UIDAI chairman leaves simple questions unanswered at lecture for students

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.)

1 decade ago
UIDAI is mother of all scams. If properly investigated, both Nilankeni and PM will end up in prison (though they will easily make bail in a few months like Ramalinga and Kanimozhi).
1 decade ago
Babubhai Vaghela
1 decade ago
Like some other corrupt & dishonest UPA Govt Ministers, Nandan Nilekani also appears to be doing hanky panky secretly. Otherwise, there is no reason why he cannot answer simple questions. Nandan Nilekani may prove to be another Suresh Kalmadi and UID a bigger Scam than CWG. Transparency needed in UID working.
1 decade ago
nice to see some of our geek brothers take nilekani to task.nandan,who made his money on the basis of free markets,now espouses doles and sarkari benevolence for financial inclusion .he probably doesnt realize that the only ones salivating over his UID are the spooks at NTRO.it is never the sarkar's business to interfere in people's lives.we arent cattle to be counted and branded.nilekani will go down as a villain one day.similar to the great scientists who helped
nagesh kini
1 decade ago
thanks a lot moneylife for opening up the great uid debate from a wide cross section. we have gotten to read extremely meaningfull and valid arguments for and against. wish the authorities that be take note
keep it up.debashis and sucheta you have our full support.
1 decade ago
Nandan in a conversation with Sadiq Naqvi and Akash Bisht in Hardnews
says "Yes, it is voluntary. But the service providers might make it mandatory. In the long run, I wouldn't call it compulsory. I would rather say that it will become ubiquitous. "

Now that says it all, does it not?. How convoluted is this reply?

Read full article for more vague answers from Nandan Nilekani
Vickram Crishna
1 decade ago
@Sudhir, Ashok and other IITians who have contributed to the discussion here: please understand the logic of banks supporting UID. The banks have signally failed for 40 years (since nationalisation, I mean) to make financial inclusion possible by opening branches or extension counters in the villages. With this NREGS tie-up, the banks can take advantage of a wonderful package of under-the-table support from the government (unregulated by RBI) by instantly getting worker payments deposited in psuedo-branches - looks real good on paper. But. They have no obligation, hence need not invest in the infrastructure, to bring full-scale banking, including the thorny problems of farmer loans, down to the villages. As a bonus, while the money may be withdrawn from the bank within the short time of it being deposited, we are still talking days not hours, in every month - in Advanced Financial Management, we learned how to roll static money over weekends, not just weekdays! No need to be naive or allow others to behave as though we are naive.

Rather than financial inclusion, the real rural situation will hardly change at all, with the minor difference that more NREGS money will flow to those it should. Forget naive, we would have to be very stupid to think the lack of bank presence is all that stands between the exchequer and the poverty-stricken people who want to take advantage of work-for-pay schemes, and even more remarkably, that the lack of convenient ID is the only obstacle to rural banking.

As for the cost information on the UIDAI website, even NN would not be so shameless as to expect us to believe that this reflects the total cost of national deployment of a UID backed point-of-need verification solution. The budget quoted in the comments section is not even meant to pay for more than one single segment of the total cost. It is hardly nine months since FM Pranab Mukherji threw a fit when the real budget was presented to the Cabinet for approval - and only gave his consent when chunks of it were devolved down to the states. Kalbag may have forgotten this in his unseemly haste to defend the indefensible.

Forget the money, forget the financial inclusion. Let us assume that any other solution to runaway corruption is going to cost us as much, and let us imagine that the bonus of financial inclusion is not a goal at all.

Are the fundamental premises of an inviolable database practical? It is a great challenge, but so is climbing a mountain of soft cowpats. Doesn't mean we should be in any hurry to attempt it. The fact that so many security agencies will be able to track individuals by location, communication, financial transactions and more ought to make anyone sit up and wonder.

We do not have a great track record in creating security forces that are completely above-board and impossible to traduce. No-one does, but that's another matter - our failures are legion, not the stuff of make-believe spy novels. Just as the corruption in payout of subsidies won't be solved by simplistically bringing banks into the picture, neither will our security problems be solved by arming the government with the most nightmarish level of access to our personal lives imaginable.

One person "LP" says: [if you have nothing to hide...] a standard childish response from someone unwilling to think things through. He is in good company - only last year, the Google chief Eric Schmidt said more or less the same thing. Google employees do not seem to share the same viewpoint - the founder of Google Earth said in IIT Bombay only a couple of weeks back that launching intrusive technologies without adequately polling end-users is counterproductive. Perhaps Badami, Kalbag, etc weren't listening closely.
Sudhir Badami
Replied to Vickram Crishna comment 1 decade ago
Thanks Vickram for an elaborate response. I go with confidence in Nandan's ability in delivering things and shall I say Integrity. Yes I do need to go into details. Perhaps in a real world outside the commercial arena, he is somewhat naive. Instead of getting him on the defensive, I think he could do well with constructive criticism. I will get back on this later next week.
Vickram Crishna
Replied to Sudhir Badami comment 1 decade ago
Thanks, Sudhir. I welcome your offer to talk with Nandan - as this article relates, he has not been as responsive on doubts and criticisms expressed publicly as would clear doubts. Putting him on the defensive was never an intention. The outreach process he initiated has not resulted in actually settling any of the doubts, or why would one need to repeat them so long after the project took shape?

