UID: A quixotic idea, draining money, making little headway
Why not integrate it with census exercise?
By Ravi Shanker Kapoor
There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you, said American entertainer Will Rogers. The antics of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government would indeed have been laughable were it not for the deplorable consequences for public finance, bureaucracy, and the polity. A recent and high-profile instance of the UPA’s quixotic feats is the Nandan Nilekani-led Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).
The UIDAI, whose brand name is ‘Aadhaar’, is mandated to capture biometric details regarding ten fingerprints and the iris and face images as part of the enrolment process. As the UIDAI website says, “Unique identification project was initially conceived by the Planning Commission as an initiative that would provide identification for each resident across the country and would be used primarily as the basis for efficient delivery of welfare services.” The UIDAI was finally created as an attached office under the Planning Commission.
But the census office is also involved in a similar exercise. As its website says, “The NPR [National Population Register] would be a Register of usual residents of the country. The NPR will be a comprehensive identity database that would help in better targeting of the benefits and services under the Government schemes/programmes, improve planning and help strengthen security of the country. This is being done for the first time in the country.”
Further, the NPR is a “statutory exercise,” as it “is being created under the provisions of the Citizenship Act and Rules.” So, the billion dollar question is: What is the raison d’etre of the UIDAI?
At a time when the government is facing resource crunch and the fiscal deficit is going skywards, what is the point in doing an exercise twice? Actually, it will be thrice! As the census office website says, “The data collected in the NPR will be subjected to de-duplication by the UIDAI. After de-duplication, the UIDAI will issue a UID Number. This UID Number will be part of the NPR and the NPR Cards will bear this UID Number. The maintenance of the NPR database and updating subsequently will be done by the Office of Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India.” Isn’t it terribly complicated? Can’t our government do things in a simple, transparent manner?
Our babus can’t do a single thing properly. But here they are supposed to do an important job twice, and then remove the redundancies that might have crept in!
Anyway, all this costs money, a lot of money. Nilekani wants to record biometrics for the entire population, an exercise that will require almost Rs 15,000 crore. The ‘minimum duplicate expenditure’ has been reportedly estimated in the region of Rs 10,000 crore, and this could reach Rs 40,000 crore.
Expressing concern about expenditure and duplication, Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia wrote a letter to Home Minister P. Chidambaram on August 30. According to Ahluwalia, the census office had informed the plan panel that “duplication cannot be avoided.”
Planning Commission Member Secretary Sudha Pillai told a news channel, “We want to avoid the duplication of data and of expenditure.” While Ahluwalia later did a somersault and came out in support of Nilekani’s revenue-guzzling project, Pillai courageously took on the former corporate czar.
This is despite the fact that Nilekani is divinely-ordained to do ‘Aadhaar’ work. Yes divinely, because Congress president Sonia Gandhi, the ruling deity of the UPA regime, has blessed him. Last year, she praised him for the “historic” project.
Besides the Empress, the Crown Prince has also endorsed ‘Aadhaar’. At Amethi recently, Rahul Gandhi said, “Under the scheme, thumb impression of people are being taken and a number is being allotted to each of them. This number will be their identity. An unique identity is being created for each Indian.”
How will it help the people? He explained, “After this, whatever money we will send from Delhi will directly reach your bank accounts.” Further, he said, “in next two to three years, we will distribute ‘Aadhaar’ cards to all Indians so that whatever money is allocated it reaches directly to the pocket of the people.” Notice “we.” Rahul baba clearly thinks that he and his party are destined to rule the country for eternity—and, till eternity, “we” will persist in efforts to remove poverty. The money he and his party intend to send “directly to the pocket of the people” is, by the way, taxpayer’s money, not from the coffers of the grand old party. It seems he also confuses the world’s largest democracy with the family estate and family-run party.
There is an unstated premise in his remarks: the poor are so helpless, slothful, and unintelligent people that they cannot get out of their misery without our help. But “we,” who have been divinely anointed to redeem the poor, will do our job. Hence his full backing to Aadhaar.
