- Joseph Schumpeter Prize for innovative services in economy, economic sciences and politics - 2005.
- Padma Bhushan, one of the highest civilian honors awarded by the Government of India - 2006.
- Was presented the 'Legend in Leadership Award' by the Yale University in November 2009. He is the first Indian to receive the top honour.
- First Indian to be honoured with the Legend in Leadership Award of Yale University.
- Annual global ''ID People Awards'',
- Was awarded the 12th Sir M Visvesvaraya Memorial Award on Founder's Day, organised by the Federation of Karnataka Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FKCCI), to mark the birth anniversary of Sir M Visvesvaraya.
The very premise of Aadhar is flawed.
The very premise of Aadhar is flawed.
Its a certification that those who claim to think on behalf of India or its underprivileged understand it so differently from the beneficiaries they think of.
In a nutshell, Aadhar will not bring about any of the benefits that are intended for its intended beneficiaries. Because that will be solving a problem of governance by adding another layer that is imaginary and unnecessary.
To call it "technological leadership" is as removed from reality as calling a reader a writer of the book. At best it will mean that we can take a technology and ram it down the throat of the poor while other nations with stronger democratic roots and respect for citizens have not been able to do so for reasons of building consensus.
"Aadhar" is like dropping a car by helicopter in a village where there is no road and hope every villager can reach wherever they may want to go.
For anyone willing to think, Aadhar is a reflection of the huge disconnect that India has from both the world of the under privileged and the rest of the world.
Please think through before supporting UID/ Aadhaar, so you do not regret your decision.
Emphasising the need for separation of powers, James Madison bluntly observed in his essay, Federalist 51. "Because men are not angels," they need government to prevent them, by force when necessary, from invading the lives, property, and liberty of their fellow citizens. He also noted that the same non-angelic men can wield the government’s coercive machinery to use it tyrannically—even in a democracy.
"I don't agree to Nandan Nilekeni and his madcap (UID) scheme which he is trying to promote," Senior BJP Leader Jaswant Singh, Sept 2012
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
1564 - As Bright As Night, or, How Nandan Nilekani Blindsided A Nation with Aadhaar By Ram Krishnaswamy & Vickram Crishna
However, the philosophical battle apart, the UID has a more concrete cost-benefit analysis to contend with. The project’s cost has escalated many times since it was first conceived in February 2009. A single UID, earlier estimated to cost around Rs 31 per person, may now end up in the Rs 400-500 territory. First, the finance ministry balked at the new levels of spending — partly data compilation costs, from designated registrars — and suggested the UID mesh its efforts with the national census wherever possible. It also wants to trim the biometric technology costs — the iris scan has nearly tripled the UID’s price tag. While the UID defends its choices, and says the high volume of iris devices and software demanded by India will bring the price down, others in the Planning Commission claim the iris scan was intended as an extra measure to prevent duplication, not thrown in with every ID. These are not arguments to be settled on notions, and it would be timely for the UID to make a persuasive case for its choice. The Planning Commission has also expressed its concern about the UID’s registrar system (which includes public and private companies), asking for clear lines of responsibility and supervision. The UIDAI had even suggested a cash incentive for some of these registrars, a plan that met with serious objection.
In fact, in a status paper last year, the UIDAI tried to clear the air on the high costs of iris scan. “The current high prices for iris technology are a result of low volume and its use in cost insensitive security applications. Considering the large demand that will come from India for iris devices and software, the UIDAI expects the prices for devices and software to fall rapidly,” it had said.
“A specific decision was never taken by the government to include iris scan. In 2010, it was explicitly said iris scan will be used only if it was decided after thorough examination that such a biometric is needed to stop de-duplication. But the UIDAI wants to include it as a third biometric after photographs and fingerprints,” a senior Planning Commission official said.
Besides, with the inclusion of iris data, the estimated data size per resident has gone up multifold from 150 kilobytes to 5 megabytes.
The Parliamentary committee has also raised concerns over the reporting structure of the UIDAI and the contracts being awarded by it to multiple registrars for enrolling residents.
“The UIDAI is technically reporting to the Planning Commission, but the latter has expressed ambiguity over the structure. If such a massive project is being carried out to capture information on biometrics, then a clear line of monitoring and responsibility has to be put in place,” a person close to the development said.
It’s difficult to take their biometrics as age wears out finger tip areas, whereas ailments like cataract make iris scanning inaccurate
Monday, August 29, 2011
The vendors on the job to collect biometric information of individuals like iris impression and fingerprints to ensure uniqueness have been told to take biometric details of the person with disability in the specified format of the application. The data collected by the vendor would be used to generate Aadhaar number for such persons.
Also, the whole project posed the ethical question of invasion into the privacy of individuals.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Leader of the Opposition V.S. Achuthanandan has asked the government to drop the ‘Aadhaar' project.
Noting that fingerprints and other biometric information of citizens were being collected under the project, Mr. Achuthanandan said in a statement here on Friday that ‘Aadhaar' violated provisions of the Citizenship Act of 1955 and Citizenship Rules of 2003, neither of which permitted collection of biometric information of Indian citizens.
The State government, which was pushing ahead with the project in Kerala, appeared little concerned about the serious concerns being expressed the world over about the implications of the UID project for citizen's right to privacy and security.
Even students were not being spared in the State. The Director of Public Instruction (DPI) had issued a circular seeking collection of personal data of students. In order to hide the fact that this was being done as part of ‘Aadhaar,' the information was being collected under a scheme called ‘Sampoorna,' he said.
Accusing the Central government of having decided to go ahead with the ‘Aadhaar' project spending huge sums of money to suit the interests of the commercial lobby, Mr. Achuthanandan said there was widespread fear that the Centre would use the project to abdicate its social welfare commitments and implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) at the national level and the public distribution system in the State.
The Opposition Leader said the Central government's decision to go ahead with the ‘Aadhaar' project even before a discussion on the National Identification Authority Bill now before the Parliamentary Standing Committee indicated that it proposed to bypass the Parliament and the laws of the land.
In Kerala too, the ‘Aadhaar' project was being implemented without any discussion on its legal or social implications, Mr. Achuthanandan said.
"Similar projects had been given up by many countries after realising the dangers involved and in India it is being pushed to serve the interests of the industrial lobby," he said in a statement here.
Under the scheme, biometric statistics of individuals such as their thumb impression and details of retina are collected.
Achuthanandan said experts are of the view that these biometric features could be manipulated in the UID card, which could lead to serious security issues later.
Also, the whole project posed the ethical question of invasion into the privacy of individuals.
The Citizenship Act of 1955 and Citizenship Rules of 2003 concerning the national registry of population did not insist on the need to collect biometric details of people.
Achuthanandan said a circular had been issued by the Department of Public Instructions in Kerala, ordering school authorities to collect details of children for the UID without the prior consent of they or their parents.
Friday, August 26, 2011
A Government Resolution (GR) dated April 18 states that all those teaching at government-aided schools and colleges need to get their Unique Identification (UID) card created before August 20, or they will not receive their salaries for the month.
A notice has been pasted at the Thane Zilla Parishad Pay Unit and schools and college authorities have already informed their staff about it. "We have already informed our teachers to get their cards done as soon as possible. We haven't received any circular from the zilla parishad, but the notice has been put up at the bill submission centre and we are only following orders," said Harshida Someshwar, principal (junior college) of NKT College in Thane.
"The circular has been sent out to all schools and colleges in Thane. The GR clearly states that teachers need to get the UID cards by August 20 and only exceptional cases will be granted a deadline till September 30. Almost 30% schools have replied saying that their staff has applied for the cards and should receive it soon," said Ashok Misal, education officer (secondary), Thane Zilla Parishad.
Though not happy about the directive, teachers have been scrambling to get their UID cards. "There are very few UID card centres in Thane district and we have had no time to visit the few centres here. It is unfair to stop our salaries for this card," said a junior college teacher on condition of anonymity. Mumbai division, however, has not introduced any such circular for teachers. "We understand the problems of teachers and they should know that nobody will lose their salaries. The GR has been announced to ensure that people get working on the UID cards at the earliest," said an education official from Mantralaya.
Mumbai: A Government Resolution (GR) has put teachers from schools and colleges in trouble. The GR dated April 18 says all those teaching at government aided schools and colleges need to get their Unique Identification (UID) card, also known as Aadhar Card, done before August 20, or they will not receive their salaries for the month.
A notice has been pasted at the Thane Zilla Parishad Pay Unit and school and college authorities have already informed their staff about it. "We have already informed our teachers to get their cards done as soon as possible. We haven't received any circular from the Zilla Parishad but this notice has been pasted at the bill submission centre and we are only following orders," said Harshida Someshwar, principal (junior college) of NKT College in Thane. Many schools and colleges are yet to receive this circular.
"The circular has been sent out to all schools and colleges in Thane. The GR clearly states that teachers need to get the UID cards by August 20 and only exceptional cases will be granted a deadline till September 30. Almost 30% schools have already replied saying that their staff has already applied for the cards and should receive it soon," said Ashok Misal, education officer (secondary), Thane Zilla Parishad.
Teachers, even though not happy about this circular, are busy getting their UID cards done. "There are very few UID card centres in Thane district and we have had no time to visit the few centres here. It is unfair to stop our salaries for this card as there is still a lot of time left," said a junior college teacher, on condition of anonymity.
Mumbai division, however, has introduced no such circular for school and college teachers. "We understand the problems of teachers and they should know that nobody will lose their salaries. The GR has been announced to ensure that people get working on the UID cards at the earliest," said an education official from Mantralaya.
PRATAP VIKRAM SINGH | AUGUST 24 2011
Providing the latest update, Nilekani said, that till date 2.87 Aadhar or UID numbers have been issued. For enrollments, the authority has collaborated with 70 partners and there are 30,000 enrollment stations across the country. Nilekani was speaking at a interactive session organised by FICCI in the Capital.
Under this initiative, the government has also embarked on expanding the financial cover through requesting banks to open the bank accounts for as much as 10crore of the population. Moreover, the banks have been asked to depute a banking correspondent (BC) over 2000 of the rural population.
On authority's mandate, he said that it is limited to assigning numbers, and that development of applications for various services and other purposes will be done by the government agencies, industry, entrepreneurs and innovators.
The first level of application will be the integration of UID with the basic government to citizen service delivery like with public distribution system, rural employment guarantee scheme, and the business to citizen services in telecom, banking and other sectors.
The authentication of the contractual and lowest level workers employed by the private and public organisations, could be an example of the second level of applications. The third and fourth level of applications would be developed by the industry, individuals or the innovators for purposes which people are not aware of yet and are unseen.
By 2014, the UIDAI has a target of assigning UID number to 60crore of the population.
The Bangalore conference was targeted at the technology industry and UIDAI and Nasscom meant business. The first day of the conference was dedicated to the software developers. All very technical. The sessions on second day were more general; there were sector-wise policy oriented presentations. The entire premise of the UIDAI’s pitch in the conference was that the UID project is an ecosystem comprising the government, people, vendors, developers, operators and applications or ‘apps’. Aadhaar would be the foundation for authentication of identity and private operators can build applications as layers on it. UIDAI assumes that in the near future authentication and identification would become crucial issues, if not central, in the economy and hence the UID ecosystem stands to become an attractive proposition for developers and operators. This ecosystem mimics the mobile telephone platforms like iPhone and Android – the “app market” model, where there are applications for almost every aspect of life. The entrepreneurial developers will see opportunity and innovate ‘apps’. Similar to the way paper money was replaced by plastic money or credit/debit cards for financial transactions, UID will solve the problem of authenticating a transacting party.
In the Bangalore conference, the UIDAI was trying to woo developers and make an argument for economic viability of the UID ecosystem. It was clear that UIDAI wants the platform to be of commercial nature over which economic transactions can take place. Two questions arise: When and why did ‘transaction’ become a problem? If it is a commercial infrastructure, then who stands to benefit most from the design of this system?
