Will Aadhar be just another white elephant?

Last Updated: Thu, Jan 12, 2012 09:48 hrs

So it's been around three years after the formation of India's ambitious Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) or Aadhaar.

Biometric identity cards for 1.2 billion Indians!

Aadhar entered 2012 on a false note with the bill related to it being shot down by a parliamentary committee last year-end.

While there has been a lot of debate over this high-profile project, one basic issue remains.

Did we ever need it in the first place?

Why have most of the rich and developed countries shied away from such a grand project, even as a coalition government of a developing country has been so bullish about it?

Many basic issues still remain unanswered.

1. Is it too much duplication?

Decades back, genuine identity cards used to be a problem, but not anymore. Now most people in the cities have a Pan card or a passport or both. In the rural areas, they are very conscious about voting and as a result the election card (the dream of Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan in the 1990s) has been one of the biggest successes in recent times. There is also the ration card.

Together, these identity papers have solved most of the problems that the average Indian citizen faced. So the question is why do we need another one? What will we do with all this duplication?

We are told that the Aadhar card will be linked to all these cards, but that just seems like an additional burden. While a lot of benefits have been touted at the conceptual level, there's nothing much in it for the common man.

2. Will it be incomplete?

This is pretty important. Since there are so many existing identity cards, for a new one like this to be meaningful, it has to cover all the citizens of India. Then only can it become a true card of the future with great potential for future governments.

That doesn't seem to be happening. For one, when it was announced, it was said that it would be voluntary. So such a policy may not translate into universal implementation.

Convincing all the villagers of India will be tough and there is also a minority of people with eye and hand problems who may be uncomfortable with the scanning of all ten fingerprints and two irises (of the eye). Jammu & Kashmir has proved to be another roadblock.

In all, it has taken this project about three years to get less than 10% of India on board. Getting the remaining 90% is a daunting task especially considering the fact that the UPA government is getting more and more lame duck by the day and doesn't look like being in a position to push anything.

3. Why don't other departments accept it?

The Home Ministry has had a lot of reservations over Aadhar, questioning its very reliability. In fact one of the problems cited by many people is that it takes database from the National Population Registry which even non-Indian residents in its rolls. That might help illegal migrants get a UID card. There is also scope for misuse.

In fact the Home Minister said he preferred a smart card issued by the NPR instead. The problem is that other departments are concerned about issues related to reliability and duplication.

4. Is the cost worth it?

Then is the issue of cost. Aadhar's annual budget of 2010 was Rs 3000 crore. What about the whole project? Estimates range between Rs 30,000 crores to Rs 1,50,000 crores. The more the project is delayed, the more the costs will escalate.

A basic issue is what is the ROI? If we pump tens of thousands of crores into any non-essential project like this, then the gains should be many more times that amount. There is no clarity on the issue, but only tall claims.

5. The basic issue of privacy

Why would I want to hand over my 10 fingerprints and iris scans to a national database of which I am not sure about the reliability and security?

In fact such storage of biometric data is still related to criminals and immigrants in most countries. Even in India, the Prisoners' Act provides a criminal's data should be destroyed on acquittal.

In a country where there is so much corruption, abuse of power and fraud, it is difficult to see how just one department can claim to be above all that and claim to be 100% secure.

6. The rest of the world uses it in a limited way

Countries like the United States, Australia, Canada and Germany are using biometrics for things like passports and immigration. The US also extended it to the military.

Brazil has a decentralised scheme of biometric ID cards, where each state can issue the same. Iraq and Gambia are also embarking on similar but less ambitious schemes than Aadhar.

In fact there is only one country which had a more ambitious scheme than Aadhar and that country fell flat on its face.

The Identity Cards Act 2006 of the United Kingdom was strongly opposed by human rights groups and security experts. It was one up on Aadhar as it added facial recognition to the fingerprints and iris scans.

After years of debate on its effectiveness and cost along with misuse vis a vis ethnic minorities, it was scrapped in 2010 after a huge loss of face to the nation.

England is a developed country with a population of 50 odd million.

India is a developing country with a population of 1 odd billion.

The government should have asked whether we are ready for such a grand ambitious scheme in the first place.

Finally, India is not a very efficient country. When the data of 1.2 billion is keyed in, what will be the error rates related to names, information and scans? Aadhar claims the error rate will be less than 0.01%, but a higher percentage could lead to more problems than solutions.

In fact in January 2012, a Public Interest Litigation was filed against Aadhar claiming that the whole scheme was illegal.

All of UPA's grand schemes of its first term seem to be falling apart in its second!

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The author is a Bangalore-based journalist and blogger. He blogs at http://sunilrajguru.com/