The Cloak Of The Unique Identification Number

Posted on November 30, 2010 in Specials

By Sakshi Abrol:

Let me start by just defining what a ‘Unique identification number’ is. Unique Identification Number (UID) is a recently finalized initiative by the Government of India to create and manage a centralized identification system for all the adult citizens and residents of India, which can be utilized for a variety of identification purposes. Well, this is just a typically bookish definition of the UID and can only satisfy the intellectual needs of a naive risen out of inquisitiveness to be up-to-date with the buzzword hitting the headlines. A more comprehensive look into the matter means to draw the roots of its present day manifestation in a historical perspective. The first phase of today’s UID was initiated in 1999 by the NDA government in the wake of the Kargil war. The NDA government decided to compulsorily register all citizens into a ‘National Population Register’ and issue a ‘Multipurpose National Identity’ (MNIC) card to all its citizens. This move can well be regarded as the base work for the UID of today. A nuanced approach to juxtapose the MNIC with the UID shows that the former was intended to act as watchdog on aliens and unauthorized people whereas the UID is more development-oriented.

In terms of its pragmatic implementation, be prepared to be stalked by somebody knocking at you door to take your fingerprints along with personal characteristics like age, sex, occupation and so on. The rationale behind this exercise is to build a National Population Register. In due course, your UID number or ‘Aadhaar’ will be added to it. This pie-in-the-sky dream will benefit the security agencies the most. Any suspicious person booking tickets or using any public facility requiring the UID no. will be on the radar. Further the benefits of the project in the social sector such as in the PDS further projects it as a boon.

However, the extent of euphoria or hype created by it is completely incompatible with the real-world problems. The promises made seem only rhetorical and allegedly half-true. The first delusion that it creates vis-à-vis the safety and confidentiality of the data can be attributed to the fact that this vast amount of personal data would be available to a number of agencies with fewer restrictions. As Amartya Sen would put it, ‘There is a clear trade-off between privacy and development.(The clauses related to individual privacy in the Citizenship act of 1955 was weakened through an amendment in 2003). Just think of it this way. The police or security forces if allowed access to the biometric database could use it for regular surveillance leading to gross violation of human rights.

Another veiled lie is that Aadhaar is not compulsory. The reason is quite intelligible to anybody with an average level of intelligence. The benefits and the services that are linked to the UID in the form of PDS and NREGA jobs will automatically create a demand for the number. It is like leaving no other options feasible and then claiming that there are options available. Also the concept of the UID is incompatible with the FPS. UID will enable a migrant to buy his PDS quota from anywhere across India but the FPS stores grains only for registered households and the lack of stock will see the workers come back empty-handed. I believe the above mentioned point establishes beyond doubt that the UID is mere eyewash to cloak the ulterior motives of the government tending to become an invasive state marked by the security dimensions of it rather than the developmental aspect.

Technically speaking, the problem of fingerprint quality in India has not been studied in depth. Also the process is not hassle free and is going to be a hit-or-miss affair with the various glitches in the BPL analysis providing glaring examples. There is also no proper mechanism in place to correct erroneous “identity information” by the citizens.

There are people like Nandan Nilekani completely enamoured by this enchanting idea but the reality is far deeper than meets the batting of the eyelids.

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