The market is about transactions or exchanges. In transactions, even before legal/contractual obligations set in, there is a question of trust between people. If the transaction takes place face to face, then it may be assumed that the trust deficit and information asymmetry among them are not serious enough. But where the transactions take place between unknown people or involve many people/multiple agents, then trust deficit and information asymmetry become significant issues. Authentication of one or both the parties and thereby verifying them and their rights and entitlements helps in creating this trust between two unknown individuals. Identification helps in establishing a person by providing his/her background.
The UIDAI claims that UID number will solve the problem of the kirana shops and small traders. It is argued that they tend to adversely select their customers and cannot avoid default by the latter. In case of lending, they cannot check the creditworthiness and credit history of the borrowers. Thus, the claim being made is that the Aadhaar number will solve these problems by providing information about a person. But this, in my opinion, is a misplaced understanding of how an informal economy works.
In the informal economy, transactions are generally of small amounts and usually take place either face-to-face or follow the social referral system, i.e. information is sought from within the social network in selecting a customer or a business partner. Transactions in an informal economy do not generally follow the principle of an open market; it is generally a closed network. Therefore, the UIDAI’s claim of helping small traders is seemingly incorrect. Intentionally or unintentionally the design of the Aadhaar platform is biased towards large volumes of anonymous transactions, which is a feature of the organised sector, where large capital rules.
To receive legitimacy the UIDAI promises to make the social welfare system ‘efficient’ and root out leakages, fake beneficiaries and ‘benefit-frauds’. However, the very idea of welfare is shifting. The ‘Third Way’ position floated by the Blair-Clinton regime had already argued that a government should not produce; rather it should procure from the market. Welfare benefits like education, health, etc. should not be ‘produced’ by the government, but should be ‘procured’ from the market. The latest twist is that the government should not involve in procuring directly. Rather it should offer cash or coupons to the beneficiaries, who will go to the ‘supplier’ of their ‘choice’, as a proper consumer does in a competitive market. On the other hand since business means money, policy-talk of “financial inclusion” and “cash transfer” indicated towards that money. This, as Mr Rajendra Pawar of NIIT claimed at the UID-NASSCOM conference, would start a “government-supported-entrepreneurship.” Central and state governments have always been large spenders and consumers. It is expected that more cash would be injected in the rural economy by the cash transfer schemes. This is purported to bring a large number of people into the financial market, either as recipients of cash from the government or as consumers of newer financial as well as material commodities. In this market, financial companies will face a large number of unknown individuals and the conventional model of paper trail would increase transaction costs. This is where the Aadhaar number becomes important: it establishes the identity of a person whom a financial company would deal with; a ‘business correspondent’ of the company can use a handheld device to complete the transaction and record the necessary information. Secondly, cash or coupons would be provided by the state to avail services like education and health, which were hitherto ‘supplied’ by the state, from the market. This market for education and health would require means to connect the ‘beneficiaries’ with the ‘service providers’ or ‘government-supported-entrepreneurs’, to identify the beneficiary and authenticate his/her/their entitlements. Again, the Aadhaar number becomes crucial in bridging the gap.
Thus, whether transactions in the economy are biased towards large companies or the social welfare sector, the Aadhaar number is very much part of the new economic structure and the market economy. This is perhaps why the UIDAI database has become more powerful than the National Population Register (NPR), both of which are in the business of recording biometric information of the residents. UIDAI has inverted the security imperative of NPR and converted it into an economic rationality, and thereby has received an enthusiastic support from economic players.
Nilekani also insisted that under the UID project privacy will be protected and personal data will not be accessible to everybody.
Inquisitive UIDAI wants all details about you and I
Bangalore, Aug 12, DHNS:
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), Karnataka, which is all set to begin its ambitious “Aadhar” enrolment in Bangalore from August 17, has kicked up a row even before its formal launch by “surreptitiously” widening the scope of the ID card beyond the officially stated position.
