, moneylenders and fertilizer dealers would enroll themselves as BCs and corner benefits by wielding power. Facts corroborate that as well. According to an Economic Times report from Punjab, “75 per cent of BC agents are village sarpanchs (headmen) or their kin”. In March 2011, an internal circular of the State Bank of India noted that the BCs were “found to indulge in malpractices, such as asking for unauthorized money, over and above the bank’s approved rates of charges from the customers”. The circular noted that “gullible customers” were being “exploited”, posing “serious risk” to the bank’s reputation. According to bank unions, BCs regularly extract Rs.100 for every account opened. Thus, it is clear that middlemen are not eliminated by Aadhaar. In fact, can there be any way to rid the capitalist system we are in from the clutches of middlemen? Experience would say, no. Because, the very system breeds parasites who, in turn, become cog and screw of the exploitative system where denial and usurpation of any legitimate dues to the oppressed multitude is basic to its mode of operation. The middlemen are nothing but such parasites which the system abets and protects. Taking advantage of the wrenching want, wretchedness and ignorance of the multitudes of hapless poor and impoverished, the middlemen wearing the cloak of so called facilitators pilfer and corner, in connivance with the utterly corrupt administration, a sizeable chunk of the benefits meant for the common people. So the claim that introduction of Aadhaar would cleanse the system from middleman intervention is not only hollow but deceptive as well. As we know that except depending on powerful organized democratic movement, people have no other course left to fight and mitigate the strangulating problems of life in oppressive capitalist system. The aberrant middleman system is also to be fought and thwarted in the same manner.

Pitfalls of Operationalization
Next comes the question of viability of its operation. UID, as per stated definition, would capture all necessary details of the beneficiaries, demographic as well as biometric. Demography, as is known to all, consists of name, address, age, sex, ethnicity, religion, academic qualification, marital status, profession etc. On the other hand, biometric details would include prints of all 10 fingers, retina scan (iris) and photograph of the face. Thus the system and method, the protagonists say, are so devised as to uniquely identify and track biological humans. As regards collection of information, the UIDAI has appointed state governments and pan-Indian agencies like the post office, State Bank of India and the Life Insurance Cooperation of India as registrars. The registrars can, in turn, appoint private agencies to carry out the enrolment process. There are no criteria for selecting private enrolment agencies. But how far are all these feasible in our country? Take for example, date of birth which is important for schemes like Old Age Pension benefits. As everyone knows, the majority of Indians lack any verifiable birth record. The name of a person may be another source of problem. Outside the literate population a person may actually have multiple names. Another issue is securing address proof for homeless people. Though the UID can sanction uniqueness of a person, even without the address, the address becomes necessary for ensuring easy access to services like banking. What about millions of homeless people? What address would they furnish? To obviate the difficulties, one “introducer system”, in which people without residence proof are introduced by someone with valid papers, has been implemented. But that has resulted in expected malpractices. An NGO, Indo-Global Social Service Society, stopped UID enrolment after it found that several homeless people were registered at its address. Roping in private enrolment agencies for gathering personal data has many other pitfalls. Agencies are reportedly sub-contracting to others without government approval. Even, some of the agencies are reportedly collecting additional information without indicating which questions are mandatory and which are voluntary. Though, there are only five columns that need to be filled up compulsorily, in Karnataka, applicants are asked to answer at least 19 questions. Thus, though the UID plans to record a small set of data fields, it is possible to pile on more data fields onto a record without the knowledge of the record-holder. The possibility that some such agencies are aligned to communal and fundamentalist groups and thus having ulterior motive in collecting non-mandatory information, cannot be ruled out. Moreover, there are marginal groups of people who survive by being invisible to the state – like urban slum dwellers who live in constant fear of demolition and displacement, or forest population living in a reserve forest. Such people who are also very much citizens of India might remain out of radar.

Limitations of biometrics in proving identity are also pointed out. No accurate information exists on whether the errors of matching fingerprints are negligible or non-existent. A report from the firm called 4G Identity Solutions, contracted by UIDAI for supply of biometric devices, notes that “in the Indian environment, experience has shown that the failure to enroll is as high as 15 per cent due to the prevalence of a huge population dependent on manual labour.” A 15 per cent failure rate would mean the exclusion of over 200 million people. If fingerprint readers are installed at Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) work sites and ration shops, and employment or purchases made contingent on correct authentication, about 200 million persons would remain permanently excluded from accessing such schemes. In the event of all these, as against inclusion of hitherto excluded sections of society, UID would create new forms of exclusion. 4G Identity Solutions have also suggested that children under 12 years and persons over 60 years would find their fingerprints to be undependable biometrics. The Standing Committee of parliament has also found the project to be “full of uncertainty in technology as the complex scheme is built upon untested, unreliable technology and several assumptions”. Even the Director-General and Mission Director of the UIDAI has admitted that capturing fingerprints, especially of manual labourers, is a challenge and the quality of fingerprints is bad because of the rough exterior of fingers caused by hard work. Since biometrics is stated to be not a reliable method of de-duplication, the claim that identity theft can be eliminated using biometrics is not established.

