Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Campaign for No UID-Till Complete Transparency, Accountability and People’s Participation*

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI, was constituted by the Central Government (via notification) in February, 2009 to give each Indian resident a UID number. UID will be a unique 12-digit number, which will store basic demographic and identity information of an individual along with his/ her biometrics (10 fingerprints, iris scan and photo). As per the Government, UID numbers will enable efficient delivery of Government services by plugging leakages, and facilitate inclusive development through improved targeting.

However, the project was met with widespread concern on grounds of privacy and potential for misuse by elements of the State. Various representatives have been made to the Authority through civil society meetings, op-eds and open discussions. In response the Government has set up a Group of Officers under the Secretary, DoPT to develop a framework for data protection, security and privacy. Simultaneously, the UIDAI has circulated a draft National Identification Authority of India Bill aimed primarily at achieving statutory status while resisting both regulation and accountability.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the first Bill introduced by the new Conservatives and Liberal Democrat Government was the Identity Documents Bill so as to cancel the similar National ID Project. UIDAI was set-up via a GoI notification as an attached office of the Planning Commission without any discussion or debate in the Parliament or civil society.

A press conference to protest against the Unique Identity Card (UID) project of the Government of India was arranged at Press Club of India, New Delhi on 28 September, 2010. The panel comprised of Justice AP Shah, Upendra Baxi, Nikhil Dey, Uma Chakravarthi, Shohini Ghosh, Prof. Jagdeep S. Chhokar, Amar Kanwar, Reetika Khera, Praful Bidwai and Bezwada Wilson so as to discuss a project that has the potential to transform the state-citizen relationship and affect every resident.

Ms. Usha Ramanathan informed that there has been little debate on the UID project. The first draft of the UIDAI Bill that was put on the website was defective. The Union Cabinet on 24 September, 2010 approved the proposed National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010, which envisages the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) as a statutory body. The Bill will now be introduced in Parliament for approval. The UID is like a project, which is done privately by some individuals. The UID project can affect the relationship between State and citizens. There are people in the public sphere who are concerned about this project. Seventeen eminent signatories, Justice VR Krishna Iyer, Retired Judge, Supreme Court of India, Prof Romila Thapar, Historian, KG Kannabiran, Senior Civil Liberties Lawyer, Kavita Srivastava, PUCL and Right to Food Campaign, Aruna Roy, MKSS, Rajasthan, Nikhil Dey, MKSS, Rajasthan, SR Sankaran, Retired Secretary, Government of India, Deep Joshi, Independent Consultant, Upendra Baxi, Jurist and ex-Vice Chancellor of Universities of Surat and Delhi, Uma Chakravarthi, Historian, Shohini Ghosh, Teacher and Film Maker, Amar Kanwar, Film Maker, Bezwada Wilson, Safai Karamchari Andolan, Trilochan Sastry, IIMB, and Association for Democratic Reforms, Prof. Jagdeep S. Chhokar , ex- IIMA, and Association for Democratic Reforms, Shabnam Hashmi, ANHAD, Justice AP Shah, Retired Chief Justice of High Court of Delhi, have asked that: a. The project be halted; b. A feasibility study be done covering all aspects of this issue; c. Experts be tasked with studying its constitutionality; d. The law on privacy be urgently worked on (this will affect matters way beyond the UID project); e. A cost-benefit analysis be done; and, f. A public, informed debate is conducted before any such major change is brought in. Ms. Ramanathan asked that such a major project cannot be allowed to happen without public consent and debate. The entire cost of UIDAI is unknown to most of us. The Government must go for a public consultation on UID project. The Apollo Hospitals group has offered to manage health records through the UIDAI. There is a marketing agenda behind this project, she added.

Ms. Uma Chakravarthi said that the UID project reminded her of migration of indentured coolie labour in South Africa during the colonial days. During that time, every migrant labourer had a unique number and s/he was photographed along with that number. The question is how one can associate a person with a particular number. Associating a person with a number actually stigmatizes him/ her. The present ideology of the Government is that schemes meant for the poor are failing since there is no UIDAI. Accessing one’s right via a number is actually a non-starter. In Kashmir, every citizen has to keep an identity card. In the absence of identity card, ordinary Kashmiris are harassed by the authorities. The UID card has become like a passport for movement. Earlier the BJP Government tried to identify illegal migrants. Hence, a person without UID would be considered as an illegal migrant. Poor migrants are likely to suffer if the UID project comes into being. Ms. Chakravarthi asked whether the identity number changes as one changes the place of stay like it happens for ration card. The privacy of an individual is at stake due to UIDAI. This project is nothing but a façade.

