Unique Identity crisis
Issue: May 15, 2012
Biometric-based unique identity or Aadhaar is leading to huge problems for people working for the rural employment guarantee scheme and for others receiving welfare benefits. Not only have enrolments been done shoddily but the experience of the pilot projects shows that it is almost impossible to authenticate the work-hardened fingerprints of the poor, findLatha Jishnu and Jyotika Sood. Besides, there is the overwhelming issue of deficient online connectivity. As a result, some ministries are increasingly opting for smart cards which they say are more reliable and secure
Mano Devi is distraught. A woman in her late 30s, who is dependent on the manual work given by the government to keep her going, Mano Devi of Bunkheta village in Jharkhand's Ramgarh district has missed work allotted under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) for the fourth day in three weeks.
That's because she has had to come to the Pragya Kendra or Common Service Centre panchayat headquarters at Dohakatu village every day hoping to get her back wages through the machine.
The machine, as she calls it, is the hand-held device/micro-ATM that scans her fingerprints to authenticate her unique identity or the 12-digit Aadhaar number for bank transactions.
For four days now, the micro-ATM has refused to recognise her unique identity, making it impossible for her to collect her wages of the past three weeks. That is a total of 12 days' wages at the rate of Rs 120 per day.
"They have tried every finger and thumb, but I don't know why that machine does not accept any of them. I have done everything that the officers and the machine babu have told me to: scrubbed my hands with soap and water, even applied mustard oil," says a tearful Mano Devi. The machine babu is the banking correspondent (BC), Rajesh Kumar, appointed by the Bank of India. So every day she has returned empty handed to her home about two km away, let down by the sophisticated technology that was supposed to relieve her of the tedium of going to the nearest branch bank to collect her wages, and losing a working day in the process. The problem for Mano Devi is her fingerprints. Her hands are calloused. Touch her fingers and you can feel the cuts, the hardened skin which is the result of the tough work she is engaged in: breaking stones, picking up heavy material, ploughing and, of course, working in the kitchen.
She asks the BC if she can go back to the old system where she was paid through the post office, but the BC tells that since she is a part of the pilot of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), it is not possible for her to withdraw her wages through any other route. "When they took our fingerprints some months ago and gave us a card with a number we were told that we would not have to go to the bank or post office for our wages. The wages would come to us. Now I am not getting my money."
The way this works, or does not as in many a case, is the information from the micro-ATM is first routed to the bank branch server and on to the National Payment Corporation of India server from where the Aadhaar is sent to the UIDAI's central database, Central ID Repository, for authentication. It then comes all the way back to the micro-ATM device which is connected to the GPRS network through the sim card of a local service provider.
The three banks that have joined the pilot are ICICI Bank, which is using the services of Fino, a business and banking technology company that specialises in services delivery; Bank of India that has outsourced it to United Telecoms Limited (UTL) and Union Bank. Interestingly, MGNREGA payments are already being routed through banks and post offices following a policy decision in 2008. In addition, old age pensions and school stipends are also part of the pilot (see 'Clueless on banking').
Across the three districts of Jharkhand—Ranchi, Hazaribagh and Ramgarh—where the pilots are being conducted to test the ease and efficacy of the UID platform for disbursing wages and other welfare payments directly to the beneficiaries, the story repeats itself with minor variations. The attempt by UIDAI, headed by software entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani, is to prove the practical application of its project which has run into criticism on account of its huge costs (estimated at Rs 9,000 crore for collecting the biometrics of 600 million residents) and questions about its utility.
But in the well-appointed offices of UIDAI in Delhi's Connaught Place where the modalities of the pilots were worked out, deputy director general Ashok Pal Singh is reassuring: "In any new process it is quite possible the system is not working. It happened with banks when they went in for online transactions."
His contention is that there is no denial of service since people like Mano Devi can go back to the bank for the wages. "They are no worse off than before."
That does not seem to be the case in Dohakatu and elsewhere where large numbers of old age pensioners and wage workers have not been authenticated. There is a big problem out here: the UIDAI guidelines say nothing about re-enrolments. Officials, too, are not sure how those who have been issued Aadhaar numbers can be re- enrolled.
For Roopna Rao, Champoo Devi, Laxman Rao, Atbor Oraon and Jhingiya Oraon, whose biometrics have been rejected permanently, the outlook is bleak.
Ratu Block officials say that there had been major problems in reading fingerprints when UID enrolments were made in 2010.
It appears that the enrolment agencies just clicked a photograph and did not ensure that the fingerprints were scanned. A local UID official confirms this.
