October 1, 2010 By Indrajit Basu, International Correspondent
Tembhali, a tiny hamlet in northern Maharashtra, India, with less than 1,500 residents -- most very poor tribal farmers who do not even own the land they till -- is unknown beyond its immediate neighborhood.
Last week however, Tembhali became the center of attention as this region became the launch site for India’s most ambitious attempt to transform the way the state reaches its citizens.
The program, called the "Unique Identification mission," -- dubbed locally “Aadhar” (literally "foundation") -- is to become the world’s largest identity program, creating a unique biometric identification for each of the country's 1.2 billion residents.
A unique identity document (UID) number will be stored and can be verified online from a central database. It reportedly can be used for a lifetime -- for passports, bank accounts, social welfare programs, phone services or airport check-ins, among others. The number would be verified with individual biometrics such as fingerprints and iris scans and will include personal information, a microchip for easy scanning, and more.
Led by a new government agency called the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the project is spearheaded by Nandan Nilekani -- one of India’s most famous techie-entrepreneurs and co-founder of Infosys -- who has been given ministerial powers and a magnanimous (rumored to be $3 billion or more) budget to implement this grand scheme.
Millions Have no Form of Acknowledged Existence
According to Nilekani, among the scores of benefits this program carries for the country’s people, millions of India’s poor, who do not get access to the government’s plethora of welfare schemes, would benefit the most from the new identification system. Much like mobile telephony, the UID number would connect the poor to the broader and advancing economy of India, he says.
Indeed, one of the biggest barriers in India that prevents India’s poor from accessing government benefits, subsidies and services is lack of identity.
“There are large number of Indian (estimated to be about 300 million) poor who do not have any form of acknowledged existence by the state, therefore they face ... challenge and harassment in their lives and do not get access to public services,” says Nilekani.
Inability to prove identity is not only one of the biggest barriers that prevent the poor from accessing benefits and subsidies, it stymies the government from reaching out to the deserving and stops the government formulating appropriate welfare polices, plugging leakages, and above all, eliminating fraud and duplicate identities.
Nilekani says the UID will provide a single source of identity verification. The UID number will enable the bearer to access a plethora of welfare programs as well as for obtaining a bank account, passport, driving license and so on.
UID is, despite its many touted benefits, facing stiff resistance from a broad coalition called the "Campaign For No-UID," that includes civil liberties groups, privacy advocates and legal eagles.
Critics condemn the UID as a blatant intrusion into privacy, a tool that will increase bureaucracy and corruption. Critis charge that in addition to being hugely expensive and even illegal, the UID goes against basic human values.
“This project, has been initiated without any prelude: there is no project document; there is no feasibility study; there has been no cost-to-benefit analysis and there are serious concerns about data and identity theft,” says Gopal Krishna, a member of Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties.
Worse, Krishna added, the project, “that could change the status of the people in this country, with regard to security and constitutional rights, has been initiated without any legal authorization just on the basis of an executive order.”
The strongest opposition to the project, however, comes from the fear that it is will remove privacy. “India has no privacy laws to bind or restrict UIDAI regarding the use of the personal data it collects,” says Sunil Abraham, an activist at the People's Union for Civil Liberties.
He also fears that the UID plan of creating a huge digital database containing sensitive personal information in one central location, is a security risk of "immense" proportions. "The trouble with a centralized infrastructure is that if it is compromised, then all of it will be compromised, which can result in the collapse of the country's information systems,” he said.
The country’s rampant corruption in the public distribution system is the other worry.
“How do we know that UID will really deliver what it promises to deliver?” says Jiti Nichani, a researcher/advocate, Alternative Law Forum. “For instance one of its objectives is to validate the identity of a person receiving government’s distribution of subsidized food grains for the poor. With bureaucracy and corruption in the country, this would give yet another reason for the corrupt to siphon off the ration elsewhere -- corruption will increase manifold as a consequence.”
Nilekani counters all these criticisms with just one strong argument that says “UIDAI is a very transparent organization and it has addressed all the issues raised by its critics very carefully.”
But above all, “The transformative capability of the UID scheme can be enormous; only time will tell how powerful UID could be,” he says
Global e-governance pundits will surely be watching with interest.
Photo: World Economic Forum, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic