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Friday 3 February 2012

Aadhaar, NPR and the art of compromise

Aadhaar, NPR and the art of compromise
Whichever way one looks at it, the UIDAI-NPR compromise could spell serious trouble for the enrolment of the ID-less

Raju Rajagopal

The compromise between Nandan Nilekani and P. Chidambaram on biometric enrolments, after months of uncertainty over the future of Aadhaar, has been cautiously welcomed by the media. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) lives to see another day, while the home ministry can declare that its national security prerogative has prevailed.
But surely there is more to this compromise than meets the eye?
Let us take the case of those millions who do not have acceptable identity papers (the ID-less). UIDAI had planned to enrol them using the “introducer” concept, i.e. persons of repute or authority who are willing to vouch for them. But the home ministry and a parliamentary standing committee see this concept as a “security threat”, fearing that illegal immigrants will end up with Aadhaar numbers.Nilekani has now promised to address their concerns before renewing Aadhaar enrolments. Could that mean that UIDAI will abandon the very idea of Introducers? If so, what alternative mechanisms will it pursue to enrol the ID-less?
The National Population Register (NPR), on the other hand, has been saying that it is mandated to enrol all “usual residents”, and those who were enumerated in its house-to-house surveys are now required to give their biometrics. But there is a big question mark on the extent to which those surveys had covered the homeless, nomadic/denotified tribes and migrant workers, and on the likelihood that they will now show up at NPR’s enrolment camps. But if they do, how does NPR plan to determine their legal status? By their names and looks, perhaps.
Whichever way one looks at it, the UIDAI-NPR compromise could spell serious trouble for the enrolment of the ID-less.
The compromise also reaffirms the idea of two parallel databases, with mutual exchange of biometric data. However, UIDAI plans to use its database for online authentications, while NPR plans to issue smart cards with biometrics. But, as far as I know, there is no plan to reconcile the 14-field NPR demographic data with the four-field UIDAI data—so, for example, if the age and address of a person are different in the two databases, one would never know.
This raises several questions: won’t parallel databases cost much more in the longer term than what the government is trying to save now? What happens if information on a smart card conflicts with UIDAI’s online authentication? Won’t the enormous difficulties of synchronizing the two databases put pressure on UIDAI to either mirror the NPR database or abandon the online authentication?
What about people’s expectations? Those in the “UIDAI states” may soon start using Aadhaar for LPG connections, bank transactions, etc. But those in the “NPR states” may get their Aadhaar-bearing cards only in late 2013. How does the government plan to manage the public discontent that could result from virtually carving the country into two territories?
And finally, what about privacy concerns? UIDAI has put in place elaborate mechanisms to secure its data and to assure privacy, and is hoping that the recently promulgated IT (information technology) rules and a future national privacy law will further strengthen the privacy of data in the hands of its registrars.
But NPR has not revealed how it plans to protect its database from inquisitive and intrusive government departments. So, the central question remains unanswered: how does NPR advance the nation’s security interests without massive violations of people’s right to privacy? Couldn’t those security interests be equally served by controlled access to the UIDAI database, as had been proposed in the UID law?
As the media applause for the compromise subsides, its serious implications are beginning to sink in. But then, we may be underestimating Nilekani’s art of compromise. After all, he has not only succeeded in securing a new lease of life for Aadhaar, but also NPR is now going to pitch in to accelerate his goal of 600 million enrolments by 2014. And, in the coming months, Aadhaar has a decent chance to demonstrate its true promise on the ground and win more supporters. In the meantime, more public debate over the implications of NPR is sure to ensue.
Perhaps, Nilekani has figured out that the problems that we may see today with his deal with the home ministry will resolve decisively on their own in the coming months…in favour of Aadhaar.
Raju Rajagopal is a social activist and writes for, an information portal on the UIDAI project.

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