UIDAI’s contracts kept hidden behind non-disclosure clauses
Mathew Thomas 15 March 2012

How can any office of the government pay taxpayers’ money to private companies and not disclose the contracts to taxpayers?

In response to a RTI (Right to Information) query seeking copies of the Unique Identification Authority of India’s (UIDAI) contracts with four private companies—two foreign and two Indian—the authority claimed that these could not be furnished since they have signed non-disclosure agreements with them. The UIDAI is set up and functioning without the sanction of law. It enters into contracts with private companies, including foreign ones, pays them out of the exchequer and refuses to furnish copies of the contracts. Are not these contracts illegal? How could the UIDAI sign contracts on behalf of Planning Commission? Assuming, but not admitting that the UIDAI is empowered to enter into the contracts, are not the non-disclosure agreements illegal? How could any office of the government pay taxpayers’ money to private companies and not disclose the contracts (purpose for which the money is paid) to taxpayers?

The UIDAI has been informed that one of the foreign companies has links with intelligence agencies from a foreign country. This information failed to obtain any reaction from the UIDAI. The response to an RTI application seeking information on foreign company contractors was even more inexplicable. The UIDAI stated that it did not know the country of origin of these contractors and is not concerned about such facts. It added that as long as the bidding contractors had an office in India or an Indian partner and had sent a RFP, the Authority would not bother with origins. That is saying a lot about the kind of due diligence UIDAI has done in choosing contractors for “India’s prestigious world’s largest database project” of the country’s biometric and demographic information.

In answer to another RTI query to furnish copies of contracts pertaining to three empanelled Enrolling Agencies (EAs), the UIDAI did not furnish the copies of applications submitted by these companies and minutes of decision to empanel them. Instead, the UIDAI replied stating that the companies “were empanelled as EAs during the year 2010-11 on the basis of eligibility conditions provided in RFE-2010 and subject to satisfying other terms and conditions.” Such obfuscation is characteristic of the UIDAI’s “transparency”. One of the three companies is a tea estate company. How does a tea estate company satisfy “eligibility conditions” for empanelment, as EA is mysterious, until one reads the RFE. The RFE states, “All organizations (single agency/consortium) interested in undertaking enrolment activities for the UIDAI project shall be empanelled under Level T1, provided they meet the general eligibility criteria”. It is a free for all; anyone and everyone can join the melee of the enrolment process to capture biometric and demographic data of the people of this country.                                                                     

The UIDAI magnanimously added that the RFE-2010 runs into 74 pages and that the same could be provided at the cost of Rs2 per A4 size page. The UIDAI was careful to point out that it has not signed any contract with any of the EAs. It stated, “It is the sole responsibility of the registrar to assign work order subject to fulfilment of terms and conditions mentioned in Request for Quotations”. Originally, particulars of 209 EAs were published on the UIDAI website. The number has since reduced to around 180. EAs empanelment is renewed yearly. No reasons are available as to why the number of EAs is reduced.  

Press and media have reported several instances of fraud and crimes by EAs. FIRs have been filed. Nothing is known about what happened to these cases. Police and media are equally silent on this, and strangely so. One would have thought that the stories on them would make juicy media stories. The UIDAI too, is not forthcoming on details of these cases. An RTI query elicited a vague response from the UIDAI, almost disowning responsibility for what the EAs do. The Authority claimed that this is the responsibility of registrars.

Executive arrogance

Several instances of the government, which is the executive estate of our democracy, acting contrary to constitutional and parliamentary norms happen with discomforting regularity. The government’s actions in the UID scheme are typical of political arrogance translating into the executive domain. Firstly, The UIDAI has been functioning sans legal mandate ever since it was set up through an executive order in 2009. The UIDAI claims that such executive action is justified through constitutional provisos; a claim, if tested, might wither in the light of judicial scrutiny. If the executive function unchecked by Parliament, spend public money, intrude into people’s lives and commercialize people’s data, then Parliament would become a redundant institution.

The government’s logic is befuddling and sometimes, appears driven by expediency and political convenience. For example, when ‘Team Anna’ was pushing the Jan Lokpal Bill, the government, as well as several politicians of varying hues, waxed eloquent on the supremacy of Parliament. However, when it comes to the UID project, expediency takes over and Parliament propriety is conveniently forgotten. The executive has a highly selective approach towards such niceties as legality, honouring the institution of Parliament and accountability to the people.

Contrast this with the action of the UK government, when it scrapped the National ID Card Act of that country. They have the problems of terrorism and illegal immigration, for which the Blair government thought that a biometric national ID card system was the answer. They passed the Act, appointed contractors and went ahead. The new government scrapped the Act and the project. In doing so, the UK government said, “We propose to do government business as servants of the people, not their masters”.

Our “aam aadmi” government seems to imagine that they are feudal lords. It is time people reclaim sovereignty.

(Mathew Thomas is a former defence services officer and missile scientist turned civic activist, campaigning against state database control of the people.)

R Vijayaraghavan
1 decade ago
Brilliant article. Nilekani could easily have answered all the questions raised without embarrassment. They are hiding a lot: either arrogance or rank inefficiency
1 decade ago
"It is time people reclaim sovereignty." Take care of yourself & your family - I can see a charge of sedition knocking at your door. Jai Hind :)
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