Aadhaar is not bipartisan, mired in authoritarianism

A misleading and factually incorrect claim has been made in Washington on October 12 by Nandan Nilekani, former chairman of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), who said that the UID/Aadhaar project enjoys bipartisan support and how it saved about $9 billion by eliminating fraud in beneficiary lists. The following facts reveal that the claim of bipartisan support is an exercise in factual misrepresentation:

Seventeen eminent citizens issued a Statement of Concern seeking to halt of UID/Aadhaar project on September 28, 2010

Around 3.57 crore signatures against Aadhaar/UID were submitted to the Prime Minister on March 14, 2013

The West Bengal Assembly passed a unanimous resolution against coercive Aadhaar December 2, 2013

Supreme Court’s nine-judge Constitution Bench recorded that Kerala, Karnataka, West Bengal, Punjab and Puducherry supported the petitioners who sought the scrapping of UID/Aadhaar. In its verdict on August 24, 2017, the apex court said that the right to privacy is an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty, which was vehemently opposed by the proponents of Aadhaar.

Rajya Sabha has vociferously opposed Aadhaar, and its objection was illegitimately overruled by getting Aadhaar Act enacted as the Money Bill.

Opposition parties in the Lok Sabha bitterly opposed the enactment of Aadhaar Act, 2016

Senior leaders from the main opposition party are contesting the Aadhaar Act in the Supreme Court

The Multiparty Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance had examined the Aadhaar project and trashed it

MPs in Rajya Sabha, during a Short Duration Discussion, demonstrated using the government’s data that government’s claims about savings from Aadhaar are questionable

Several citizens’ declarations and resolutions against Aadhaar have been passed at the meetings of people’s movements, employees and trade unions

As for the claims regarding savings from UID/Aadhaar project, insincerity has been evident from the very outset. During Nilekani’s tenure at UIDAI, Yashwant Sinha headed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance. Its 69th report on the ‘Demands for Grants (2013/14)’ said: “A provision of Rs 2,620 crore has been allocated in the Budget Estimates or BE (2013/14) for the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and a major part of the Budget provision for Rs 1,040 crore is earmarked for ‘Enrolment, Authentication and Updation’, out of which an amount of Rs 1,000 crore has been earmarked under the head ‘other charges’.” The total budgetary allocations for the UIDAI, from its inception to March 31, 2014, was Rs 5,440.30 crore.

For the year 2014/15, the budget estimate was Rs 2,039 crore. The budget estimate of expenditure on the project being implemented by the UIDAI was Rs 2,000 crore in 20015/16. For the year 2016/17, the budget estimate was Rs 990 crore (it included Rs 190 crore first supplementary). As of February 2017, the UIDAI has incurred a total cumulative expenditure of Rs 8,536.83 crore. It includes undefined “other charges”, pointed out by the Parliamentary Committee. Should not the UIDAI provide the details of the expenses incurred under “other charges”? Take the case of the year 2009/10 when the budget estimate was Rs 120 crore, and the final expenditure was Rs 26.21 crore. In 2015/16, the budget estimate was Rs 2,000 crore, but the final expenditure was Rs 1,679 crore. In 2016/17, when the budget estimate was Rs 990 crore, the final expenditure up to February 2017 is Rs 877.16 crore.

The Parliamentary Committee on Finance wondered in its report why inflated targets were given consistently. It observed: “The total budgetary allocations made for the UIDAI since its inception up to BE 2013/14 is Rs 5,440.30 crore, out of which Rs 2820.30 crore has been utilised up to 31.03.2013 and the remaining amount of Rs 2,620 has been allocated in BE 2013/14. The Ministry informed that the average cost per card was estimated to range from Rs 100 to Rs 157. Taking the average cost per card to be Rs 130, the total expenditure for the issue of 60 crore cards is estimated to about Rs 7,800 crore. Thus, the expected requirement of funds during 2013/14 is Rs 4,979.70 crore, whereas only Rs 2,620 crore has been kept for BE 2013/14, which is, thus, grossly inadequate.” It is apparent that there is more to it than meets the eye. These are the expenditure details so far.

