Tracking Nilekani

By Latha Jishnu
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

If the Unique Identity project is such a good thing why is the man heading it unable to answer simple questions about it?

nilekaniSince the publication of his doorstopper of a book Imagining India in 2009, Nandan Nilekani has done a superb job of reinventing himself. The former head of software giant Infosys Technologies was overnight cast in the role of a visionary with his unabashedly free market prescription to turn India into an economic powerhouse. All those who love Thomas Friedman—he wrote the foreword for the book—loved Nilekani, too. So it seemed just right when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed him chairperson of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) a few months later.

As Nilekani wrote in his blog: “I have long been a champion of a reform approach that is inclusive of the poor, and in my book I described unique identity as one of the key steps for achieving this goal. Giving every individual in India a unique identification number can go a long way in enabling direct benefits, and fixing weak public delivery systems, giving the poor access to better healthcare, education, and welfare safety nets.”

Who would quarrel with such a grand vision? Almost everyone, specially the pink press, was ecstatic that we had found the panacea for the country’s chronic ills. Even editors long in tooth and normally sharp of claw went overboard with reports of Nilekani’s ability to bring banks, LIC and mobile companies as partners in the project, renamed Aadhaar. They did not ask the most basic questions: about costs, its ability to reach food grains to the poor, the problems of applying biometrics in India, the question of privacy and security of data, whether Parliament had approved the project estimated to cost between Rs 45,000 crore and Rs 150,000 crore.

These questions are now popping up repeatedly from students, lawyers, economists and rights activists. At every meeting where these queries have been raised, the suave Mr Nilekani has been dismissive or at a loss. At the Rajinder Mathur memorial lecture he gave on Aadhaar, organised by Editors’ Guild of India in December last year, I was taken aback to hear him tell students UIDAI was only part of a larger issue of privacy. They had asked him about the implications of an agreement he had signed with the Ministry of Human Resource Development that would track students comprehensively, from marks to medical records, from the primary level to college and beyond through the UID number. There were other queries about costs, the cost-benefit analysis if any, about the social agenda that the authority was promising to fulfil from providing bank accounts to the homeless to ensuring that the public distribution reached all the beneficiaries.

Nilekani gave no straight answers, specially to privacy concerns. At one point he said there had to be a balance between benefit and risk. “Like nuclear energy you have to make an assessment of the risks and benefits,” he told a stunned audience. As for costs, he said Rs 3,000 crore had been sanctioned for now. But the overall budget had not been finalised. As for biometrics not being foolproof, the UID chief said he hoped to have proof of concept soon.

Perhaps, he had not thought of these issues. Perhaps, he did not know. Perhaps, the government had advised caution because the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010, has yet not been passed by Parliament. So Nilekani comes across as being secretive or dismissive as more probing questions are raised by young people as at a recent meeting at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru. His equivocal answers did nothing to clear the air of mistrust and opacity that hangs over the project.

Not least of the concerns is whether UID will become compulsory for all Indians. To that, here’s classic Nilekani-speak: “It is not mandatory (but) sooner or later you will have to get your UID number.” If all of us have to get the 16-digit tracking ID, why does this government not say so if the UIDAI chairperson is reluctant to be categorical about it? And while they are at it how about answering the other queries Nilekani sidesteps: How will it prevent profiling of citizens? How will it prevent leakage and misuse of information, specially since private companies are involved in various aspects of UIDAI’s work (including those with CIA links)? Why is the ‘information portfolio’ on the applications expanding?

A final thought. The Draft Discussion Paper on Privacy Bill states: “Data that is maintained in silos is largely useless outside that silo and consequently has a low likelihood of causing any damage.

However, all this is likely to change with the implementation of the UID Project. As more and more agencies of the government sign on to the UID Project, the UID number will become the common thread that links all those databases together.”

Did you read that, Mr Nilekani?

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  • “It is not mandatory

    “It is not mandatory (but) sooner or later you will have to get your UID number.” The government will no doubt connect it to some essential service (maybe PDS for the poor and PAN card for those reasonably off) so there will be no choice in opting out of the system. As Jean Dreaze and others have pointed out, this is a national security project in the garb of social security. Interestingly, one of the most successful biometric national identity card system is currently run in Pakistan. Big contracts for all the IT giants; I personally think that is the driving force. And the next communal riot can be a more comprehensive program, if we all get I-Cards then even those who are not on the electoral rolls can be targeted.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms Jishnu, The data

    Dear Ms Jishnu,

    The data repository with the UID authority would be something that an individual would have no problem making public unless he/she is guided by vested interests. And if you take one good look at what the UID has been maintaining in all public fora, you would get to know that they are not promising food to the poor, access to better healthcare, education, and welfare safety nets. These are for other government agencies and policies to look into. But UID could be a tool that these agencies could use. Before you chop wood to make boat, you need to have an axe. So, let the UIDAI do its job. You are doing your job well - sitting at your desk and opining in print/html.

    Yours truly,

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks for this eye-opener.

    Thanks for this eye-opener. NN must find satisfactory answers sooner rather than later.
    But why have you not elaborated on the costs of the UID project?
    Let there be an audit of the project after complete implementation in the model village Tembhli, and networking with other government agencies (PDS, education, health) that ought to use the database.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Hi, Concept side of this

    Concept side of this project is very good. The main problem lies in implementation. Today, the govt is running into huge fiscal deficit. Financing will be of major concern. secondly illiteracy in India is very high. To have bank accounts to directly transfer govt sponsored schemes money into accounts is a big headache. Such technology still exists in other govt depts but money coming into user accounts is still a distant dream. It will be a miracle that the BABU will transfer money without any lobbying for months.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms Jishnu, Please see

    Dear Ms Jishnu,

    Please see Performance Computing report on "India adopts new privacy law" .

    which also referred to IBN India's report on Controversial Internet Control Rules.

    The privacy laws are part of India's 2008 IT Security Act amendment which itself has several serious flaws enabling it to be used for intimidating whistle-blowers and in pursuing SLAPP suits, often with the help of state machinery such as Cyber Crime cells of the Indian Police.

    In my view, one of the more serious privacy shortcomings is that under these laws, the Indian government gets away with failures to protect privacy. Given the corrupt environment in India, this will mean that you can buy private information at a low cost from corrupt officials, as it is hard to detect such leakage of data anyway, and nobody will be held accountable.

    The report says that it "did not undergo the prolonged period of public comment and industry input that typically precedes the passage of a law"; the word "typically" here means typical in democratic countries. Considering that India's "democracy" usually does without real public input, it may not be very surprising.

    To cite an example, UK scrapped their expensive public ID project, for good reason. I am sure India will learn the hard way, but by then Nilekani would have been elevated a few notches that all the consequences would hardly matter.

    - A Techie for Development.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I am not quite sure of my

    I am not quite sure of my opinion. Maybe he's just scratching the surface and wasn't able to dig in that's why he can't answer most of the questions that are being thrown to him. There are really people that are good in theories but doesn't know how to implement these theories.
    T Harv Ecker
    Club President

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • giving the poor access to

    giving the poor access to better healthcare, education, and welfare safety nets.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • networking with other

    networking with other government agencies (PDS, education, health) that ought to use the database.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • I have to say I'm not quite

    I have to say I'm not quite sure where I stand on this either, will have to give it some more thought.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I agree with you 110%. Many

    I agree with you 110%. Many people can talk the talk but can't walk the walk.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply