Sunday, February 27, 2011

Envisioning India—The Potential of Aadhaar

Centre for Media Studies (CMS, in collaboration with Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML, organized the National Lecture Series on ‘Analysing and Envisioning India’ on 25 February, 2011 at Auditorium, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti House. In this occasion, a lecture titled Envisioning India—The Potential of Aadhaar was delivered by Information and Technology czar Nandan Nilekani, who is presently the Chairperson of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI, The programme was chaired by Dr. Rajesh Tandon, President, Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA,

Dr. Mridula Mukherjee, Director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library welcomed her guests and explained the reasons behind and the nature of collaboration between CMS and NMML. She informed that CMS is a premier and unique institution (non government organization) founded by N Bhaskar Rao. It has produced some of the best quality public work. PRIA is another unique organization, added Mukherjee. It has made policy intervention in the area of governance. While talking about the UID project, she said that Nandan Nilekani is trying to give the citizens an identity. There are criticisms regarding how the UID project could be used and misused. The main objective is how the technology can be used for the greater good. Nilekani who is coming from the private sector is trying to promote larger social good. She explained that NMML’s partnership with CMS is part of the effort to build linkages in the society. Exposure to the public is a vital objective. There is no gap in the perceptions of NMML and CMS. NMML has undertaken digitization of archives as well as news reports. Microfilms of newspaper reports are available. However, television reports have not been archived. CMS has analysed archived news and reports. Doordarshan and NDTV must think about archiving news reports. Finally, Mridula Mukherjee presented the souvenirs to the chief guests.

PN Vasanti, Director, CMS informed that CMS is fast becoming favorite among the elderly and the youth. It has started to think beyond history. CMS’ mission include: advocacy, planning, sensitization (on issues of national concern) etc. Multidisciplinary approach to research is followed and areas of research include both market and social research. CMS also organizes a film festival on biodiversity and environment titled ‘Vatavaran’. Understanding current issues is important. Nandan Nilekani is much spoken about, she said. He has written the book Imagining India. He is the Chairperson of UIDAI, which is going to cover 600 million population in the next 4 years. Security and reliability are major issues before Aadhaar. Nilekani was also the Co-Chairman of the Board of Directors, Infosys ( In the year 2009, Time magazine placed Nilekani in the Time 100 list of 'World's Most Influential People' (see: The 2009 TIME 100,,28804,1894410_1893837_1894177,00.html).

Dr. Rajesh Tandon congratulated CMS for organizing the lecture. He asked for independent public issue focused institutions who can provide leadership. He said that media accountability is important. He informed that the civil society is afraid of too much technology and intervention made by the State. When things get more organized, the civil society becomes suspicious. Data protection and privacy laws are important in the context of the Aadhaar project. Due to the Government providing escape routes, urban poor do not have birth or death certificates. Escape routes can be blocked by the National UID Bill. There are problems with the BPL list, Voter’s ID card, ration cards as they can be faked. In India, old age pensions are siphoned off by faking identity. We have multiple cards but we don’t have multiple identities. Aadhaar is one way to solve the problem. Other Government agencies have to act and all the duties cannot be performed by Aadhaar.

Nandan Nilekani congratulated CMS for completing its 20th anniversary. While discussing the UID project, he explained the 3 key challenges faced by India, which are as follows:

* There are a large number of residents whose existence the Indian State do not acknowledge. A major chunk of the population does not possess birth or death certificates. There are not enough birth records. The identity number can connect these people to the State. The purpose of the UID project is to make development more inclusive.
* The purpose behind the UID project is to address the problem of mobility and encourage mobility of the people. Rate of migration is quite high in India. Migration will go up in the coming years (20-30 years) due to urbanization and climate change. Demographic dividends can push up migration, which was explained earlier by Ashish Bose. Migration compounds identity problem. Those who reside in villages or remote rural areas do not have proper identity records. When they migrate, they will face the problem of portable identity.
* The UID project will address the problem of public service delivery. The government is facing the challenge of making public spending direct and transparent. The aim is to make the money reach to the actual beneficiary. Since social welfare spending is going up, so there is need for transparency in delivery mechanism. Diversion or duplication must be avoided. Public service delivery must be made efficient, effective and convenient. Public services can reach the beneficiaries in 3 modes: panchayats, post offices and banks. There exists low density of post offices and banks in rural areas. These are poorly equipped. Post offices generally have no computers and are single employee branches. There exists inadequate staff at the Gram Panchayat and Block-levels.