The total estimated budget of the biometric UID/Aadhaar number project has not been disclosed till date despite repeated demand for it while seeking the cost: benefit analysis. In any case, unless the total estimated budget of the project is revealed, all claims of benefits are suspect and untrustworthy. How can one know about total savings unless the total cost is disclosed?

The recent meeting at the World Bank on digital identity, where more than a dozen companies were represented, underlines the Bank’s central role in the promotion of internalisation of digital-biometric identification by some developing countries such as India and Pakistan.

When one learnt about UIDAI’s Founding Chairman Nilekani’s lecture – organised by Washington-based Center for Global Development (CGD) on Societal Platforms: Building beyond Aadhaar for Sustainable Development – to be held on October 13, 2017, with Paul Romer, Chief Economist and Senior Vice President, World Bank, as one of the panellists, it gave a sense of deja vu. The event was organised in partnership with the World Bank Group, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Omidyar Network.

In November 2009 Tariq Malik was awarded the ID Outstanding Achievement Award at the Global Summit on Automatic Identification in Milan. He received one of the highest awards in IT, Sitara-e-Imtiaz (Star of Excellence), from the President of Pakistan in 2013 for innovative, citizen-centric ICT application and services rendered for Pakistan. Nilekani was given ID Limelight Award at the ID World International Congress, 2010, in Milan, Italy, on November 16. Malik headed the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) in Pakistan. Nilekani headed the UIDAI.

Interestingly, Safran Morpho (of the Safran Group) was a key sponsor of the ID Congress. Its subsidiary called Sagem Morpho Security was awarded a contract for the purchase of biometric authentication devices on February 2, 2011, by the UIDAI.

But let us go back to Malik who became General Manager, Networks, at NADRA in April 2008. Within three months, they promoted him from Head of Technology to Deputy Chairman, NADRA. Later, he became the Chairman. Before joining NADRA, he worked in the US in the ICT space.

Nilekani, too, became the Chairman and held the rank of a Cabinet Minister.

In another apparent coincidence, both Malik and Nilekani spoke at the meetings of CGD in April 2013 and July 2014, respectively.

In his lecture titled Technology in the Service of Development: The NADRA Story, Malik said, “By 2008, we improved the data architecture to include the full set of 10 fingerprints and a digital photograph. This technology was powerful enough to enable full deduplication of the national database and greatly reduced the prevalence of dual identities and identity theft. We asked the people to register and framed this in terms of a strategic partnership with the state, which in turn would recognise them as citizens. Registration was still technically voluntary, but people could not open a bank account without an ID card or obtain a passport or enter into any transaction with the state. An ID card was also needed to obtain a gas or electricity connection and to pay utility bills. These requirements made it very difficult to function without enrolling and caused people to register.

“At the same time, we developed a system to scrutinise candidates contesting the election that would connect the databases of NADRA, the Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR), the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and the State Bank of Pakistan.”

According to him, “Security versus privacy is a very hotly debated issue these days. From Pakistan’s perspective, extraordinary security circumstances demand extraordinary steps to revamp governance. The state is eroding very fast, and it has to restore its writ to avoid collapse at the hand of outlawed and terrorist groups. At the same time, it is my strong belief that privacy of citizen data must be guaranteed in a fragile state like Pakistan. It is sad that Pakistan does not yet have an official data privacy law.”

It is clear from his lecture that the biometric identification project called NADRA is a convergence project. It has put all the people Pakistan under surveillance by admittedly making registration under NADRA “technically voluntary” but structuring its implementation in a way that it has coerced Pakistanis to register with NADRA to get social benefits, services and subsidies by converging pre-existing databases.

In his lecture titled Can Technology Leapfrog Development? The Aadhaar story, Nilekani said, “A lot of people ask about privacy and security and all that. Fundamentally, this is just an ID system, it gives you an ID and verifies that ID. So the UID database does not collect all kinds of data about you – (it only collects) very basic information about you (name, address, DoB, sex and biometrics) and provides verification services with a yes or a no.

“Similarly, from a security perspective, also a lot of work has happened to make it secure. We came to the conclusion that if we take sufficient biometric data of an individual, that person’s biometrics will be unique across a billion people. Now we have to find that out – we haven’t done it yet – so we’ll discover it as we go along. And our belief now is that accuracy across the entire billion people is 99.99 per cent in terms of not having duplicates,” he added.