On the second day of the special enrolment for mediapersons and their families in the City — as a precursor to the launch for general public —there were heated arguments between applicants and officials, as the enrolment forms distributed by the officials did not match the forms put out by the UIDAI on its website and seemed to be far wider in its scope, seeking personal details.
Several applicants for enrolment objected to the columns asking for details of bank account numbers and the LPG gas connection numbers. Some people who had not brought their passbooks or gas connection receipts were turned away, leading to protests. The officials later clarified that the submission of the information they sought was “voluntary” and continued registering others who had left the columns in the application form unfilled.
In fact, there is a wide disparity between the form specified by the UIDAI on its official website and the one being used by its Karnataka unit. The official form has three parts: Part A seeks details like name, gender, age, name of father/husband/guardian and the residential address. Part B seeks “additional information” like phone number/ mobile number and email address which are all “optional”.
Part C deals with “financial information” like bank name, branch and account number with a clause “I want to link my existing bank a/c to Adhaar and I have no objection on this issue.” It is operational only if the assignee affixes his signature. The form printed by the Karnataka UIDAI does not make any of the information sought optional. In fact, it goes well beyond its stated objective by including a section titled ‘Data collection for state government.’
It is a long list, starting from “availing any social security pension” to “Sandhya Suraksha,” “physically handicapped person”, “destitute/widow pension”, “old age pension”, “ration card”, “NREGA job card”, “member of milk cooperative society”, and so on.
The bio-metric details of all ten fingers, the iris and the face of the applicants are mandatorily captured. The form requires the assignee to put his signature to the clause, “I have no objection to my identity being authenticated for delivery of services from time to time by agencies to whom I present the UID number and I am aware that information provided by me for securing UID number shall be used for authenticating my identity.”
Neither state e-governance executive officer D S Ravindran nor principal secretary, department of IT/BT and e-governance M N Vidyasha n kar was available for comm ent, despite repeated att e mpts to contact them on the phone.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
$22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7456-4156-0.
Commissioned by Benita Blessing
A number of different arguments have been advanced over the years in support of such cards. In addition to their obvious (or at least assumed) role in enhancing domestic and international security, proponents argue that national ID cards can make it easier for citizens to interact with government agencies (and sometimes the private sector as well), increase government efficiency by both reducing welfare and tax fraud and facilitating access to public services by qualified individuals, provide the validation needed for e-government, help combat identity theft, and facilitate trans-border travel in a more mobile, liquid modernity. The issue that Lyon addresses in this book is how these national ID cards–and the processes, databases, information systems, and protocols on which the functioning of these identification systems depends–are altering the meaning of citizenship in the modern world.
. “ID card compensation ruled out as MPs
approve abolition,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-
. David Lyon and Colin Bennett, eds., Playing
the Identity Card: Surveil lance, Security, and Identi-
fication in Global Perspective (New Brunswick: Rout-
. David Lyon, Surveil lance as Social Sorting:
Privacy, Risk, and Automated Discrimination (New
Brunswick: Routledge, 2002).
. Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson, “The
Surveillant Assemblage,” British Journal of Sociology
51, no. 4 (December 2000): 605-622.
. Louise Amoore, “Governing by Identity,” in
Bennett and Lyon, eds., Playing the Identity Card,
Citation: Larry Frohmann. Review of Lyon, David, Identifying Citizens: ID Cards as Surveil lance. H-
German, H-Net Reviews. August, 2011.
After a long wait, a lean woman in a sequined red sari, three children in tow, has finally made it to the head of the line. Her name is Kiran; like many poor Indians, she uses just one name. She and her school-age brood stare curiously through the grille at the people and machines on the other side. Eventually, an unsmiling man in a collared shirt lets them into the big open room. People crowd around mismatched tables scattered with computers, printers, and scanners. Bedsheets nailed up over the windows filter the sun but not the racket of diesel buses and clattering bicycles outside. Kiran glances at the brightly colored posters in Hindi and English on the walls. They don’t tell her much, though, since she can’t read.
