Students at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore raised questions on the huge cost of the newly-launched unique identification project, the security of the system and what was being done to prevent its possible misuse, but they got no clear answer
In the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) that I graduated from way back in 1983, dialogue and debate were the essence of true talent. Those who were revered most by the janta (as we used to call the crowd) were not just the toppers and gold medalists of the class-of course they had their special place too-but those who excelled in debating. In all the talks and public functions that we attended at IIT, the speaker would be booed if he shied away from the debate or the questions-and-answers session. It was okay if he gave the wrong answers, but it was important that he stuck on to face the music.
I am told that the IITs have changed a lot now, and the most revered are those who are best at playing computer games and not debates. But let me leave that topic for another day.
Among technical institutes in India and especially in fields such as computer science, IISc was one of the best at the time I graduated. Perhaps, it still is, but I don't know of the latest ratings. Admission to the school of automation programme for MTech at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) was much sought after.
Memories of my IIT days came back a couple of days ago, when I attended a lecture by the chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) at the National Institute of Advanced Studies at IISc in Bangalore. The hall was jam-packed with thick-glassed, nerdy-looking students. The vociferous among them asked several tough questions on the UID project. But, sadly, the answers by Nandan Nilekani, the UIDAI chairman, were more evasive and less direct. Mr Nilekani focused on the role of 'Aadhaar', the 12-digit unique identification number, in the transformation of public services.
One youngster asked whether the Rs1,50,000 crore to be spent on the UID project would be worth it. The UIDAI chairman asked where he had got the number from. When the student mentioned the name of Professor Ramkumar and The Hindu newspaper, the chairman told him not to believe what newspapers write. Sadly, the chairman did not say what the UIDAI's actual budget is.
To another question about whether UID might give excessive information to the states, enabling them to target minorities, the answer was again evasive and academic. The chairman thought that it was up to the state governments to legislate against this possibility. Indeed, when the custodians of the law themselves target minorities (like we have seen in the case of Gujarat), how does the answer square up?
It doesn't require an investigator to see that the fair implementation of the law is the biggest problem in our country. While a Binayak Sen is condemned to jail, we know well how Suresh Kalmadi, at the centre of the Commonwealth Games scandal, and A Raja, who is alleged to have manipulated 2G spectrum allocation that is responsible for the telecom scam, are roaming scot-free. Surely, the UIDAI chairman is not unaware about this.
In answer to another question, the chairman said that even in the US the state has the power to gather data of its citizens, for purposes of national security. Again, what was left unsaid was that in the US, the real ID project, which gathers the biometrics of citizens has been stalled and has been struck down by a number of states.
To a third question about whether there was no better, cheaper way to stop the leakage from government departments, the UIDAI chairman asked the student to come up with a better solution. He did not explain what other options had been considered before arriving at the UID proposal. Surely, there could be a better solution, but it's not an issue that can be resolved on the spur of the moment.
The chairman did not say whether there was a systematic study undertaken on the various options open, their pluses and minuses, before deciding on spending a huge amount from the taxpayers' money on UID. And by the way, it has been conclusively proved that the major leakage of government aid is not due to a lack of proof of identity that UIDAI claims.
The chairman mentioned that 600 million rural people do not have a bank account. But what he did not say was that 1,400 people who have been given bank accounts in Nandurbar district in Maharashtra where the UID project was inaugurated, have zero deposits in their accounts and that they have never operated the bank accounts. Of what use is the bank account if there is no money to deposit in the account? How viable will the economics of such bank accounts be for the banks? Will banks now start charging a commission to account holders?
A couple of weeks ago, at a public function held in Bangalore, an information technology security expert, J T Desouza, demonstrated in full view of the people, how fingerprints could be faked to fool a fingerprint scanner. At the demonstration was none other than Karnataka IT secretary Vidyashankar who works with the UIDAI very closely. He promised to arrange this demonstration before the UIDAI's technical people. Like many other promises by UIDAI, this is also unfulfilled.
At the end of the day, I came out feeling that the young IISc students, on the threshold of a career, required mentoring, rather than an exercise in half-truths. But my biggest take-away from the programme was the sight of a couple of boys and girls from IISc demonstrating silently at the gate of the auditorium. A placard that one of them held, read: 'Happy New Fear'. I am happy to see that a new generation of young students, concerned about their country, is emerging.
(The author has a B Tech from IIT Bombay and a PhD from Columbia University, New York. He runs Teknotrends Software Pvt Ltd, a start-up that does cutting-edge work in the area of network security.)