“The purpose of this project is twofold. One, to give millions of people IDs, which they can have to get access to entitlements and services, and second, to improve the quality of expenditure by the government on various public programmes,” added Nilekani. Prophetically, he disclosed, “You can use it for train tickets or mobile connections. We expect that in the next few years, this will be used as the basic KYC (know your customer) for all kinds of services. For voting, bank accounts, mobile connections. It is using tech to reach out, and reach out to a large number of people.” Besides this address, Nilekani had delivered another lecture at the World Bank headquarters on April 24, 2013, in the presence of World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and Chief Economist Kaushik Basu.

It emerges that India’s UID project is an imitation of Pakistan’s project. Biometric UID/Aadhaar is a convergence project that has put all the residents of India under surveillance using social benefits, services and subsidy as a fish bait while keeping it “technically voluntary” but has coerced Indian residents to register for the Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR) of UID/Aadhaar numbers structurally. As in Pakistan, India, too, is implementing this biometric identification project without having a right to privacy law in place. Both countries display a similar lackadaisical approach towards peoples’ privacy. India is imitating Pakistan about the erosion of authority, which is being hollowed out by transnational commercial tsars and by compromising national security by showing unpardonable callousness towards the privacy of present and future generation of legislators, soldiers and heads of governments and the State.

Coincidentally, both Malik and Nilekani were speakers at the National Identification Conference, an international conference organised by Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights in collaboration with other Harvard schools from November 19 to November 21 in 2015. Ajay Bhushan Pandey, current Director General of UIDAI who has been promoted and given the status of Secretary, Government of India, was also a speaker at that conference.

In an interview, Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, informed Imran Khan about the grave act of omission and commission. Assange said, “we discovered a cable in 2009 from the Islamabad Embassy. Prime Minister Gilani and Interior Minister Malik went into the [US] embassy and offered to share NADRA. The system is currently connected through passport data, but the government of Pakistan is adding voice and facial recognition capability and has installed a pilot biometric system as the Chennai border crossing, where 30,000 to 35,000 people cross each day. The NADRA system is the voting record system for all voters in Pakistan. A front company was also set up in the UK called International Identity Services, which was hired as the consultants for NADRA to squirrel out the NADRA data for all of Pakistan. What do you think about that? It seems to me that that is a theft of some national treasure of Pakistan, the entire Pakistani database registry of its people.”

Whenever Nilekani or other proponents of UID/Aadhaar speak, they simply articulate whatever has been voiced by the head of NADRA. Every word spoken and every step taken by the UIDAI are an exercise in imitation of Pakistan’s initiative.

Biometric unique identification (UID) initiative, branded as Aadhaar, has its roots in Washington. At the outset, inspired by the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto Polar’s 2000 book The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, Nilekani began arguing that a national ID system would be a big step for land markets to facilitate the right to property and undo the 1978 abolition of the same, which will bring down poverty! But he never explained the rationale of this unique proposition. In the post-Capitalist and the post-Socialist era, such assumptions of triumph have been found to be deeply flawed. In fact, even the title of the book sounds weird in the post-financial crisis era. Nilekani published these arguments in his book. The 76-year-old de Soto, known for his work on informal sector ‘extralegal economies’, is the Honorary Chair of Washington-based World Justice Project, an initiative of the American Bar Association (ABA) that is working to advance the rule of law around the world. He has worked with the World Bank and appears to be an advocate of property rights-based democracy.

In a 2012 article, de Soto concluded, “We need increased truth-telling: increased recognition of what exists and who owns it.” Such propensity creates a compelling argument against centralised databases, which will be hard to defend in the face of big data predators. He fails to acknowledge like Slavoj ZIzek, the Slovenian philosopher who thinks radical changes for the betterment of humanity happen outside the realm of legal rights framed by existing institutional mechanism, which is being captured by commercial tsars. It is evident that the World Bank is lending support to projects, which make even the right to have natural rights conditional on being biometrically profiled to secure beneficial owners of all ilk from future battles.

It may be recalled that after Nilekani took charge as the Chairman of the UIDAI at the invitation of the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Robert B. Zoellick, the then World Bank chief, met him on December 4, 2009. What transpired at these meetings is not in public domain.

