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A meeting of civil society groups from across the country trashed the government’s ambitious UID scheme, saying it is deeply undemocratic, expensive and fraught with unforeseen consequences
The government is set to issue the first set of unique identities (UID) to about 100 million people in the current fiscal year as part of its ambitious project to give every Indian citizen access to good governance and provide basic services to the poor. Already, however, some chinks in the armour have begun to appear in this landmark initiative, which was the subject of hot debate at a recent public meeting organised yesterday at the Constitution Club in New Delhi by a coalition of civil society groups under the banner of 'Campaign for No UID'.
The technological, economic, social and political aspects of the National Identification Authority Bill currently before Parliament came under heavy scrutiny at the meeting, which saw participation from groups from Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi. Speakers at the meeting asserted that the government's claims are grossly exaggerated, false and unjustified. One of the claims made by the government is that the project will put a stop to leakages in the public distribution system (PDS). However, it was pointed out that issues such as corruption and non-inclusion of families under BPL (Below the Poverty Line) ensure that PDS does not meet its stated objectives. The issuance of a 12-digit number to the poor will therefore hardly result in them accessing cheap food.
Another doubtful claim by the government is that UID will lead to financial inclusion for beneficiaries of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). But again, this does not make sense because 83% already have bank accounts and systemic thefts remain a deeper concern, which will not be addressed by UID.
In fact, it is very likely that many poor people will actually be excluded from accessing services because of technical problems with the use of biometrics. JT D'Souza, an expert on biometrics, asserted that using biometrics as a core authenticator is deeply flawed as it has never been tested on such a large scale (850 million people) and is easily susceptible to forgery. Research by experts shows that with the technology available today a $10 investment can spoof finger-print and iris scanners with fake fingers and patterned contact lenses.
The meeting also noted that the functioning of the UID has been non-transparent and undemocratic. It was pointed out that despite setting up the UID Authority of India (UIDAI) in June 2009, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is yet to issue a white paper on the scheme and how it is going to go about delivering basic social services to the poor.
Senior Member of Parliament from the Revolutionary Socialist Party of India (RSP) Abani Roy called for the launching of a massive campaign to resist this expensive and dangerous project through which several companies will gain massive contracts from the public exchequer. The budget estimates vary from Rs45,000 crore to Rs1.5 lakh crore. He also noted that the UID is yet to be comprehensively discussed or debated in Parliament.
It is now increasingly apparent that the UID project is a half-baked idea that will drain the coffers of the exchequer without showing much for it. The project aims to cover only 600 million people over the next five years, at an estimated cost of Rs45,000 crore. However, nobody seems to be factoring the likelihood of a further escalation in costs for the project due to inflation and other reasons. This will be a huge burden on the nation - money which should be directed towards more pressing needs like infrastructure development, education etc., will find its way to the pockets of a few companies under contract from the government.
There is also the issue of duplication of identities. If the government's aim is to provide an ID to those who are at the sidelines of society, then it is overlooking the fact that people who already have PAN cards and passports will be issued another ID, making for a large chunk of the target group. As such, this exercise will barely benefit half the target number, as they have alternative IDs.
Most unfortunately, the real objective behind this project is being drowned out in the frenetic attempt to bring out the UIDs. Sadly even the revered technocrat Nandan Nilekani, who has been assigned the project responsibility, seems to be directing his attention more towards putting the mechanism in place for the project and authenticating the technical aspects. In his zealous drive to get the job done, he has perhaps lost touch of whether the project will ultimately create meaningful value for the nation.
The question that begs to be answered is: Is this project genuinely in the national interest or does it serve some underhand purpose of the government?