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Tuesday 20 December 2011

CONTROVERSY Identity crisis

Identity crisis 
By Rekha Dixit
Story Dated: Saturday, December 17, 2011 13:11 hrs IST 
Unique Identity scheme runs into dissent and confusion

Lone fighter: Nandan Nilekani's ambitious project, UID, could fall flat
Indian roads are dug up frequently. Sometimes, to lay the piped gas line, at others, to fix a faulty electric cable. Barely is it repaired than the telecom department digs it up again while the water board and sewage fellows wait for their turn to excavate a freshly paved stretch. Coordination between various agencies would prevent pointless duplication of effort, and save money, too. But that is not how things work in India.
Residents can identify with the plight of the road right now. Take the case of Durgavati Devi, an unlettered migrant to Delhi from Azamgarh, UP. The only document she possessed was her voter card. When the UID camp was held in her locality, she rushed to get registered, believing the new ‘pehchan patra' would be her ticket to BPL rations, a host of other welfare goodies and, most importantly, establish her as a Delhiite. But even as she waits for the postman to deliver the magical 12-digit Aadhar number, she has learnt that the census men will hold a National Population Register (NPR) camp soon, where she will have to submit her biometrics all over again for an identity card. She is baffled, and so are many others.
The parliamentary standing committee on finance recently rejected the government's National Identity Authority of India Bill, 2010, which was to give legal backing to the ambitious, ongoing UID project. The project aims at registering up to 20 crore people by March 2012 and providing each with a unique identity number. To date, over 8.7 crore people have been registered by the UID and over 0500 crore spent. The committee has now rejected the bill for a host of reasons.
A major objection was that no cost-benefit analysis was done before approving such an expensive scheme vis a vis other methods like hologram-enabled ration cards to eliminate fake beneficiaries. Another point was the lack of coordination among government departments. The finance ministry itself has several agencies collecting information on residents, all with the ultimate aim of delivering welfare schemes to those who most require them. Other issues with the bill were largely about security concerns over misuse of personal data.
Where, then, does this development leave Nandan Nilekani's ambitious exercise? The finance committee, while rejecting the present draft, asked the government to bring fresh legislation before Parliament. While this means that no one is talking directly about scrapping the UID, it is not likely to get statutory backing anytime soon, either. This, in effect, takes the sheen off the 12-digit number and also raises the concern over how the biometric material collected so far will be protected without a law in place. Of course, the cabinet need not accept the committee's decision, but with 29 of 30 members in the committee against the project, taking this stance won't be easy, either.
Nilekani maintains the UID is working towards the March-end deadline. At a lecture in Delhi, he emphasised that the UID was not an I-card provider, but an electronical number generator. It was up to various agencies in future to link the number to facilitate delivery of services, he said, mentioning a pilot project in Jharkhand where NREGA payments were being made directly to bank accounts enabled by Aadhar. He added that agencies like the passport office and Election Commission would have to run their own checks.
Does this mean that all the hoopla associated with the UID card was just that, a hoopla? Anil Swaroop of the RSBY touched upon this issue at the same lecture, saying, “We pegged the UID to a position where it would solve all problems. Yet, the first UID number holders in Maharashtra are still trying to figure whether it will make the Public Distribution System available to them.” He felt that unless some value was immediately imparted to the UID number, interest in the UID would wane.
Meanwhile, the office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India has made substantial progress with the NPR. “The first phase of the NPR was done along with the household survey of the 2011 Census. We have digitised over 32 crore entries and the biometric exercise is afoot in all the coastal states, Delhi, Manipur and Nagaland,” asserted C. Chandramouli, registrar-general and census commissioner of India. The biometrics of around 85 lakh people have already been grabbed, and 06,000 crore has been spent on the first phase. The deadline for completing the NPR exercise is December 2012. The coasts are being covered first because post 26/11, the issue of coastal security was raised and a need for establishing identity proofs keenly felt.
How is the NPR different from the UID, then, and which is more important? “The NPR has the statutory backing to issue an identity card, the UID is just a number,” Chandramouli explained. It got legal sanction in 2003. “The NPR registration is a compulsory exercise, the UID voluntary. The UID can be generated anywhere in India and is not really a residential proof; the NPR gives residential information. It will be the first basis on which citizen verification will eventually be done,” the commissioner added. His office will begin issuing NPR cards by mid-2012. The NPR card, too, won't have anything linked to it initially; it will be up to various agencies to use it to facilitate deliveries.
Why then was the UID project launched? Chandramouli stated that because of the long gestation of the NPR project, there was a need to roll out a quicker identity generation system for people who most needed it. “The UID's mandate is only 20 crore up to March 2012. Beyond that date and number, the NPR will take over.” And how does this convergence happen? This is something that no one is sure of, or willing to clarify at this stage. In several states, the UID and NPR biometric recordings are actually going on concomitantly. Nilekani said, “Let the cabinet comment on the UID/NPR chaos.” He earlier noted that beyond his 20 crore mandate, the number generation would have to be taken by some other authority, if not the UID itself.
Observers feel that the UID will not come to nought as it is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's pet project and especially since the cabinet has lost face with having to withdraw several decisions. Unfortunately, the UID also seems to be caught in a tussle between warring factions of the government itself, with the home and finance ministries not seeing eye to eye.
All this makes no sense to the residents, who are beginning to question why they should take part in any numeration exercise, biometric or otherwise. “What are we expected to do, just keep collecting numbers?” asked Ravi Sharma, a government officer. “First, we had to get the PAN number, then the UID, now the NPR. As a conscientious citizen, I got my entire family registered for the UID, the exercise took a few hours. Now we learn these may not even reduce red-tape or paper work, forget delivering services. Now the very existence of UID is under a cloud. If this is a joke, it is a very expensive one.”

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