"Enrolment agencies had given targets to the operators and were putting pressure on them. What must have happened is that they showed some people as not having fingers and recorded them as exceptional cases."
At least 200 such cases have come to light in Jharkhand where an agency had provided only the iris details to generate Aadhaar numbers by misusing a provision in the UID guidelines that says one biometric detail, either fingerprints or iris, is allowed if one is of poor quality or not available. It is called forced capturing.
Singh, who is in charge of financial inclusion and strategic planning in UIDAI, says: "Give us that much credit. We have a system in place.
It is in the early stages and we are making continuous improvements." Singh, who says he has been "involved with technology all my life" and was earlier in charge of networking the country's 150,000 post offices, declares that "there is no system that works 100 per cent." And in a project of this size, the largest in the world, there would always be some glitches.
UIDAI director general R S Sharma explains the process of UID enrolment This is a recurring theme with UIDAI. In an interview given earlier to Down To Earth, Ram Sevak Sharma, director general of UIDAI, said that nowhere in the world was there such a large database of biometrics and as such it was "not proven technology at this scale".
Besides, "nothing is 100 per cent accurate; it is simply not possible." All the same, Sharma had admitted then that "fingerprint quality had not been studied in the Indian context". But since then UIDAI has released a study on proof of concept on authentications—and its findings are far from reassuring.
In its Authentication Accuracy Report released in March this year, the authority claimed that proof of concept conducted in a rural setting "representing typical demography of the population" establishes the following:
Using the best finger single-attempt gives an accuracy of 93.5 per cent;
Using multiple (up to three) attempts of the same best finger improves the accuracy to 96.5 per cent.
It did not say how many of the 50,000 people used in the study were from rural areas since a large part of the exercise was undertaken in Delhi. The study also notes differences in performance of different sensor-extractor combinations and "enabled identification of device specifications and certification procedure necessary for high authentication accuracy under Indian conditions".
In the field though, the experience is not as good as the report claims. In Tigara, just 45 km from Ranchi, Mahmud Alam, the BC employed by UTL, discloses that since the pilots started on December 23, 2011, just 20 people with Aadhaar have been mapped for MGNREGA payments although Ratu Block has about 800 MGNREGA card holders. Of the 20 mapped, five have been debarred since their biometrics could not be authenticated by his device despite repeated attempts. In addition, 60 to 80 people have been drawing pension. According to Jharkhand officials, the state has around four million MGNREGA cardholders. The scaling up could reveal much larger authentication errors.
Watching Alam on a hot March afternoon is a lesson in how the UID platform is fraught with uncertainties and shortcomings. The biggest problem is connectivity. There are two towers directly across the road from the Pragya Kendra in Tigara panchayat and a third is being erected in the vicinity. Yet, Alam is forced to make a round of the Kendra and finally move out towards the anganwadi before he is able to make contact with his bank server. "Connectivity is at the heart of this system. If the GPRS link works everything goes well; otherwise this micro-ATM is as good as dead."
Followed patiently by the MGNREGA workers who trail him from point to point as he tries for connectivity, Alam is aware of the growing anxiety of his flock. One of them finally proves lucky. Arjun Goap, an 18-year-old farm lad who has done some land levelling work in Barsai Tola (hamlet), some 4 km away, is finally through on the fourth try and after a wait of an hour. But, sometimes, if connectivity is good a transaction can be completed in 20 seconds, explains Alam.
Arjun Goap gets his fingerprint scanned to withdraw his MGNREGA wages at Tigara panchayat in Ranchi (Photos: Jyotika Sood)Interestingly, the Pragya Kendras where the payments are made were set up in 2009 by then principal secretary of the Department of Information and Technology, Jharkhand, and now the director general of UIDAI and its top honcho after chairman Nilekani. In fact, most of the panchayat offices where the BCs disburse payments boast a mobile phone tower or two. Connectivity away from the panchayat centres of course is nil.
It is believed that Jharkhand was chosen for the pilots because of Sharma's influence in his home state although the official version is that Chief Minister Arjun Munda is "greatly interested in technology" and opted for UID to cut down subsidy leaks. But UIDAI officials admit that they have approached several state governments to push for projects. In Alwar, Rajasthan has decided to link subsidised kerosene supplies to Aadhaar and is reported to have weeded out a number of ghost cards. But it is a small experiment where just a 100 people have been mapped.
In Mysore, the Indian Oil Corporation has decided to use the UID platform to weed out those who are ineligible for subsidised cooking gas cylinders but so far the pilot has made only limited headway. The plan was to have such pilots in Pune and Hyderabad, too, but this appears to have been put on hold.