But Pillai remains undaunted despite her boss’s capitulation to political pressure. A month after her statement to the news channel, she told a newspaper, “We have raised the issue of double and excessive expenditure and had been trying to prevent any adverse comment later on.” Hats off to you, Lady!
The UPA government, however, is not bothered about any future controversy or allegations of financial impropriety. Embroiled in countless scams, it seems to have a developed thick skin; accusations don’t disturb it anymore.
‘Aadhaar’ has received criticism from various quarters. At a Parliamentary panel meeting, the Bharatiya Janata Party said that the project would help illegal migrants. While Mainul Hassan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) found the entire exercise “unnecessary,” a Bahujan Samaj Party representative questioned the usefulness of the programme. But political resistance cutting across ideological lines has failed to make the government see reason.
Expert opinion is not much different. Issuing UIDs based on NPR data will help illegal aliens get these numbers, former deputy registrar general (census and tabulations) SP Sharma told a newsmagazine. “They would be entitled to obtain Indian passport, register their names in the electoral rolls, obtain identity card issued by the Election Commission of India, get ration cards and open bank accounts. All this will make them eligible to contest elections at all levels, and even enter the police and armed forces.”
UIDs seem to have the potential of playing havoc with national security, indeed subverting the Indian Republic. But She-who-must-be-obeyed is not concerned, nor is Manmohan Singh, who is said to be the Prime Minister and is ex-officio Chairman of the Planning Commission.
Quite apart from being repugnant to commonsense, ruinous for the exchequer, and latently disastrous for security and defence, ‘Aadhaar’ has also the potential of upsizing government. Bureaucracy, they say, gives birth to itself and then expects maternity benefits. The UIDAI that has been created to execute an idiotic idea will surely perpetuate itself and become another burden for the taxpayer.
Then there is the issue of civil liberties and individual privacy. Ironically, members of the National Advisory Council (NAC) and other organisations, who always clamour for improvement in the ‘delivery mechanism’ of welfare schemes, have opposed the UIDAI. Jean Dreze, for instance, called the UID a national security project in the garb of a social policy initiative (as if anything pertaining to improving national security were sinful, but that is another story). “I am opposed to the UID project on grounds of civil liberties. Let us not be naive. This is not a social policy initiative—it is a national security project.”
Human rights activist Gopal Krishna is another activist firmly opposed to the UID. He says that the project has a precedent in Nazi Germany and South Africa.
Last year, the new UK government scrapped the National Identity Card as it was criticised for being too costly and an infringement of civil liberties. The cards contained biometric data. Explain the rationale for the abrogation of cards, Home Secretary Theresa May said that her government wanted “to reduce the control of the state over decent, law-abiding people and hand power back to them.” The UPA, on the other hand, is trying to keep the citizenry under leash, notwithstanding its sanctimonious regard for liberal principles.
There are also the issues of privacy of individuals and confidentiality of personal information. As the Niira Radia tape leak showed, not only the privacy of any person can be violated by government agencies but it can be divulged to the media and broadcast electronically.
But the UPA regime is determined to introduce ‘Aadhaar’. And so is Nilekani. Let’s us try to understand why.
In the United States, industrialists donate vast sums from their lifetime earnings to philanthropic purposes; this is one of the reasons that it is the world’s mightiest nation. Public spirited businessmen get seriously involved in charitable activities; they set up think-tanks which sponsor independent research and promote the cause of freedom in politics and economy. In the wonder that is India, however, retired and semi-retired businessmen become bores. They lecture at the jamborees organised by media houses how India can become a superpower, how poverty can be eradicated, etc. From corporate management to moral science, there is only one step. Nilekani is a permanent fixture at such circuses where everybody says nice things about everybody else.
In fact, the former Infosys CEO is cleverer than American tycoons: he wants to be known as a great philanthropist without spending a penny from his own pocket. The taxpayer will end up suffering because of the foolhardy idea that he is executing. Paraphrasing Rhodes, we can say that philanthropy is good, but with somebody else’s money it is a good deal made better.