In this connection, it may be added that several countries including the US, the UK, Australia, China, Canada and Germany have tried such projects but aborted them midway as impractical. The US – arguably the most surveillance-prone society in the world – passed a Federal law requiring the States to allow the Federal Department of Homeland Security to access State databases such as drivers’ licences and motor vehicle registration but failed to implement the same. The UK Government while discarding its proposed ‘national identity scheme’ concluded that “the technology envisioned for this scheme is to a large extent untested and unreliable. No scheme on this scale has been undertaken anywhere in the world. Smaller and less ambitious systems have encountered substantial technological and operational problems that are likely to be amplified in a large scale national system”. If they could not operationalize the scheme, are we to believe that it would not be true of India?

Another major fear raised by many with regard to the UID project is that of intrusion into the privacy of the individual by an oppressive state machine. It is apprehended that once the UID system is in place, it would be possible to track an individual. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by India, an individual’s right to privacy is protected from arbitrary or unlawful interference by the state. The Supreme Court has also held the right to privacy to be implicit under article 21 of the Indian Constitution (Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu, 1994 and PUCL v. Union of India, 1996). It is also pertinent to mention that the Supreme Court of Philippines struck down a biometric-based national ID system as unconstitutional on grounds of invasion of privacy. In a case decided by the European Court of Human Rights on the violation of the right to privacy and citizens’ rights, the unanimous decision of 17 judges was that the “blanket and indiscriminate nature” of the power of retention of the fingerprints, cellular samples, and DNA profiles of persons suspected but not convicted of offences, failed to strike a fair balance between competing public and private interests.

Possibility of abusing Aadhaar for suppressing people’s movement
While such have been the judicial pronouncements, section 33 of the NIDAI Bill empowers the already set up UIDAI to disclose personal data on an order of a court or in case of “national security” on directions of an officer not below the rank of joint secretary. The draft bill does not have any provisions to penalize misuse of data by authorized persons (e.g. UIDAI officials) either. In our country where abuse of power for ulterior motive, spying on political opponents, subversion of basic human rights, harassing activists of democratic mass movements, crushing democratic mass movements by resorting to various coercive methods including persecution of their core leaders and organizers in a planned way and such other undemocratic acts are reported everyday in swelling numbers, such empowerment to any nodal agency is bound to be viewed as arbitrary, if not draconian. It is no more a secret that there was involvement of the entire government machinery in mass carnage that happened in Delhi in 1984 and Gujarat in 2002. Tacit approval of the government-administration towards ‘encounter killings’, ‘custodial deaths’, abuse of special power by police-military in eliminating political opponents is also a reality. While the bourgeois government does have various methods to track the movements of political opponents, with Aadhaar in place and most of the transactions starting from booking of rail tickets, withdrawal of cash from ATMs to bank credit of proposed food subsidy amount linked to it, such surveillance system might be eased if run based on Aadhaar. History would bear out such systems were indeed misused by despotic and fascist forces earlier. German rulers used IBM Hollerith D-11 card sorting machine in the census of the country in 1933 and since there was a provision for identifying race and ethnicity, the Nazi rulers with the help of IBM could conveniently count and identify the Jews whom they savagely butchered out of racial hatred. One, therefore, cannot rule out the possibility of this power being misused by persons in power to access private details such as religious, racial, caste or even political profiling from Aadhaar data base to serve undemocratic, illegal and unethical purposes for use in ways that may pose a risk to the life or security of the person concerned. It is noteworthy that when quizzed on how they would prevent Aadhaar data base from falling in wrong hands or enabling unscrupulous politicians to misuse for their benefit and against the interest of the Indian people, Nandan Nilakeni who eulogizes Aadhaar number as “ubiquitous” and even advised people to “tattoo it somewhere,” lest they should forget it, was caught napping. Visibly embarrassed, he replied that they would not be keeping any profiling attributes in our database. When the interviewer asked him how would then they use Aadhaar details for better targeting the BPL and other backward segments of the populace for reaching out intended benefits to them, Nilakeni dodged the answer by saying “That is the responsibility of the applicant that provides those services” and then hastened to add “these are legitimate concerns and I think we have to address them in the public as well as in the laws. (Nilakeni’s interview by Karan Thapar published in ‘The Hindu’ in 2009) Despite the continuing debate on public platforms, and being repeatedly questioned about the risks, costs and benefits of the UID scheme, Nilakeni and the Government of India have remained silent on the contested aspects of the scheme. This only leaves scope for the apprehension that as exploitation and oppression are intensifying in the country and people are rising up in protest, Aadhaar might provide a handle to the ruling class and its governments to suppress crystallizing people’s movements.