Nilekani was appointed as the Chairperson of UIDAI on July 2, 2009, and he assumed charge on July 23. At the time, IT behemoth Infosys announced that “Mr Nandan M. Nilekani will relinquish the position of Co-Chairman and Member of the Board at Infosys”. The company added that “the Board of Directors today accepted Nandan’s resignation. The resignation will be effective from July 9, 2009.” Notably, if Nilekani was appointed the chairperson of the UIDAI on July 2, his resignation from Infosys was effective from July 9, and he assumed charge of the UIDAI on July 23, his work and his meetings during that period seem to merit scrutiny.

Subsequently, the World Bank’s e-Transform Initiative (ETI) was formally launched on April 23, 2010, in Washington for converging private sector, citizen sector and public sector, and the Interpol’s e-identity database project. This initiative and the then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s announcement in January 2011 for voluntarily seeking the full-fledged Financial Sector Assessment Programme by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank appear to be linked. The e-identity of the Bank and UID/Aadhaar-related projects are part of the same Washington-based initiative.

The World Bank’s ETI seeks to leverage ICT to build a knowledge-sharing network that helps governments of developing nations to leverage best practices and improve the delivery of social and economic services. The knowledge-sharing network will focus on areas such as electronic Identification (eID), e-procurement, e-health and e-education, areas vital to promoting the participation of citizens in democratic processes such as voting, and helping undocumented citizens get access to health and welfare programmes. The World Bank reported it was funding 14 projects related to e-government and e-ID around the world. Are citizens supposed to believe that the World Bank Group is working to ensure that India’s national interest and its citizens’ rights are protected?

“The speed and precision with which developing countries administer services are dependent upon many factors, not the least of which is the ability to verify the identities of those receiving services,” said Mohsen Khalil, Director of the World Bank’s Global ICT Department, in a statement at the launch of the ETI.

Like Nilekani and Pandey, Malik, former chairman of NADRA in Pakistan, also has been the tried, tested and failed dictum of “technology is the answer”. This dictum has consistently failed because its proponents did not know the questions in the first place.

It is noteworthy that a task force for preparation of Policy Document on Identity and Access Management under the National e-Governance Programme (NeGP) was constituted by Office Memorandum dated October 31, 2006, by the central government, which was supposed to submit its report by December 25, 2006. Coincidentally, the Processes Committee of the Planning Commission, which was set up in July 2006, commissioned the task of preparing “Strategic Vision: Unique Identification of Residents” to IT giant Wipro during the same period. The task force submitted version 7 of its 65-page long report in April 2007.

This report states: “The Identity Information is stored by multiple agencies in multiple documents like ration card, driving licence, passport, voter’s card, birth certificate, etc. The purpose of the Project Unique ID (UID), initiated by the Planning Commission, is to create a central database of resident information and assign a Unique Identification Number to each such resident (citizens and persons of Indian origin) in the country. The appropriate Identity Aggregations and Synchronisation should be used to integrate systems to share their identity information.” The report also revealed that the “National UID Project has been initiated with Voter ID Numbers and BPL households in the first instance.” It is evident that long before the arrival of Nilekani in July 2009 as Chairman of the UIDAI, the UID/Aadhaar project was already unfolding. He just came, and the credit for the UIDAI was imposed on him.

Notably, this report discloses that each registered judicial court has a unique identification (UID) number, including Subordinate Courts, High Courts and the Supreme Court. This effort seems to be part of profiling and surveillance of judicial institutions. Curiously, this report also talked about “Citizen Identities” and “Owner of identities”.

So far legislators and citizens have failed to bring the World Bank Group and other international financial institutions (IFIs) under the legislative oversight. A situation is emerging where, if the pre-existing databases like an electoral database, census and other databases under preparation are converged, these unaccountable and undemocratic financial institutions will never come under parliamentary scrutiny. The identification and surveillance technology providers and IFIs appear to be aiding an empire of a kind where every nano activity is under the vigilance of the Big Brother. They will have people believe that cyber-biometric panopticon is for the good of humanity like they will have us believe that “voluntary” is mandatory and “voluntary consent” is consent forever, which cannot be withdrawn, paving the way for an ideal democracy based on Pakistan’s success.