Micro-ATM does not accept the fingerprints of Dhaneswar Rajak of Chutiyaro village in Hazaribagh for the second dayAs more instances come to light of slipshod enrolment through indiscriminate outsourcing to agencies, ministries are becoming wary of using the UID platform for direct transfer of welfare benefits to the beneficiaries. One, most tellingly, is said to be the Union Ministry of Rural Development whose boss Jairam Ramesh was witness to a 30-minute delay in getting connectivity during the launch of the pilot in Jharkhand.
Another is theUnion Ministry of Labour & Employment which is riding high on the success of its smart card used in the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), the health insurance scheme for those on the BPL list. In the four years since the scheme was launched by Sudha Pillai, the then secretary of the ministry, against much opposition, RSBY cards have now reached 29 million beneficiaries and proved to be a secure way of disbursing cash-free hospital care for beneficiaries.
Curiously, the finance ministry which allocated a generous Rs 1,758 crore to UIDAI in the current budget against Rs 1,200 crore for 2011-12 appears to be plumping for the smart card for various welfare benefits instead of using the Aadhaar platform.
In fact, the RSBY card which has been upgraded from 32 kilobyte to 64 kb, is envisaged to serve as a multi-purpose card providing different social security benefits. In fact, the UIDAI appears to have split the bureaucrats into two camps: those who view the project as "grossly wasteful expenditure and duplication" and others who believe it might yet work if the enrolments are streamlined and connectivity is not a stumbling block.
As a senior government official explains: "The budgetary allocation and the compromise reached in January are face-saving measures. Since the prime minister had made UIDAI his pet project the government had to give in." The bureaucrat is referring to the decision by the government to allow UIDAI to collect the biometrics of another 400 million residents—it was earlier allotted 200 million—after a public standoff between Nilekani, who enjoys Cabinet rank, and Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram on the biometric collection issue.
While the UIDAI's primary mandate was to provide Aadhaar numbers to the entire population, it had sought to corner a larger share of the biometric collection pie. The Home Ministry which wanted it done by the more thorough methods adopted by the Registrar General of India, who had been authorised to prepare a National Population Register (NPR), had to settle for an equal share of 600 million residents. NPR is expected to cost another Rs 6,634 crore but excludes the cost of a smart card that is to be issued to every resident of India with an Aadhaar number.
Union Home Minister P Chidambaram launches Resident Identity Cards at Pattipulam village in Tamil NaduIncreasingly, the smart card is being viewed as a better alternative to the UID platform primarily because it does not require real time connectivity and has inbuilt security features that are less vulnerable to being tampered with. Officials of the National Informatics Centre (NIC) point out that the smart cards being developed by it for different government schemes, such as RSBY, the public distribution system and for NPR are more secure because there is complete control over the technology and over the standards. It is, in fact, a multi-factor authentic system that avoids the security worries in UID (see 'Competing security claims').
The biggest push comes from the Union Food and Civil Supplies Ministry which is expected to earmark Rs 4,000 crore to assist states in digitising ration cards to help eliminate fake cards and check diversion of grain. Arunachal Pradesh, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Odisha and Puducherry are among the states that have opted for smart card designed by NIC.
Other boost is for the RSBY. Anil Swarup, director general, labour welfare, in the Labour Ministry, says discussions are under way to see if RSBY cards—close to 29 million have been issued so far and the number is expected to double in another three years—can also be used as job cards for MGNREGA since it is the same population group that will be availing itself of the benefits. For one, there is strict identification of beneficiaries and for another, cards are carefully vetted and personally handed over by a government official. Already, the finance ministry has set up several working groups to figure out how to transfer more financial inclusion schemes to the RSBY card.
RSBY scores over the UID model because its smart card can function as effectively offline. Swarup, who has publicly debated with Nilekani on this issue at several forums, points out that developing countries like India need an offline system to be fully functional since real time connectivity is a long way off.
Even a developed country like Germany is banking on the RSBY model to reach welfare benefits to a part of its population, he says (see 'Germany opts for the smart card'). The problem for UIDAI, according to some analysts, appears to be waning interest in enrolling for its Aadhaar since it is not mandatory as yet. Therefore, it needs to demonstrate that the 12-digit unique identity has some value. But this is proving a challenge for the authority. While the first UID number holders in Maharashtra are still trying to figure how it will help them get their PDS supplies, others in Jharkhand are already ruing its entry.