[Reader-list] Jean Dreze on the UID-Database State in India in the Hindu

Shuddhabrata Sengupta shuddha at sarai.net
Fri Nov 26 12:04:29 IST 2010

Dear all,

Please find below a really excellent article by Jean Dreze in The  
Hindu on the UID scheme, which clearly and lucidly argues why the  
building of the database state in India is a very bad idea and a  
recipe for authoritarianism. Hope that this can provoke a debate on the




Unique facility, or recipe for trouble?

Jean Drèze

Opinion/Op Ed, The Hindu, November 25, 2010
Many questions remain about the Unique Identity Number system that is  
being rolled out by the Central government.

It is quite likely that a few weeks from now someone will be knocking  
at your doors and asking for your fingerprints. If you agree, your  
fingerprints will enter a national database, along with personal  
characteristics (age, sex, occupation, and so on) that have already  
been collected from you, unless you were missed in the “Census  
household listing” earlier this year.

The purpose of this exercise is to build the National Population  
Register (NPR). In due course, your UID (Unique Identity Number, or  
“Aadhaar”) will be added to it. This will make it possible to link  
the NPR with other Aadhaar-enabled databases, from tax returns to  
bank records and SIM (subscriber identity module) registers. This  
includes the Home Ministry's National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID),  
smoothly linking 21 national databases.

For the intelligence agencies, this will be a dream-come-true.  
Imagine, everyone's fingerprints at the click of a mouse, that too  
with demographic information and all the rest. Should any suspicious  
person book a flight, or use a cybercafé, or any of the services that  
will soon require an Aadhaar number, she will be on their radar. If,  
say, Arundhati Roy makes another trip to Dantewada, she will be  
picked up on arrival like a ripe plum. Fantastic!

‘A half-truth'

So, when the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) tells  
us that the UID data (the “Central Identities Data Repository”) will  
be safe and confidential, it is a half-truth. The confidentiality of  
the Repository itself is not a minor issue, considering that UIDAI  
can authorise “any entity” to maintain it, and that it can be  
accessed not only by intelligence agencies but also by any Ministry.  
But more important, the UID will help integrate vast amounts of  
personal data, that are available to government agencies with few  

Confidentiality is not the only half-truth propagated by UIDAI.  
Another one is that Aadhaar is not compulsory — it is just a  
voluntary “facility.” UIDAI's concept note stresses that “enrolment  
will not be mandated.” But there is a catch: “... benefits and  
services that are linked to the UID will ensure demand for the  
number.” This is like selling bottled water in a village after  
poisoning the well, and claiming that people are buying water  
voluntarily. The next sentence is also ominous: “This will not,  
however, preclude governments or Registrars from mandating enrolment.”

That UID is, in effect, going to be compulsory is clear from many  
other documents. For instance, the Planning Commission's proposal for  
the National Food Security Act argues for “mandatory use of UID  
numbers which are expected to become operational by the end of  
2010” (note the optimistic time-frame). No UID, no food. Similarly,  
UIDAI's concept note on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act  
(NREGA) assumes that “each citizen needs to provide his UID before  
claiming employment.” Thus, Aadhaar will also be a condition for the  
right to work — so much for its voluntary nature.

Now, if the UID is compulsory, then everyone should have a right to  
free, convenient and reliable enrolment. The enrolment process,  
however, is all set to be a hit-or-miss affair, with no guarantee of  
timely and hassle-free inclusion. UIDAI hopes to enrol 600 million  
people in the next four years. That is about half of India's  
population in the next four years. What about the other half?

Nor is there any guarantee of reliability. Anyone familiar with the  
way things work in rural India would expect the UID database to be  
full of errors. There is a sobering lesson here from the Below  
Poverty Line (BPL) Census. A recent World Bank study found rampant  
anomalies in the BPL list: “A common problem was erroneous  
information entered for household members. In one district of  
Rajasthan, more than 50 per cent of the household members were listed  
as sisters-in-law.”

Will the UID database be more reliable? Don't bet on it. And it is  
not clear how the errors will be corrected as and when they emerge.

