UID and Civil Society
“The mandate of UIDAI includes taking special measures to ensure that Aadhaar is made available to poor and marginalised sections of society, such as street/orphaned children, widows and other disadvantaged women, migrant workers, the homeless, senior citizens, nomadic communities including tribal, and the differently-abled. To fulfill this mandate, the UIDAI continues to hold wide range of consultations with individuals and organisations representing these vulnerable groups.” (‘Consultations’ from the UIDAI website)
“Aadhaar is not intended to expand social service provisions. It is to keep benefits restricted to ‘targeted’ sections, ensure targeting with precision, and thus limit the government’s fiscal commitments…Aadhaar, as claimed, is not a tool of empowerment; it is actually an alibi for the state to leave the citizen unmarked in the market for social services” ( ‘Identity Concerns’ Dr. Ramakumar, Frontline, Dec 2, 2011)
The UIDAI has been repeatedly stressing its pro-poor mission and had initially set the bar high for its engagement with civil society. The reconvening of the National Advisory Council (NAC), the most influential government-civil society partnership, had added to the expectation that the UID project would be well received by civil society, just as other landmark initiatives such as MGNREGS and RTI had been received.
So it seemed a no-brainer that UID would quickly catch favorable winds from the civil society end and sail through the otherwise turbulent waters riddled with loan sharks, welfare mafias, and corrupt politicians, whose ‘perks’ would be challenged by an effective national ID system.
Man, were we wrong!
We are not aware of any other government scheme that has received so much flak from civil society even before it was out of the starting gate! The opposition, however, has not followed a single theme: questions about cost vs. benefits; fears that the government will misuse the data; reliability of biometric technology; ideological concerns that UID is a precursor to dismantling welfare schemes; wariness about past promises of ‘inclusion’ that never came about, etc. are some of the recurring themes that we have heard over the months. Some ‘netizens’ have even cited the lack of a contingency plan in case the government is taken over by a dictator!
But the center of the debate, such as it is, has been somewhat lop-sided: A few vocal privacy advocates have been basing their case upon exaggerated claims (e.g. biometrics failure rates) and fears (e.g. UID is a façade for NATGRID). The media has been giving them wide coverage, with little or no critical analysis or fact checks. The UIDAI’s occasional come-backs have been typically bureaucratic: overly cautious and mostly ineffective. And the uncompromising attitude of some leading activists has deterred the UIDAI from entering into any serious partnerships with civil society. Ironically, the politician-mafia nexus hasn’t had to lift a finger against UID, as long as privacy advocates seemed to be doing the job for them!
In the mean time, a vast majority of NGOs have been watching from the sidelines, unable or unwilling to take a clear stand. In fact, the few who were willing to work with the UIDAI were quickly shown the ‘thumbs down’ by the antagonists.
We hope this situation will change, for a number of reasons. The foundation upon which opponents have made their case against UID seems to be weakening, and should give pause to the silent majority:
- Wildly exaggerated cost figures for the project (over Rs 1.5 lakh crores) have finally been put to rest, with the UIDAI's statements that the project will not cost more than Rs 18,000 crores to cover the entire country;
- Doubts over the accuracy and reliability of biometrics have been dispelled by the latest UIDAI findings: Based on its experience in what is now the world’s largest biometric database, the UIDAI says that the failure rate of biometrics is < 0.14% -- as compared with a 15% figure cited to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance;
- Data privacy and data misuse fears that were fueled by the seeming close association of UID with the Home Ministry’s NPR are beginning to dissipate, as the government moves to reinforce UID’s developmental mission and distances it from the mission of NPR.
It is our hope that all of this will reshape civil society’s attitude towards UID, which is essential to the long-term success of Aadhaar, on several counts:
- The Introducer Concept: The pro-poor focus of UIDAI is easier said than done, given that millions have no acceptable documents to enroll in the normal fashion. This was the reason why the UIDAI had contemplated the ‘Introducer’ concept – i.e. a person of repute or authority who could personally vouch for a resident with no documents, so they could be enrolled. There are some in the government who think that the concept is a ‘security risk’ and others who feel that only government officials, reaching down to the panchayat level, can be Introducers. We believe otherwise: NGOs, CBOs, and teachers, who work closely with the poor and know them on a day to day basis, are much more credible as Introducers, if given the chance. And, without the close cooperation of NGOs, the Introducer system is unlikely to pick up momentum and the UIDAI may be unable to fully execute its pro-poor mandate. (The latest news indicate that in an effort to placate the Home Ministry, the UIDAI might revisit the very concept of Introducers!)
- Aadhaar Applications: We think it is time for NGOs to give serious thought to how they can utilize the national ID in advancement of their own work. After all, Aadhaar is like a highway that can only ‘enable’ traffic, but it is all the vehicles plying on them that bring the actual benefits. Similarly, the real benefits of UID will be in its applications. And NGOs are in the best position to envision applications that can help their respective constituencies: be it in advocating for ration cards or social security; or use in social audit of various welfare schemes; or monitoring minority welfare; or finding ways to apply Habeas Data (i.e. right to discover personal information held by others) as a deterrent against its misuse. (Perhaps, someday, the law will require the police to release any suspect who can demonstrate via Aadhaar that he/she is not who the police claim!)
- Debate on Privacy: The UIDAI has made a clear case for how it plans to ensure data security; however, data privacy fears are far from resolved. We have already outlined elsewhere ways in which the UIDAI can further reassure the public on this score. But, in many ways, the issue falls back squarely on the shoulders of civil society groups who have been shepherding the right to information -- which may conflict with some of the right to privacy notions. So it is critical at this juncture that civil society groups pro-actively advance the debate on a national privacy law. Else, it is likely to get lost among turf wars within government departments, who may argue against the need for such a law (“We already have it covered here, so why another law?” the Home and Telecom ministries may argue).
Civil libertarians and privacy advocates are an extremely critical part of our democracy and it is indeed their brief to speak out against excesses (and potential excesses) by ‘big brother.’ They are akin to our army, which keeps vigil at our borders against external aggression. They have raised many important questions about UID, which do need answers. But when some of them seek to dictate how exactly the government should manage its welfare programs and wish to become instant experts on technology and project management, we’re afraid that they begin to sound like the army wanting to do our police work and wanting to take charge of executing the MGNREGS program!
The reality is that the ‘big brother’ of civil libertarians finds no resonance among India’s poor millions, who desperately look to the government to take care of their basic daily needs.
We hope that NGO leaders working with the poor and marginalized will not remain paralyzed by the nightmare scenarios on data privacy and misuse, and will engage in active discussions on how Aadhaar can be effectively used for the benefit of their constituencies.
We think that ThinkUID can be a supportive platform for such an informed dialogue.