Is India's identity number scheme unravelling?

  • 14 December 2011
  • From the section India
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UID number being taken in India
India plans to issue 600 million identity numbers in five years

Is India's showpiece multi-billion-dollar unique identification number (UID) programme unravelling?

Using biometric methods, including an iris scan, the scheme is logging details of India's population on a central database. Over five years, India plans to issue 600 million UID numbers.

The programme's aim is laudable. The identity number will help the poor, who find it difficult to access public services and benefits because they do not have official records or identity.

By one estimate, 80% of Indians don't have bank accounts; and only 60 million people have a Permanent Account Number or PAN, the sole identification number used during bank transactions.

But two years after it launched, a parliamentary committee has given a thumbs-down to the setting up of a statutory National Identification Authority to bolster the scheme. A bill had been introduced in parliament last December to set up the authority.

The committee, in a recent report, raised concerns about access and misuse of personal information, surveillance, profiling and securing confidential information by the government. UID authorities say that appropriate steps have been taken to ensure security and protection of data.

That's not all. There appears to be a valid concern about the possibility of illegal residents getting identification numbers. (The number is not proof of citizenship or residency. It only confirms identity after authentication.)

The parliamentary committee fears that "at a time when the country is facing a serious problem of illegal immigrants and infiltration from across the border", the number was being given out to every resident. "The committee is unable to understand the rationale for expanding the scheme to persons who are not citizens," the report said.

The committee has even questioned the implementation of the scheme, which has been held up as a success story by the authorities. It says it was originally meant for the poorest of the poor and then extended to all residents. But the committee says better-off Indians already possess many other forms of identity, and so asks how the number helps them. Authorities say the number will be a general proof of identity.

Also, the report wonders, how will the poorest of the poor be given numbers? For one, the authorities don't have proper data on the very poor - officially, 37% of India's 1.2 billion people live below the poverty line. But there are various estimates of the exact number of poor in India and one suggests that the true figure could be as high as 77%. So how does the number help in identifying the genuine beneficiaries?

Interestingly, the report points to the shelving of a similar identity project in the UK because of the huge costs, unreliable and untested technology and the risks to the safety and security of citizens. A London School of Economics report says that the UK project could turn out to be a "potential danger to the public interest and to the legal rights of the individuals".

Nandan Nilekani, head of the Unique Identification Authority of India, believes that the number can transform Indian politics by curbing theft and leakage of public funds. "It would make porous distribution mechanisms and our dependence on the moral scruples of the bureaucrats redundant," he says. But, clearly, a number of crucial questions need to be clarified before India can continue to crunch out the identity numbers.