Under the proposed National Identification Authority of India Bill  
(“NIDAI Bill”), if someone finds that her “identity information” is  
wrong, she is supposed to “request the Authority” to correct it, upon  
which the Authority “may, if it is satisfied, make such alteration as  
may be required.” There is a legal obligation to alert the Authority,  
but no right to correction.

The Aadhaar juggernaut is rolling on regardless (and without any  
legal safeguards in place), fuelled by mesmerising claims about the  
social applications of UID. A prime example is UID's invasion of the  
NREGA. NREGA workers are barely recovering from the chaotic rush to  
payments of wages through banks. Aadhaar is likely to be the next  
ordeal. The local administration is going to be hijacked by enrolment  
drives. NREGA works or payments will come to a standstill where  
workers are waiting for their Aadhaar number. Others will be the  
victims of unreliable technology, inadequate information technology  
facilities, or data errors. And for what? Gradual, people-friendly  
introduction of innovative technologies would serve the NREGA better  
than the UID tamasha.

The real game plan, for social policy, seems to be a massive  
transition to “conditional cash transfers” (CCTs). There is more than  
a hint of this “revolutionary” plan in Nandan Nilekani's book,  
Imagining India. Since then, CCTs have become the rage in policy  
circles. A recent Planning Commission document argues that successful  
CCTs require “a biometric identification system,” now made possible  
by “the initiation of a Unique Identification System (UID) for the  
entire population …” The same document recommends a string of mega  
CCTs, including cash transfers to replace the Public Distribution  

If the backroom boys have their way, India's public services as we  
know them will soon be history, and every citizen will just have a  
Smart Card — food stamps, health insurance, school vouchers,  
conditional maternity entitlements and all that rolled into one. This  
approach may or may not work (that is incidental), but business at  
least will prosper. As the Wall Street Journal says about the  
Rashtriya Swasthya Bhima Yojana (which is a pioneering CCT project,  
for health insurance), “the plan presents a way for insurance  
companies to market themselves and develop brand awareness.”

The danger

The biggest danger of UID, however, lies in a restriction of civil  
liberties. As one observer aptly put it, Aadhaar is creating “the  
infrastructure of authoritarianism” — an unprecedented degree of  
state surveillance (and potential control) of citizens. This  
infrastructure may or may not be used for sinister designs. But can  
we take a chance, in a country where state agencies have such an  
awful record of arbitrariness, brutality and impunity?

In fact, I suspect that the drive towards permanent state  
surveillance of all residents has already begun. UIDAI is no Big  
Brother, but could others be on the job? Take for instance Captain  
Raghu Raman (of the Mahindra Special Services Group), who is quietly  
building NATGRID on behalf of the Home Ministry. His columns in the  
business media make for chilling reading. Captain Raman believes that  
growing inequality is a “powder keg waiting for a spark,” and  
advocates corporate takeover of internal security (including a  
“private territorial army”), to enable the “commercial czars” to  
“protect their empires.” The Maoists sound like choir boys in  

There are equally troubling questions about the “NIDAI Bill,”  
starting with why it was drafted by UIDAI itself. Not surprisingly,  
the draft Bill gives enormous powers to UIDAI's successor, NIDAI —  
and with minimal safeguards. To illustrate, the Bill empowers NIDAI  
to decide the biometric and demographic information required for an  
Aadhaar number (Section 23); “specify the usage and applicability of  
the Aadhaar number for delivery of various benefits and  
services” (Section 23); authorise whoever it wishes to “maintain the  
Central Identities Data Repository” (Section 7) or even to exercise  
any of its own “powers and functions” (Section 51); and dictate all  
the relevant “regulations” (Section 54).

Ordinary citizens, for their part, are powerless: they have no right  
to a UID number except on NIDAI's terms, no right to correction of  
inaccurate data, and — last but not least — no specific means to  
redress grievances. In fact, believe it or not, the Bill states (in  
Section 46) that “no court shall take cognisance of any offence  
punishable under this Act” except based on a complaint authorised by  

So, is UID a facility or a calamity? It depends for whom. For the  
intelligence agencies, bank managers, the corporate sector, and  
NIDAI, it will be a facility and a blessing. For ordinary citizens,  
especially the poor and marginalised, it could well be a calamity.

(The author is Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics,  
University of Allahabad and Member of the National Advisory Council.)

Shuddhabrata Sengupta

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