Ms. Shohini Ghosh informed that privacy will be adversely affected due to UID project. She asked what purpose this massive public databank would serve under UID. Health data leakage can lead to harassment of people such as those who are HIV positive. Residents of Jamia Nagar near JMI are routinely denied credit cards. People can be harassed because the UID project would disclose one’s background. The UID document is ahistorical and it promises a utopia.

Shri Bezwada Wilson asked why a massive project like UIDAI was undertaken without any proper objective. He questioned whether such a project is really needed. He further asked whether the identity of untouchables would be revealed due to UID project. He shared his own experience when he said that the dominant entities always asked for identity of untouchables (manual scavengers). The caste biasness can affect service delivery to the poor and dalits under UID project.

Shri AP Shah informed that profiling and tracking can take place due to UIDAI. The State can come to know information about its citizens, and this could be risky in the backdrop of State-sponsored terrorism. The Maharastra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has harassed people from North India in Maharastra earlier. Countries like the United States, United Kingdom and Australia started with similar projects earlier. But soon they abandoned the idea. Privacy is an issue for the poor too. A study on the potential gains and losses of UID project never happened before the project got started. A privacy Bill has to be passed by the Parliament to deal with UID. Health information may be leaked to multi-national corporations if the UID becomes active. The cost-benefit ratio of UIDAI has not been estimated. Such projects cannot be started without public debate. Even though the UID project is unprecedented anywhere in the world both in population size and application, no feasibility study was done prior. There is a possibility of commercial exploitation of UIDAI, he added.

Ms. Ritika Khera said that one cannot be anti-technology in today’s world. But technology has to be transparent and accessible. Though it is promised that UID would lead to portability, but it must be backed by better supply chain management. The UID project needs public distribution system (PDS) and National Rural Employment Guaranty Act (NREGA) databases for its success. The project can, however, reduce re-duplication of ration cards. In total, UID’s contribution would be marginal.

Shri Nikhil Dey said that the UID project team comprises of technology experts but it lacks experts on NREGA and PDS. Corruption cannot be reduced through UID. He asked about the potential value addition due to UID project vis-à-vis localized biometric system. The security aspect of UID cannot be neglected. The Government wants to carry out conditional cash transfers via UID. UIDAI is completely opposite to the Right to Information (RTI) Act in spirit since the former will enable the Government to look at each and every act of citizens whereas the latter helps the citizens to watch each and every act of the Government. If the UID comes into being, there could be a need for a separate privacy law. If the privacy law is enacted, then it might clash with the existing RTI Act. There is a need to track the money where it is going, and not the citizens.

Shri Prof. Jagdeep S. Chhokar said that one must not forget the Manhattan Project while discussing the UID project. Though the use of technology is a good idea, it can be questioned what purpose it is going to serve. The privacy law if enacted must be protected by the judiciary. The Government has to be accountable to its people.

Shri Praful Bidwai emphasized that the UID project has a dubious origin. The origins of the project can be traced back to the controversial report of the Kargil Review Committee chaired by K Subrahmaniam, which noted that immediate steps were needed to issue ID cards to villagers in border districts, pending its extension to other parts of the country. In a report titled ‘Reforming the National Security System’, a Group of Ministers of the NDA Government conveyed that all citizens should be given a multi-purpose national identity card (MNIC) and non-citizens should be issued identity cards of a different colour and design so as to check illegal migration. He cited one study carried out by a team from London School of Economics about a similar project done by the British Government. The team found that such technology is untested and unreliable. The biometric technology is unreliable and expensive. Indian defense’s computer systems were hacked recently. He termed the UID project insane.