Nandan Nilekani explained how the UID project is going to address these issues, which are as follows:

* There will be one number for one person. A second number cannot be assigned for the same person. Duplication of ration cards is rampant in India. There should be a reliable and robust way. Advances in biometrics ensure unique fingerprints and iris scan. A massive computational task is there to be accomplished.
* What to do with the unique numbers? The numbers will be used for identification and authentication after which services will be delivered to the beneficiaries. The identification process will address the question ‘Who are you?’. A database which is online will provide the answer whether the person carrying the UID number is authentic or genuine. The UID number is portable nationally, which can be verified anywhere.
* How to solve the problem in the real world? The first problem is regarding the scale of the project as 1 billion people have to be covered. The other problems are: a. speed as there is a time limit; b. the quality of the data needs to be accurate; and c. cost of the project. Several states already have collected data on individuals when they rolled out NREGS and PDS. There is a need to make partnership with registrars, who already have their own databases. 60 registrars have been identified so far.
* How do you make sure that the data quality from different source remains the same? The enrolment technology applied in the UID project is standardized across the country. Enrolment of individuals is based on the same and standardized technology.
* When partnering is done by ecosystem of organizations, the data collection process speeds up. Rs. 50 is paid per enrolment to the registrar. Outcome based approach is followed in the enrolment. Rs. 100 is the enrolment cost of one individual. The backend activity includes parallel processing (cost Rs. 50 per enrolment) and frontend activity takes place in the enrolment stations (cost Rs. 50 per enrolment). Using this architecture, the scale is created. Almost 2 million persons have been enrolled so far. It is a scalable model where enrolment stations can be added.
* There is high level of instrumentation in the data analytics.
* Online authentication is a big deal. A lot of persons do not have bank accounts. Their savings is vulnerable. Moneylenders can exploit people if they have no access to banks. Verification process to own bank account is more onerous after 9/11 (because of the problem of money laundering and terror funding). KYC (know your customer) policy is adversely affecting the poor to open up bank accounts. The Aadhaar number will entitle one to open a bank account, thus helping in financial inclusion. Hence, the transaction cost to open the bank account will go down. Bank accounts can be opened up electronically. Out of the 2 million enrolments till now, 80 percent have said that they want to open bank account.
* How to make banking services more accessible? Business correspondents like village level shopkeepers will be provided micro-ATMs (handheld devices) through which they can offer the villagers having the UID no., the money needed by them (after verification). Decentralized banking via business correspondents can help in financial inclusion. Mobile inclusion is another example of financial inclusion. The Department of Telecommunications is saying that Aadhaar number is sufficient to get a mobile connection.
* The UID system can be used for giving direct subsidy on food, fuel (kerosene) and fertilizers. The Aadhaar system will electronically maintain the monetary transactions in the case of subsidy. The Government has set up an inter-ministerial task force under Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) Chairman Nandan Nilekani, which will work out a suitable mechanism to provide direct subsidies on kerosene, cooking gas (LPG) and fertilizers for the intended beneficiaries.
* The identity infrastructure is based on open programming interface. It is an open identity infrastructure. More applications can be built. More innovation is possible. Enrolling everybody is important. Those who have no identity at all, there is a need for an introducer. The introducer will introduce the person’s name, address, and possible date of birth.

Nandan Nilekani told that there is not much personal information collected/ available in the UID project, whose dissemination can affect privacy of the individual. There are enough checks and balances. There exists distributive database. Many organizations have to come together to share data. Legal infrastructure is planned for privacy and data protection.

Answering to the questions posed by the audience, Nilekani said that the Aadhaar scheme will provide welfare that far outweighs the risks anticipated. There is no obligation to enroll. Data sharing is protected. Software and enrolment process is standardized. So, the data quality remains good. The number provided under the UID project is not to prove one’s nationality but to provide one person a unique identity. Passports, voter’s ID card, PAN cards and bank accounts cannot be replaced by UID number as they are the responsibilities of various individual departments. The UID is a 12 digit number. If a person is not using the number for a long duration, then that person can be considered dead. UIDAI is an attached office of the Planning Commission. Physical presence is need for biometric data collection. Non-biometric information can be collected from other databases. The UIDAI is considering whether the databases of Election Commission, National Population Registrar and Telecom data (of customers) can be utilized. UIDAI is providing identity infrastructure. Its role is to enroll and provide authentication services. Aadhaar’s definition of residences is same that of the National Population Registrar. There is no card given under the UID project. Only a number is provided. Geographical identity is needed to send the numbers via post and not to expose somebody’s identity or to harass. The idea is to include and not to exclude. The database collected by the UIDAI is also there with the mobile companies. If one is not questioning the mobile companies, then how can one say that a rogue state will misuse individual information collected.