The average Indian has much more serious problems to attend to, like making both ends meet, or how to procure high-priced essentials, or get decent health care, and the hugely expensive UID programme isn’t going to make any difference about this
Thanks to a pliant media (and through the Radia tapes we now know who controls the mainstream media) and the UIDAI's media campaign (tax payers' money spent to brainwash people) one almost begins to feel that lack of identity is a real problem in India. In urban India, however, one need only look at a few examples to bust the myth being propagated by the UID campaign. Here are some examples from lower middle-class Bangalore.
Joy is a car mechanic who has his own mechanic shop. He works deligently, gets a few customers, and does a very good job for a very reasonable price. He is not a dealer or an approved mechanic for any of the big car brands; he doesn't even have an air-conditioned showroom that might attract upmarket customers. He operates in a low-class locality in Bangalore called Viveknagar.
Joy basically lives a hand-to-mouth existence, and to his credit has created a few jobs too. Joy's mother, 75, was ill some time back. She was taken to the government-owned Bowring Hospital. She was diabetic and also suffered from a heart disease. The doctors told her that one of her kidneys was not functioning and that the heart was functioning only about 10%, and that was only a matter of time before she would leave for her heavenly abode. They asked that she be taken back home.
No tests like echocardiogram, or a treadmill test, let alone an angiogram. It puzzles me how the doctors came to the conclusion simply on the basis of an ECG. I won't be surprised if they looked at Joy's ability, or rather inability, to pay for the sophisticated tests and surgical procedures and concluded that Joy and his mother were not worth wasting time on. Joy had a resigned look on his face-he told me it is all a matter of fate. A few weeks after his mother was brought home, she passed away.
Harry is a painter who works for a big paints manufacturing company in Bangalore. He earns Rs10,000 a month. Harry is a Bangalorean, owns a small house in the HAL locality. He has rented out a part of his house, and that gets him an income of Rs2,000 a month.
Harry's problem is that two years ago, his son who was about 12 years old had an accident. His leg was damaged; the bones near his thighs were damaged. The hospital screwed up or some such thing happened, and his son will forever be on crutches. Harry spent Rs2 lakh on medical treatment. Not knowing the intricacies of the medical condition, or how the hospitals and doctors operate, Harry sees no solution for his son's health condition. All Harry does is plead with me, "Pray for my son".
I could describe a hundred stories like these, deaths that should not have happened, or of permanent disabilities due to a lack of knowledge of patients, about private health-care costs that are very high, and dismal health care in public hospitals.
Among the several people in the low-class localities of Bangalore that I know, the story is more or less the same. Many die by the time they are 50, bad food habits, drinking and ignorance of modern health care leading to heart attack in most cases. When the sole bread-earner dies, the cycle repeats. Children don't have the money to study and take up a higher professional degree, as a result of which their earning capacity is dismal. The loop will continue to the next generation. This to me is urban lower middle-class India's story.
Unless I am drastically wrong somewhere, I believe what urban India needs is cheap government subsidised education, affordable health care, and good education that can give people higher-paying jobs. For instance, today the IT sector has high-paying jobs but not enough talented and skilled people. There are too many low-skilled or unskilled people around, and most job vacancies require higher skills. Thus, there
is a mismatch.
I cannot understand how UID (unique identity number), or deploying a sophisticated biometric scanner is going to help these people. Sure, they will enroll in the UID programme; for that matter, show them any carrot and they will enroll in anything. They are too naive to see through the complex, sophisticated business models of the fat-cat corporates.
Portable identity is touted as a feature of this UID programme. Eliminating fake ration cards is touted as another feature. In a recent talk by the IT secretary of Karnataka on a panel discussion on UID, he mentioned how computerisation of traffic records and subsequent linking of records had helped increase revenues from traffic fines in the state. This may be true, but how high a priority should this be? Even with a few fake ration cards, a poor family could make say Rs5,000 a month more by pilfering grains and kerosene. Compare this with the hundreds of thousands of crores taken away by sophisticated scamsters in the Commonwealth Games, the Adarsh army building case and the 2G spectrum allocation matter. Who should the government be going after? Big crooks or petty thieves?
Coming to catching traffic violators, it is interesting that most traffic cops prefer to catch two-wheeler riders over those going around in say luxury cars. The concept of a hierarchical society is ingrained in our psyche so much, more so in the psyche of even our cops. That all citizens should be equal before the law is hardly practiced in our country.
