The devil is in the detail

The Indian government’s quest for a unique identification number programme for its billion-plus population is extremely challenging, and even wasteful
By Zafar Anjum
16 Sep 2009

A few months ago, when the Congress Party returned to power in India, the Manmohan Singh-led government announced a new, ambitious project: Issue a unique non-duplicable ID card to every Indian citizen, starting with the target population of some flagship schemes.

For this purpose, the government appointed Infosys co-chairman Nandan Nilekani as the chairperson of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), under the aegis of the Planning Commission.

Now, in India and abroad, Nilekani is a media darling. He was the inspiration behind Tom Friedman’s bestseller, The World is Flat. As a veteran Indian journalist put it, Indian media would criticise neither Nilekani nor the ID project. Sure enough, after the project was announced, the Indian media lapped it up as expected, glorified the already feted Nilekani with sweet write-ups. No doubt that Nilekani is a thoughtful corporate leader but it was the project’s scant details that worried people like me. Not only the media came out confusing details, I was disappointed to see not a single report that could challenge the assumptions behind the ID project.

It took the veteran interviewer Karan Thapar to do this unpleasant job: In his programme, Devil’s Advocate for CNN-IBN, he thoroughly grilled Nilekani. During the interview, many facets about the project came out that need debate, discussion, and clarification. I am surprised that the Indian government has announced the establishment of an Authority without gauging the budget and implications of such an ambitious programme.

Ambition outstripping ability?

The main issues, as raised during the TV interview, are as follows:

–    Why do we need a unique identification number for all Indians? About 80 per cent of Indians have Election Commission (Voter ID) cards, others have some other identification documents, such as ration cards, driving licences, PAN cards, BPL cards and passports.

–    Does a suitable technology exist to undertake such a mammoth exercise? According to a London School of Economics study, a similar project in the UK was scrapped because of unreliable technology.

–    Cost of the project is another issue. According to an Indian weekly, Frontline, the project could cost hundreds of billions of rupees. That kind of money could be better spent on health, sanitation, nutrition and education of the poor. Nilekani himself, who is heading the project, is not aware of the cost involved in this project but he insists that the cost is a fraction of the figure quoted by the magazine.

–    Security of the database, containing the record of a billion-plus people, is another major issue. There is a major risk of hacking. Nilekani also accepts that there is the risk of hacking.

–    Caste and religion-based profiling of the population is another danger. People can indirectly misuse the database and target a group of people, using the data against them.

Nilekani, quite gentlemanly, agrees in the interview that most of the above-mentioned charges are correct. But he is also convinced that the project is required (and is feasible) as India needs one single non-duplicate way of identifying a person (through a combination of finger prints and pictures) and a mechanism to authenticate that identity online anywhere. According to him, the project will deliver a huge impact on India’s ‘leaking’ public services. It will make delivery of social services and government grants more efficient and make the poor more inclusive in growth.

It all sounds noble and well-intentioned. But Nilekani agrees that with such a monster of a scheme, we are going into uncharted territory. According to him, the technology is there and we will have to scale up the existing technology. He understands that there are certain risks involved in this project but the benefits will be immense, countervailing the risks. As for the misuse of the data, he argues that a mechanism of citizen oversight and a combination of checks and balances could make it less prone to misuse.

As any right-thinking citizen will demand, the project must have a regulatory and independent risk assessment component. There must be checks and balances and it must not give the rogue the power to snoop around with people’s identities. That would be the greatest disservice anyone can do to a country. I’m sure Nilekani would be cautious in devising the parameters and security aspects of the project.

Zafar Anjum is the online editor of MIS Asia portal.

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