Friday, 16 September 2011

Responding to UID

On Sept. 15, 2011, RS Sharma, Director General and Mission Director of UIDAI published an op-Ed in The Hindu. The following is my response to his article:

Need for identification to provide social welfare need not involve the rigors, expense and hazards of relying on technologically challenging, physically intrusive de-duplication scheme that is promised to us by UIDAI. 

While there  is no penal consequence to being Aadhar-less, it is increasingly becoming a requisite in many places; Maharashtra requires its employees to have UIDAI number to draw their salaries. The situation is much worse for the poor. The enrollment process is arbitrary and necessarily incomplete for the urban destitutes, migratory work force, vast population of the internally displaced persons, and also for the needy in remote and far flung areas. How the UIDAI aims to be an 'aadhar' for the unreachable, non-addressed, mobile sections of the society, who are also its most needy, is unclear. Further, tying up social welfare programs like NREGA and BPL provisions with UIDAI is not only unfair, but also cruel under these circumstances.

US and UK provide ample ID and benefits without requiring full(fool-)proof techno interventions against fraud or duplication. 
These examples cannot be ignored since such biometrically reliant UID systems were considered unfeasible (on account of margins of errors, amongst other reasons) even in these more technologically advanced nations, which are dealing with far smaller populations.
The poor in India, the labor class, old and malnourished have severe problems in biometrics measurements and this is well documented and also acknowledged by the authority. Rigorous and scientific feasibility studies to assess the margins of errors in biometrics have however not been conducted and the 'exception handling mechanism' in case of failures is yet to be disclosed. SSN scheme as in US, or a ration-card number in India might be sufficient if the primary interest is in providing social benefits. 

That the middle class of India is increasingly technologically proficient cannot be used to mandate UIDAI with ill defined, unregulated and enormous authority to access, appropriate and utilise highly private, personalised, complex data sets of our entire population (as defined by them). That this data system is also highly complex and susceptible to errors, human and technological, qualifies the program for substantial worry and minute scrutiny.

Additional concerns about UIDAI stem from its lack of legal sanction or sanction of law;  undisclosed, large and apparently elastic budget funded by taxpayers; its ties to Natgrid; safety, utilisation, and restrictions about sharing the data set. An idea that has recently taken hold of some of our imaginations, in reaction to elaborate UIDAI scheme, is to universalise basic rights to all citizens of this nation including food, water, shelter, education, health and security as a fundamental right garunteed by the constitution - and without getting an iris scan.

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