The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) had promised to issue 600 million Aadhaar numbers by the end of 2014. It, however, managed to do so nine months ahead of the schedule. It worked with an employee strength less than one-third of what was originally sanctioned. And it worked with an accuracy of 99.99%.
In less than five years from the date of issuance of the first Aadhaar ID, the country now has 900 million people with such numbers. And there is an addition of one million every day. It is the largest biometric database ever created anywhere and with a biometric de-duplication capability never seen before.
It happens to also be the most costeffective ID solution too. The total cost per ID is $2 compared to more than $100 per ID in advanced countries. With the total expenditure of less than Rs 10,000 crore, the project has the potential to save at least Rs 50,000 crore annually by plugging leakages. Such an impressive record notwithstanding, Aadhaar continues to remain one of the most misunderstood projects. I would like to throw some light on some of the lesser understood aspects of the project by answering some questions.
Why is the UID only a number and not a card?
Aadhaar has been designed to be a next-generation online identity visà-vis a smart card. The latter is an offline token that has a shelf life with limited value. In the online and connected world we are moving towards, offline cards are becoming obsolete.
We could have gone for a smart card model. But there is a cost issue. Each smart card costs nearly Rs 100. Smart cards also have a number of life-cycle management issues. Cards can be lost. Update of demographic or biometric data will require issuance of new cards, etc.
Hiding Behind a Number
As this was meant to be an ID that could be combined with any transaction, it is best that it is promoted as a number that can be linked to existing systems like the public distribution system (PDS), permanent account number cards, electors’ photo identity cards and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) job cards.
Why is it a random digit and not something ‘intelligent’, like a number containing a state or district code, or gender of the Aadhaar-holder?
A digit is something that everybody understands and is easy to remember.
For a multilingual society like ours with a high level of functional illiteracy, having a number as an identification is a huge advantage. The UID number has also been designed not to disclose any personal information. Embedding some intelligence would have violated this. Designing UID as a random number makes it impossible to guess.
The current system has a provision to generate 80 billion numbers available to accommodate needs for years to come. Only 1% of the available ‘number space’ will be exhausted even after issuing numbers to everyone in the country. This makes the guessing even more difficult.
What is authentication and what is its use case?
Haven’t we been complaining about benefits of government schemes not reaching intended beneficiaries? Here is a mechanism in place to reach out to real targets of benefits. So why is there such a hue and cry? The purpose of authentication is precisely to reach targets. Take the PDS, notorious for leakages for decades. With the help of the Aadhaar platform, leakages can be plugged. A ration cardholder reaches the shop. He authenticates his identity either through his fingerprint or iris and provides the details of items he wants to buy.
At the back-end, the authentication packet is transmitted to the UIDAI. The UIDAI confirms the ID of the person and then the PDS back-end allows the transaction of ration purchase to take place. The transaction is traceable and transparent, cutting out any scope for foul play. What is more, benefits are portable too.
Aadhaar does not provide any kind of entitlements: no citizenship, no ration, no pensions. Then what, you may say, is the use of such a ‘worthless’ ID document? All existing documents that we normally use as identity are essentially eligibility documents and ID is an implicit attribute of these documents. However, there are various problems associated with such documents.
A Card with Attitude
One, there is no guarantee of their uniqueness. People have multiple PAN cards and ration cards. There is no guarantee of uniformity of information. These IDs can be easily faked as there is no foolproof way to verify their authenticity without following an arduous process.
And, finally, these are not universal. Aadhaar has been designed to be a universal and basic identity platform on which eligibility applications can be built. Its availability on the digital platform makes it amenable to be used in multiple domains.