Critique of UID Bill

  1. False claims: It has been said that the UID project will enable inclusive growth. However, 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. 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.
  2. Violation of privacy and civil liberties: The UID scheme violates the right to privacy. International law and India’s domestic law have set clear standards to protect an individual’s privacy from unlawful invasion. 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 held 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). Section 15 of the Census Act categorically states that information given for the Census is neither open to inspection nor admissible in evidence. However, the privacy clauses were diluted significantly by the NDA Government in 2003.
  3. “Functionality creep” and misuse of data: The centralized database where personal data will be stored can be easily linked with other databases, such as the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation and databases maintained by the police and intelligence agencies. This raises the risk of “functionality creep”. There is a serious concern that the biometric information collected as part of the UID project would be used for policing purposes. The proposed Bill does not contain any mechanism for credible and independent oversight of the UIDAI. There are several instances of the involvement of the State in mass carnage (as in Delhi in 1984 and Gujarat in 2002), and the Government’s support to and defense of the widespread use of ‘encounter killings’ and other extra-Constitutional methods of the police and armed forces.
  4. Inappropriate and unproven technology: Around 150 million people are likely to be excluded from benefits because of the UID project. Millions of Indians working in agriculture and as construction workers and other manual labourers have worn-out fingers due to a lifetime of hard labour, resulting in what is technically referred to as ‘low-quality’ fingerprints. UIDAI in its working paper states that fingerprint authentication is not foolproof (such as the degree and direction of the pressure applied while placing the finger on the sensor, excessively greasy or dry skin, and distortions caused by rendering a 3-dimensional object into a flat plane). An iris scan cannot be done on people with corneal blindness, glaucoma or corneal scars. There are an estimated 6-8 million people in Indian with corneal blindness, according to researchers of AIIMS, New Delhi. The Cabinet Secretary KM Chandrasekhar has opposed the collection of iris scans terming it as “waste of money”.
  5. Database security not assured: Several of our high-security databases have been hacked in the recent past. India has no generally established data protection law (like the US Federal Privacy Statute or the European Directive on Data Protection). A leaked document in wikileaks website tells that the UID database will be susceptible to attacks and leaks at various levels.
  6. Unjustifiable cost: The current costs are estimated at Rs. 45,000 crores. A budget provision of Rs. 1950 crores has been made for the current year, of which over 200 crores has already been spent. Operationalizing the UID project on the ground for NREGA and the PDS would require placing fingerprint readers at every panchayat office and every ration shop. The cost of a fingerprint reader at this time is nearly US$ 50. The total costs of placing a fingerprint in each PDS outlet and in each of India’s 6 lakh villages have not been taken into account in official cost calculations.
  7. Bypassing of Parliament and democratic processes: The UIDAI has been set up with considerable powers and resources, without any approval from Parliament or discussion in the public domain about the necessity of such a scheme. In the absence of a Constitutional provision or legal framework, all actions of the UIDAI are technically unconstitutional and illegal.
  8. Lessons from other countries: Several countries (including the US, UK, Australia, China, Canada and Germany) have tried such projects and have given these up as impractical, unjustified and dangerous. One of the first acts of the new government in UK after taking office in June, 2010, was to scrap the UID project in that country.

Courtesy: Campaign for No UID, Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF)

* Compiled by Shambhu Ghatak from various sources.

Kindly, click the following links for further information:

“Basic procedures not followed before project was launched”, The Hindu, 29 September, 2010,

Why the UID number project must be scrapped by Gopal Krishna,, 2 June, 2010,

High-cost, high-risk by R Ramakumar, Frontline, Volume 26, Issue 16, 1-14 August, 2009,

Why Indians should fear the UID by Praful Bidwai,, 12 October, 2010,

The personal is the personal by Usha Ramanathan, 6 January, 2010, The Indian Express,

Questionable link by Praful Bidwai, Frontline, Volume 27, Issue 12, 5-18 June, 2010,

Not all that unique by Reetika Khera, The Hindustan Times, 30 August, 2010,

NREGA gets 'smart' by Arvind Mayaram, The Financial Express, 24 September, 2010,

Unique ID pilot project in a week, The Telegraph, 30 July, 2010,

Govt allocates Rs 10 cr to UIDAI, The Indian Express, 22 July, 2010,

Plugging the leaks, The Business Standard, 15 July, 2010,

Govt slashes UIDAI budget by over 50 per cent,, 11 July, 2010,