Whatever little public debate has taken place (2 meetings in all, I believe, not counting this Bengaluru meeting) has witnessed junior UIDAI staffers leaving the venue without addressing issues and making vague promises to organise substantive meetings sometime in the unspecified future, not one of which has taken place till now.

Efforts to try and build a meaningful debate at the recent pan-IIT meeting in Delhi (where Nandan was rightly a star attraction, yet ended up a rote panelist in an unrelated general discussion dominated by transparency guru Arvind Kejriwal) also drew a blank, for reasons best known to the individual session committees, mostly headed by personal acquaintances of both yours and mine.
1 decade ago
@Sudhir Badami, BV Krishnan and Ravi Chhabra...Pls read the comment from Tom Dick Harry. Also search for UID on this site and read and try to understand the side effects of the UID number. The suffering of people below poverty line is not due to lack of ID but because of corruption thats happening due to the politician, babus and middle men.
Here is the comment...
"Open your eyes and look at the UID project more carefully. Its waste of time and taxpayers money. As the elders wisely said, if the water is contaminated, then you have to remove the contamination, not to add some other substance to make it pure. Same goes here. If there are problems with other IDs like PAN card, Voters card then you rectify it, not add another useless ID number. Read more.. Why is UID number being made compulsory through the backdoor? http://moneylife.in/article/78/12912.htm.... and UID = more 'consumers', admits Nilekani http://www.moneylife.in/article/78/11574.... Even after reading these articles if you are not convinced, then go ahead and get yourself enrolled to the UID. After all its going to be mandatory through backdoor."
Sudhir Badami
1 decade ago
I see unconvincing arguments against Aadhar (UID). Without expanding discussion, allow me to say that just because bank account has zero amount as deposit, UID number has no meaning or holding a bank account is pointless is wrong logic.We know that in Maharashtra, most of REGS payments went to non existing persons. If Aadhar was in operation, payments would have been made to the right person's.account. Adhar can reduce the administrative costs. Collectively, the money required appears very high, but per capita expense is very small. I do not see reasons well founded for the skepticism.
1 decade ago
I wish to clarify Mr.Ravi Chhabra's remark re: "how many ID proofs do we need"? The UIDAI is not meant to provide you with another ID proof - it is meant to ensure that the Govt's welfare schemes reach the target people to which they are meant. People who are below poverty line do not have PAN cards or any other kind of ID proof. The politicians/babus use this lacuna to syphon off the money from these schemes with bogus identities. It is hoped that this will stop once the UDAI is fully operational. This is a good scheme - and spending 2000 crores is worth it. When we can splurge 100,000 crores on Commonwealth Games, why not sped a fraction of it on this good cause?
Ravi Chhabra
1 decade ago
Looks like the author of this article is a bit confused. Has he graduated from IIT or from IISc ? He mixes up the two at the start of the article. Moreover, the moot point is , how many ID proofs do we need ? Ration Card , Voter's Id card, PAN Card, Driving License, KYC , KYD, Bank Pass book ( and that also Nationalised ones are recognised and not Private ones ) , Mobile Phone bills not accepted as a proof but you need BSNL or MTNL bill or Electricity bill. This is what needs to be discussed and debated, We have to stop spending our tax payer;s money in duplicating the efforts of creating Id proofs.
Ashok Kalbag
1 decade ago
It is not clear why so many questions are asked where answers are already on the website. Is it because the questions are asked without any forethought or effort to get at the answers? The finances for instance are all put up on their website.

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was created during
2009-10 and a modest start with an expenditure of Rs 30.92 crore was made. The draft approach to creating Unique Identification Numbers to every resident in India, concept papers describing the linkages of various welfare schemes steered by different Ministries/departments of Government of India and reports of the Demographic Data Standards and Field Verification Committee and Biometrics Committee were completed. The preparatory work for the Proof of Concept Studies and the Pilots were commenced. In the current year the Proof of Concept Studies and the pilots will be completed and the UID numbers will begin to be issued. Full scale enrolment of the resident and authentication services will be commenced towards the end of the year. The Managed Service Provider will be selected and the Central Data Identity Depository will be handed over on a long term contract basis. For this budget of Rs 1900.00 crores allocated during Annual Plan 2010-11. A major part of it is to be used for eimbursement of enrolment costs
to the registrars as also to the residents.
1 decade ago
Young India is wake up not old politician that is the reason India is rising.
1 decade ago
the way author look at the uid is other part of coin. The author himself is confused and want the answers the way he want. The effort in one positive direction shell not be criticized the way he is doing.
let me know what he has contributed to community himself.
1 decade ago
The fear that marketing companies might get hold of the data for targeting customers, is genuine. But can we throw the baby with the bathwater? UIDN has many advantages too!
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