Coming back to the UID programme, why spend Rs50,000 crore of tax payers' money to catch a petty thief? And to whom are we going to give the contracts for biometric scanners and such other contracts to? It would have helped if the contracts for biometric scanners were given to Indian companies who could have done research on biometrics, manufactured the scanners in India and as a result would have created good technology and good jobs in India. Indeed, India could have become leaders in biometric research and manufacturing, and these companies could have then tried to get into foreign markets. However, these contracts have been given to the likes of Microsoft and L-1 identity solutions. L-1 has had or continues to have a number of former US government intelligence personnel as its top executives or employees.
Indeed, it takes a few conversations with a man on the street, and not moving about the malls alone, to see the state of the nation and the aam aadmi's problems.
Even the so-called conveniences attributed to come from UID-instant mobile connection for instance-would be useful really for the upmarket crowd who are busy making money and cannot afford to make even two visits to a mobile providers' office, or do not have the time to arrange for address proof and identity proof documents. The aam aadmi on the other hand has time at his disposal; he wouldn't give much importance to this convenience. But he has much more serious problems to deal with-like how to make both ends meet; how to deal with the huge price rise of essential commodities; how to get health care; problems that are much more serious than helping you shop for the right item at the click of a mouse.
(The author has a BTech from IIT Mumbai, and a PhD from Columbia University, New York. He runs a start-up, Teknotrends Software Pvt Ltd, that does cutting-edge work in the area of network security.)
According to the UIDAI chief, the UID number will create a much more ‘open’ marketplace, where ‘hundreds of millions of people’ who were shut out of services will now be able to access them
The truth is finally out. In case you were wondering why the government and big corporates are lobbying hard for the unique identification (UID) programme, here is the answer.
Speaking at the Nielsen Company's 'Consumer 360' event in New Delhi, Nandan Nilekani, chairman, UID Authority of India (UIDAI), said that over a third of India's 1.1 billion 'consumers' had been largely overlooked in areas such as banking and social services.
"The (unique identification) number will create a much more open marketplace, where hundreds of millions of people who were shut out of services will now be able to access them," he told business leaders, adding that the poor find it difficult to reach the market. "Their anonymity limits agencies from providing them services that are remotely available, and that could be accessed through a mobile phone," he said.
Delivering his keynote address, Mr Nilekani focussed more on Indian consumers, especially the ones in remote places, rather than his pet project, the UID or Aadhaar. However, Piyush Mathur, president, Nielsen for India, was more forthcoming. He said, "The UID system will change the way we market to consumers. It will also change the way companies deliver goods and services. At a basic level, UID will enable businesses to improve their traditional supply chains in support of consumers across the country but the big win comes with being able to identify emerging demand."
As per our knowledge and understanding, the UID as a system is being pushed in order to provide identification to the 'poor' or the residents who keep migrating. Everyone, including Mr Nilekani and even the prime minister believed that the UID would help improve the public distribution system (PDS). With the UID, the poor would be able to receive food grains, which otherwise would have vanished in the transit between government's warehouse to the PDS shop. (See: http://www.moneylife.in/article/78/8567.html).
Interestingly, the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) and auto sectors, riding on the robust demand from rural markets, did not need UID for reaching their customers. When the rural market called, these companies responded with innovative products that were more suitable to consumers. It may be the use of sachets to sell shampoo, hair oil etc at affordable prices or more fuel-efficient and sturdy vehicles or variants at lower rates, those who have adapted to this strategy are enjoying the fruits.
Mr Mathur said, "Demand has driven new products like shampoo sachets and low-price vehicles but with more information around consumption habits, those types of products can be identified earlier and brought to market in lockstep with consumer needs. That means manufacturers and retailers will waste less money on unnecessary product development, hone their distribution capabilities and anticipate consumer needs."
According to the UIDAI chairman, four broad trends like a demographic disruption, mass migration to cities, availability of low-cost mobile phones and impatience with failing systems, are heralding the rise of a new kind of consumer in India. "This shift in attitudes is creating new urgencies for our services and infrastructure. And we are indeed seeing the emergence of solutions that respond to these forces," he said.
Using UID or Aadhaar or allowing its database to be used by companies for marketing would turn the UIDAI into a business against its mandate, feels some activists. According to an IT expert it appears that pressure on the corporates to show revenues is driving them to squeeze the last drop of blood from the most vulnerable sections of society, namely the poor.
"With foreign companies joining the fray using this as a means to show growth which is difficult to achieve now in the developed world, and the third world opening their door to them by using a fig leaf in the name of helping the poor, the UID is turning whole of India into a 'dukaan'," he said.