Aadhaar is stealthily mandatory

To divert attention, an impression is sought to be given that participation in the UID scheme is supposed to be voluntary and optional. An illusion is sought to be created that Aadhaar is just like the social security number (SSN) in the US. This is another travesty of truth. The SSN was introduced in the U.S. in 1936 to facilitate provision of social security benefits. A defining feature of SSN is that it is circumscribed by the Privacy Act of 1974. This Act categorically states that “it shall be unlawful for any…government agency to deny to any individual any right, benefit, or privilege provided by law bec1ause of such individual’s refusal to disclose his social security account number.” Moreover, federal agencies have to provide notice to, and obtain consent from, individuals before disclosing their SSNs to third parties.

On the contrary, the Aadhaar project is slated to be integrated with the Home Ministry’s National Population Register (NPR). NPR is a Register of usual residents of the country being prepared at the local (Village/sub-Town), sub-District, District, State and National level under provisions of the Citizenship Act 1955 and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003. The Census of India website notes that “data collected in the NPR will be subjected to de-duplication by the UIDAI. As per Rule 3(3) in the Citizenship Rules of 2003, information on every citizen in the National Register of Indian Citizens should compulsorily have his/her “National Identity Number.” Again, Rule 7(3) states that “it shall be the responsibility of every Citizen to register once with the Local Registrar of Citizen Registration and to provide correct individual particulars.” So, NPR is mandatory and so would be Aadhaar because of proposed integration with it. This only goes to confirm that the project is not that simple an exercise for benefitting the poor but is purported to achieve something else having wider implication.

Interest of US imperialists in Aadhaar
What is of utmost concern is the keen interest shown by the US imperialists in the project. They reportedly wanted to know what is India’s strategic plan for utilizing biometric ID card technology in the military, law enforcement, and private sectors” and how the biometric card would be used at the borders, ports and airports, whether it would be used to issue passports, which foreign countries or corporations were assisting in the development of the ID card, which biometric systems (i.e. fingerprints, facial recognition, iris scan, etc.) would be incorporated into the card, what systems, databases, or portals would be named biometric ID card collection devices and such other details. This overflowing curiosity of the chieftain of international gangsterism, brigandage and all kinds of conspiratorial as well as subversive activities does raise serious question about the project. What is further disturbing is the latest revelation that data management of Aadhaar has been outsourced to US companies like Accenture which are associated with the US Department of Homeland Security. Accenture’s profile includes developing prevention tactics and streamlining intelligence gathering. Another US company involved in India’s UID project is L-1 Identity Solutions, allegedly associated with the CIA and George Tenet, former CIA director, and Admiral James Loy, former deputy secretary of Homeland Security, were on the board of L-1 till 2010. Is it that the India government is covertly on a mission to leak politically sensitive information to the US imperialist regime to buttress definite ulterior motive? The suspicion is further strengthened when it is understood that Hosni Mubarak, former despotic President of Egypt, handed over similar data of Egyptian citizens to the US rulers before he stepped down and the Pakistan government which had introduced biometric cards has handed over the citizens’ database to the Pentagon regime. There is no cogent reason to believe that the ruling Indian monopolists aspiring to become a formidable superpower in Asia with the backing of the US imperialists would desist from indulging in any such act. So, the need is to tread with caution and not take any version of the government at its face value.

Aadhaar is not indispensable
In fact, available fact sheets, experience of other countries, all arguments and counter-arguments indicate that there is no indispensability of Aadhaar. The purposes it is stated to be introduced for can well be served with the existing documents of identity, at best with some minor modifications if it is absolutely necessary. It ought to be remembered that like any other policy of the government, the very Aadhaar project cannot be considered expunged from the obtaining capitalist system. Apologists of Aadhaar claim the project to be full-proof. But we know that acts of sabotage, tampering with the system, undercover manipulation and such other subversive activities are inherent in the capitalist system which is based on thuggery and criminalization. Technology is no exception. If such full-proof systems could be in place with the help of technology, then how could cybercrime be on the rise? How could hacking run pari passu with any system innovation in the information technology field? In the circumstances, there is no question of giving pass to Aadhaar without thorough examination of all the pros and cons, as well as possible outcomes. Such a vital step can never be taken without taking parliament into confidence. Before referring to parliament, there must be wide and serious debates and discourses on this issue involving all cross-sections of people, all political parties, voluntary organizations and experts. Each and every aspect must pass through the lens of minutest scrutiny on the anvil of logic and reason, of course from the people’s point of view. In the process, there ought to be a consensus about either implementing or discarding the project lock, stock and barrel. Till such a consensus is not arrived at, the project must be put on suspension. Countrywide, powerful public opinion must be built up to have this process materialized.
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Posted On Friday,Jan 16,2015 : 09:03 AM By pinku
This article is collected from 'Proletarian era' the english organ of SUCI(Communist). Please visit the web site THANK YOU.
Posted On Thursday,Apr 04,2013 : 01:13 PM By Sidharth Rath
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