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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 44, Dated November 06, 2010

Why Nandan wants to tag You

Unique Identification Authority of India Chairman Nandan Nilekani has embarked on a daunting challenge to give a unique number to every resident in India. But doubts about invasion of privacy and surveillance remain, says VAIBHAV VATS

Numbers game Nilekani at the UID headquarters in Delhi

Numbers game Nilekani at the UID headquarters in Delhi


IN A homeless shelter in Delhi’s Nizamuddin, where the city’s first UID numbers were rolled out recently, 32-year-old Adil Khan sat quietly in a corner. In front of him was a monitor screen. Next to him, a young man wearing an Aadhaar T-shirt was keying in his details. First, his name and neighbourhood were entered, then his photograph taken. This was followed by a biometric registration — Khan first pressed his eight fingers onto the machine, then his thumbs, as he saw the fingerprints appear on the screen. Finally, there was an iris scan. An instrument, which looked little more than a sophisticated binocular, scanned his eyes. A few minutes later, he got an enrolment slip, to be used to obtain the UID in a few weeks.

The UID is one of the most ambitious projects of its kind anywhere in the world. At an estimated cost of Rs. 45,000 crore, the UID aims to revolutionise delivery of welfare services by plugging and detecting leakages in funds, introducing portability of services for migrant populations and checking duplication in public services. Using an army of registrars and enrollers, the UID has set itself a target of bringing 60 crore people, almost half of India’s population, into its fold within four years.

However, for our welfare systems to be radically transformed, it will take much more than the UID. It needs the State to pull its weight behind the social sector. India is one of the lowest spenders on social sector schemes anywhere in the world, spending just around 6-8 percent of its GDP. This is way below other developing countries such as Brazil and China.

This year, corporate tax foregone was almost half of our total social sector spending. On the other hand, there is an unwillingness to support the PDS and other welfare schemes. The UID is helpless in the face of all this, if government policy continues to undermine the health of these systems.

For critics, it raises the Orwellian spectre of a Big Brother state watching you, of invasion of privacy

A project of this scale has raised concerns of invasion of privacy and threats to individual liberty. Those opposed to the project say it perilously reconfigures the citizen-state relationship. For critics, it raises the Orwellian spectre of a Big Brother state watching you all the time, with the possibility of the convergence of data bases with the Natgrid and the National Population Register.

India remains one of the few democratic countries in the world where legislative control on intelligence agencies is minimal. The result is that India’s intelligence agencies function with impunity with nothing to restrain their domain of inquiry.

And they have a wealth of material at their disposal — 700 million mobile phones, complete voter lists, millions of Facebook accounts and so on. It is these agencies that need to be brought under legislative purview, rather than being allowed to run amok. In that sense, the problem is not unique to UID. But the UID must be used to begin a long-overdue debate on the relationship between an individual’s privacy and the State.

BUT ULTIMATELY, the success and failure of the UID will depend on the willingness of the State to invest in social welfare infrastructure. As the UID facilitates the entry of more people into the system, the MGNREGA, PDS and other similar programmes will need to be expanded, rather than curtailed. For Adil Khan, who still protects his number carefully, the proposed 6,000 delivery points in the city need to be built quickly. Its efficient functioning and adequate supply will determine whether the 12 digits he has been given are anything more than a cosmetic possession. In the interview that follows, Nilekani details the various issues surrounding the project.

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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 44, Dated November 06, 2010



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