Finally, the ‘Role model Award’ was presented to Nandan Nilekani by Bhaskar Rao of CMS.

Key concerns regarding the UID project and the Aadhar number:

* More number of bank accounts got opened under NREGA as compared to the UID project. Hence, the claim that Aadhaar number will lead to financial inclusion of the poor is too much rhetorical.
* Proponents of UID project can use the system to stop illegal migration from Bangladesh (by abusing human rights) whereas the same won’t be done in case of Nepalese, Bhutanese, Tibetan and Burmese. This is because of the existing anti-Muslim feeling among the officials.
* Issues of privacy and data protection are still unanswered.
* The UID project has been mooted to undermine schemes like NREGS and PDS and to encourage direct cash transfers.

For a critique of the UID project read: A Campaign for No UID-Till Complete Transparency, Accountability and People’s Participation,

Further readings:

UID and Public Health: Specious Claims by Mohan Rao,, 21 February, 2011,

One step forward, The Business Standard, 22 February, 2011,

Bihar as model? UID rollout within 3 years by Mahendra Kumar Singh, The Times of India, 16 February, 2011,

Team Nilekani to shape model for direct susbidy transfer, The Economic Times, 15 February, 2011,

Nilekani to head task force on direct subsidies, The Hindu, 15 February, 2011,

UID to be Punjab’s ‘adhaar’ to take on oil, LPG mafia by Sukhdeep Kaur. The Indian Express, 7 February, 2011,

Tracking Nilekani by Latha Jishnu, Down to Earth, 15 February, 2011,

UID boss Nilekani for pvt identity, public access, The Times of India, 4 February, 2011,

Mohali to take lead in UID, The Times of India, 2 February, 2011,

Fool-proof UID system for Indians? Blah!,, 1 February, 2011,

Census 2011 will begin on February 9 by Vinay Kumar, The Hindu, 3 February, 2011,

Kind to cash by Richard Mahapatra, Down to Earth, 15 February, 2011,

A platter of blather by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, The Indian Express, 21 January, 2011,

Several questions on UID unanswered, say experts, The Hindu, 24 January, 2011,

UID launched in Gumla, The Times of India, 21 January, 2011,

Activists, researchers doubts security of UID data, DNA, 22 January, 2011,

UIDAI chairman leaves simple questions unanswered at lecture for students by Samir Kelekar,, 10 January, 2011,

Master card: The UID faces opposition by Udit Misra, Money Control, 12 January, 2011,

Resolving the identity crisis by Malia Politzer, Live Mint, 10 January, 2011,

100 days on, development a non-starter in UID’s first stop by Santosh Andhale, DNA, 6 January, 2010,

UID set to replace PF account number, The Times of India, 4 January, 2011,

UID can now be your official ID proof by Arunoday Mukharji, IBN, 2 January, 2011,

Unique Identity, Leakages and Development by Jayati Ghosh,, 16 December, 2010,

MasterCard Develops Payment Solution for ‘Aadhaar’ in India, WebWire, 7 December, 2010,

Right to privacy or the right to do business with UID database?,, 3 December, 2010,

Panel proposes UID-linked direct subsidy by Utpal Bhaskar, Live Mint, 5 December, 2010,

Govt urged not to link UID, NREGA by Jaideep Deogharia, The Times of India, 2 December, 2010,

Each Unique ID number costs Rs.100: Nilekani, IANS, 2 December, 2010,

Will Unique Identity Number derail NREGA? by Alok Pandey and Tanima Biswas, NDTV, 2 December, 2010,

‘Keep UID out of MGNREGA', The Hindu, 1 December, 2010,

Aadhaar will plug leakages in welfare delivery mechanism by Surabhi Agarwal, Live Mint, 24 November, 2010,

Unique facility, or recipe for trouble? by Jean Drèze, The Hindu, 25 November, 2010,

"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,