People who had turned up at a school in Hubli, Karnataka, on September 17 to apply for Aadhaar.
THE Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has ambitious targets to meet. The Unique Identification (UID) number, or Aadhaar, has been marketed as a number that will give the poor and the undocumented an identity so that they can tell the state they exist. It is being promoted as a means of reaching services to the poor. It has been projected as voluntary, with the UIDAI not imposing any compulsion. It has been presented as potentially easing the way to fulfilling Know Your Customer (KYC) norms. It is, then, something to which every resident is entitled – a sentiment that is reflected in Clause 3 of the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 – and not something that will be mandated. That is how the project was presented to the public.
The UID, unlike the United States' Social Security number, carries no guarantee of any service or benefit. Among those who have multiple identification documents, its appeal was bound to be limited. These aspects – of voluntariness and lack of sufficient incentive to enrol – explain the shift in strategy that was effected early on in the process with one objective: to increase enrolment. While the UIDAI continued to insist that enrolment was voluntary, it worked on agencies within the government to make the UID mandatory before services could be accessed.
The strategy to increase enrolment is reflected in the UIDAI's document on “Public Health and UID”. The aggregation of records from various population databases such as those for the census, the public distribution system (PDS) and voters' lists would still leave a large percentage of the population uncovered. Therefore, “every citizen must have a strong incentive or a ‘killer application' to go and get herself the UID, which one could think of as the demand-side pull.... Helping various ministries visualise key applications that leverage existing government entitlement schemes such as the NREGA [National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] and the PDS will (1) get their buy-in into the project (2) help them roll out the mechanisms that generate the demand-pull and (3) can inform a flexible and future-proof design for the UID database.... Health and health-related development schemes could offer a killer application for the UID.”
In October, the Ministry of Rural Development indicated in a tender that it intended to link access to NREGA jobs with the possession of a UID. Academics and activists working on the NREGA protested that loading the UID agenda on the NREGA would cause harm to an already fragile system. On May 17, senior activists responding to media reports that had begun to circulate that the UID was to be made compulsory for NREGA benefits in Mysore wrote to the Ministry characterising such a move as “unfair, illegal and dangerous”. “It is also disturbing to read from the same reports that the main purpose of this move is not to provide a facility to NREGA workers, but to facilitate the completion of UID enrolment,” they wrote.
In September, it was the turn of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas to declare by notification that refills of cooking gas cylinders would be available only to households that had enrolled for a UID. The incentive of inclusion was clearly not sufficient to get people to enrol, so the strategy has shifted to the threat of exclusion. Actually, though, given that 1.2 billion people cannot possibly be enrolled in the immediate future, this notification is unworkable.
In Kerala, the government has set out to enrol six million students spanning 15,000 schools so that the UID may be used to track them through their years in school. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has ordered an inquiry into this potential violation of the right to privacy and dignity of the children in the State.
Admittedly the UID project is an experiment – not a solution.
In the process of experimenting with biometrics, the UIDAI has enlisted registrars with whom it has memorandums of understanding and enrollers who it has “prequalified” to do the work of capturing data. Interestingly, while recognising that biometrics is “sensitive information”, it has washed its hands of responsibility for the safety, security and confidentiality of the data during enrolment and passed the buck to the registrars.
The “Guidelines” that the UIDAI has unilaterally framed for the registrars set out “principles and procedures”, but there is no evidence that there is any seriousness in enforcing these. For instance, it reads: “The individual from whom data is being collected should be informed the purpose for which information is being collected and how the data will be used.” There is no evidence of registrars or enrollers giving this information. In fact, it seems that neither registrars nor enrollers have any idea of what use the data will be.
The enrolment process has thrown up a host of issues already.
In January, reports emerged about working-class women in Mumbai being unable to enrol because of blisters and calluses and the effect of abrasive detergents on their hands. More recently, in August and October, there were reports from Bangalore and Delhi that senior citizens were unable to get enrolled because their fingerprints did not work. The credibility roadblocks that these reports were setting up were sought to be removed by the UIDAI by threatening enrollers with “action” if they turned any person away.
“Under Aadhaar, there is no provision to turn away residents who come to get themselves enrolled, and the quality of their biometrics can't be decided by the operators on their own,” the Deputy Director-General of the UIDAI reportedly wrote to the newspaper that had carried the news. This is a prescription for “forced capture”: when the fingerprints do not leave an impression the first time, they are pressed against the plate a second and a third time, and when a fourth attempt fails, the machine gives up, records what is on offer, and the programme will let the rest of the enrolment proceed. The UIDAI has been silent on the consequences of forced capture.
