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Saturday 17 December 2011

Aadhaar: time to disown the idea

Aadhaar: time to disown the idea

December 16, 2011
Aadhaar: time to disown the idea
R. Ramakumar

The government should pay heed to the parliamentary standing
committee's views and suspend the Aadhaar project. It would be a
travesty to push the project in through the backdoor.

“…The Committee categorically convey their unacceptability of the
National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010…The Committee
would, thus, urge the Government to reconsider and review the UID

This was the conclusion of Parliament's Standing Committee on Finance
(SCoF), which examined the Bill to convert the Unique Identification
Authority of India (UIDAI) into a statutory authority. With this
categorical rebuff, the SCoF dealt a body blow to the Aadhaar project,
which is being implemented from September 2010 without Parliament's

Technically speaking, the SCoF report asked the government to bring
forth fresh legislation before Parliament. However, a careful
examination of the report shows that it does not just reject the Bill,
it also raises serious questions about the idea of Aadhaar itself. In
fact, the report so comprehensively questions the idea that any effort
to introduce fresh legislation would require, as a prerequisite, a
re-look at the foundational principles on which the project was

There are broadly five important arguments in the SCoF report.

First, it contains scathing criticism of the government for beginning
Aadhaar enrolment without Parliament's approval for the Bill.
Currently, UIDAI enjoys only executive authority, and no statutory
authority. The justification that the government presented before the
SCoF was as follows: the powers of the executive are co-extensive with
the legislative powers of the government, and this allows the
government to exercise executive powers in spheres not regulated by

The government also cited the Attorney-General's advice, which noted
that “executive power operates independently” of Parliament and that
“there is nothing in law that prevents the [UIDAI] from functioning
under the Executive Authorisation.”

The SCoF rejects this position, and states that the government's legal
justification “does not satisfy the Committee.” The legal position
upheld by the SCoF is that co-extensiveness of powers does not permit
the executive to do what it pleases; when constitutional rights and
protections are potentially violated, the powers of the executive
remain circumscribed by those of the legislature.

Secondly, the SCoF raises serious questions about the enrolment
process followed for Aadhaar numbers. The issue of Aadhaar numbers “is
riddled with serious lacunae,” and this problem can be traced to
conceptualisation “with no clarity of purpose” and implementation in
“a directionless way with a lot of confusion.” For instance, the
Ministry of Finance felt that there was “lack of coordination” across
the six agencies collecting personal information, leading to
“duplication of efforts and expenditure.” The Ministry of Home raised
“serious security concerns” over the introducer model used to enrol
persons without any proof of residence.

The report concludes that the enrolment process “compromises the
security and confidentiality of information of Aadhaar number
holders,” and has “far reaching consequences for national security.”
The reason: “the possibility of possession of Aadhaar numbers by
illegal residents through false affidavits/introducer system.”

Thirdly, the SCoF comes down heavily on the government for proceeding
with the project without “enactment of a national data protection
law,” which is a “pre-requisite for any law that deals with
large-scale collection of information from individuals and its
linkages across separate databases.”

In its submission to the SCoF, the government had taken a dismissive
view of the right to privacy of individuals. It noted that “collection
of information without a privacy law in place does not violate the
right to privacy of the individual.” The SCoF rejects this view, and
notes that in the absence of legislation for data protection, “it
would be difficult to deal with the issues like access and misuse of
personal information, surveillance, profiling, linking and matching of
databases and securing confidentiality of information.”

Fourthly, the report strongly disapproves of “the hasty manner” in
which the project was cleared. It concludes that a “comprehensive
feasibility study…ought to have been done before approving such an
expensive scheme.” This conclusion follows the government's admission
to the SCoF that “no committee has been constituted to study the
financial implications of the UID scheme,” and that “comparative costs
of the Aadhaar number and various existing ID documents are also not

The total cost of the Aadhaar project would run into multiples of ten
thousand crore of rupees. For just Phase 1 and 2, where 10 crore
residents were to be enrolled, the allocation was Rs. 3,170 crore. For
Phase 3, where another 10 crore residents are to be enrolled, the
allocation is Rs. 8,861 crore. In a rough extrapolation, for 120 crore
residents the total cost would then be over Rs. 72,000 crore. Is the
Comptroller and Auditor General listening?

Fifthly, the report tears apart the faith placed on biometrics to
prove the unique identity of individuals. It notes that “the scheme is
full of uncertainty in technology” and is built upon “untested,
unreliable technology.” It criticises the UIDAI for disregarding (a)
the warnings of its Biometrics Standards Committee about high error
rates in fingerprint collection; (b) the inability of Proof of Concept
studies to promise low error rates when 1.2 billion persons are
enrolled; and (c) the reservations within the government on “the
necessity of collection of IRIS image.” The report concludes that,
given the limitations of biometrics, “it is unlikely that the proposed
objectives of the UID scheme could be achieved.”

The SCoF report cites the experience from the United Kingdom, where a
similar ID scheme was shelved. It dismisses the government's
contention that “comparison between developed countries…versus
India…is not a reasonable one.” It states that “there are lessons from
the global experience to be learnt,” which the government has “ignored
completely.” It cites issues of cost overruns, fallacies of technology
and risks to the safety of citizens, and notes: “as these findings are
very much relevant and applicable to the UID scheme, they should have
been seriously considered.”

The SCoF report has invited sharp reactions from the business press
and pro-business lobbies. One report argued that, after the Foreign
Direct Investment-in-retail fiasco, it is “another Indian reform
massacre;” for another, it is a “setback to the government's attempts
to revive faltering economic reforms;” and for yet another, the title
was “UPA reforms agenda hit again.”

These predictable reactions only reaffirm the widely held belief that
Aadhaar is an integral component of the neo-liberal reform programme
of UPA-2. In fact, the SCoF deserves praise for standing up to
pressure from powerful quarters, and not allowing the moment to be
hijacked by vested interests. Ironically, till last week, the same
SCoF had come in for profuse praise from none other than Nandan
Nilekani himself. He had said in August 2011: “I have had the occasion
to…make a presentation on more than one occasion to the Standing
Committee…let me tell you they do an extraordinarily thorough job. I
am very, very impressed with the quality of questions, the homework,
the due diligence, the seriousness that they view these things with.
And it is very bipartisan, you can't make out who is from which party
because they all ask on the issue. So when you have such an excellent
system of law-making...Let us respect that, let us give them the
opportunity to call all the experts for and against and let them come
out with something. They are the appropriate people, they are our

The “representatives” have now spoken. For the government, the most
dignified way ahead is to pay heed to the SCoF's views and suspend the
Aadhaar project immediately. Each conclusion in the report should be
discussed threadbare in the public domain. Biometrics should be
withdrawn from government projects as a proof of identity.
Alternative, and cheaper, measures to provide people with valid
identity proofs should be explored. However, it would be a travesty of
democratic principles if the government disregards the SCoF report and
pushes the project in through the backdoor.

(R. Ramakumar is Associate Professor with the Tata Institute of Social
Sciences, Mumbai)

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