Questions have arisen about persons with disabilities, some of whom may not have fingerprints or irises that meet the biometric standards required by the UIDAI for enrolment. A citizen journalist described the difficulties she had in getting an enrolment centre to accept her data – it needed the intervention of an official of the UIDAI in Delhi before the exercise was done.
In Pune, a man received his UID with his wife's photograph appended to it. An article in The New Yorker describes how this embarrassment is sought to be averted: a computer operator sits in an office running through enrolment forms to make a cursory judgment whether the image matches the demographic information. “That day,” the journalist reports, “he had already inspected more than 5,000 photographs, and he had clicked “incorrect” 300 times: men listed as women, children as adults, photographs with two heads in them.” It seems there are infinite variations to the theme of error.
In May, “unidentified persons” walked away with two laptops and a pen drive which held data pertaining to 140 persons from an enrolment centre in a school in Hadaspur, Maharashtra. The back-up information was also on the same laptop. The data included “sensitive details” relating to passports, voter ID cards, bank accounts, photographs and a range of other information.
In July, five persons were arrested in Bangalore for issuing fake UIDs. The UIDAI heard about the racket when they were approached with complaints that “Global ID Solutions” was selling franchises to customers to take up Aadhaar enrolment for a non-refundable fee of Rs.2.5 lakh an enrolment kit. This episode exposed the perils of indiscriminate outsourcing.
In October, a software error resulted in hundreds of residents of Colaba in south Mumbai having their addresses recorded as Kolaba, Raigarh district. The enrollers claimed that this was a software glitch and that enrolees would just have to return another day to re-enrol. Only, the guidelines of the UIDAI do not have a provision for re-enrolling any resident.
One of the “documents” that can be used for enrolment is a “certificate of identity having photo issued by a Group A Gazetted Officer on letterhead”. On November 1, a doctor in a Tilak Nagar Hospital in Bangalore was found blindly signing certificates presented to him by touts who were collecting Rs.100 a certificate.
The list grows, indicating an array of problems, and these are only the visible and obvious errors. It raises questions about how infallible and incorruptible this system is. The problems being encountered behind the scenes are not yet known, and there is still no information from the UIDAI about how the de-duplication process is functioning, or how many have fingerprints that will not work to authenticate their identity.
The Demographic Data Standards Committee of the UIDAI had created two demographic categories: those with documents and those without. For the latter – and the poor are the primary constituents of this category – the committee recommended a system of “approved introducers”. The committee drew an analogy with the opening of a bank account without documents but with the help of an introducer. The account retains a link with the introducer. This was “generalised and expanded”, and the idea of the “approved introducer” was institutionalised.
Since the early days of enrolment, the awkwardness of the introducer idea has been evident. In January, the Pul Mithai enrolment centre in Delhi, which was located in a makeshift shack, was host to those whose jhuggis had been destroyed in the many demolition drives the city administration undertakes. Some of them had voter ID cards and ration cards and one of them brought along a driving licence, but these were not used in the enrolment.
As homeless people, they had been the subject of a survey conducted under the direction of a “Mother NGO” (non-governmental organisation) as part of Mission Convergence by which process the Delhi government drew NGOs into their executive fold. The survey resulted in a temporary card which carried their name, gender, approximate age, a photograph and an “ID number” that held a coded key to the point in the map where they were surveyed. It also declared: “This card has been issued on the basis of self-reported information by the cardholder....” In the UID enrolment process, it was found that errors in age, especially, were quite common. Since they were officially homeless, they were assumed not to belong to an address even when they believed they were residents of an identifiable spot in the area.
The enrolment form is not complete without an address to which the UID can be sent. So, an NGO lent its address. The columns asking for “information sharing consent” and for being given an Aadhaar-enabled bank account were ticked without anyone asking the enrolees whether they had other views on the subject. A young man of about 21 years had been the introducer for 70 people already – but knew none of them. He had no idea what his responsibilities or liabilities were should the information about the people he introduced be found inaccurate.
Some while later, the NGO received the UID numbers at its office. A visit in March revealed that over 250 letters from the UIDAI were addressed to various homeless people who were proving difficult to locate. Some months later, a similar situation arose in Geeta Colony in East Delhi where, between the date of enrolment and the time that the letter of information was received, the pavement had been cleared of dwellers. If banks do open accounts on the basis of UID enrolment, information will reach as far as the address on the enrolment form – the poor may never learn of it, and banks will find themselves answerable for misdirected mail and inoperable accounts.
It is no secret that the introducer system is failing the poor and exposing them to the probability of exclusion. Any alternative that is essayed, which does not care to know the poor as individuals may well end up stripping them of the identity they currently possess.
Usha Ramanathan works on the jurisprudence of law, poverty and rights.
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
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