A neatly dressed middle-aged man leads the children to a nearby table, and a brisk young woman in a green skirt sits Kiran down at another. The young woman takes her own seat in front of a Samsung laptop, picks up a slim gray plastic box from the cluttered tabletop, and shows Kiran how to look into the opening at one end. Kiran puts it up to her face and for a moment sees nothing but blackness. Then suddenly two bright circles of light flare out. Kiran’s eyes, blinking and uncertain, appear on the laptop screen, magnified tenfold. Click. The oversize eyes freeze on the screen. Kiran’s irises have just been captured.
Kiran has never touched or even seen a real computer, let alone an iris scanner. She thinks she’s 32, but she’s not sure exactly when she was born. Kiran has no birth certificate, or ID of any kind for that matter—no driver’s license, no voting card, nothing at all to document her existence. Eight years ago, she left her home in a destitute farming village and wound up here in Mongolpuri, a teeming warren of shabby apartment blocks and tarp-roofed shanties where grimy barefoot children, cargo bicycles, haggard dogs, goats, and cows jostle through narrow, trash-filled streets. Kiran earns about $1.50 a day sorting cast-off clothing for recycling. In short, she’s just another of India’s vast legions of anonymous poor.
Now, for the first time, her government is taking note of her. Kiran and her children are having their personal information recorded in an official database—not just any official database, but one of the biggest the world has ever seen. They are the latest among millions of enrollees in India’s Unique Identification project, also known as Aadhaar, which means “the foundation” in several Indian languages. Its goal is to issue identification numbers linked to the fingerprints and iris scans of every single person in India.
That’s more than 1.2 billion people—everyone from Himalayan mountain villagers to Bangalorean call-center workers, from Rajasthani desert nomads to Mumbai street beggars—speaking more than 300 languages and dialects. The biometrics and the Aadhaar identification number will serve as a verifiable, portable, all but unfakable national ID. It is by far the biggest and most technologically complicated biometrics program ever attempted.
Aadhaar faces titanic physical and technical challenges: reaching millions of illiterate Indians who have never seen a computer, persuading them to have their irises scanned, ensuring that their information is accurate, and safeguarding the resulting ocean of data. This is India, after all—a country notorious for corruption and for failing to complete major public projects. And the whole idea horrifies civil libertarians. But if Aadhaar’s organizers pull it off, the initiative could boost the fortunes of India’s poorest citizens and turbocharge the already booming national economy.
Photo: Jonathan Torgovnik
Nilekani is about as close to a national hero as a former software engineer can get. He cofounded outsourcing colossus Infosys in 1981 and helped build it from a seven-man startup into a $6.4 billion behemoth that employs more than 130,000 people. After stepping down from the CEO job in 2007, Nilekani turned most of his energy to public service projects, working on government commissions to improve welfare services and e-governance. He’s a Davos-attending, TED-talk-giving, best-seller-authoring member of the global elite, pegged by Time magazine in 2009 as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. This is the guy who suggested to golf buddy Thomas Friedman that the world was getting flat. “Our government undertakes a lot of initiatives, but not all of them work,” says B. B. Nanawati, a career federal civil servant who heads the program’s technology-procurement department. “But this one is likely to work because of Chairman Nilekani’s involvement. We believe he can make this happen.”
The Unique Identification Authority’s headquarters occupies a couple of floors in a hulking tower complex of red stone and mirrored glass on Connaught Place, the bustling center of Delhi. As chair of the project, Nilekani now holds a cabinet-level rank, but his shop looks more like a startup than a government ministry. When I show up in February, the walls of the reception area are still bare drywall, and the wiring and air-conditioning ducts have yet to be hidden behind ceiling tiles. Plastic-wrapped chairs are corralled in unassigned offices.
“I took this job because it’s a project with great potential to have an impact,” Nilekani says in his spacious office, decorated with only a collection of plaques and awards and an electric flytrap glowing purple in a corner. He’s a medium-size man of 56 with bushy salt-and-pepper hair and a matching mustache. His heavy eyebrows and lips and protuberant brown eyes give him a slightly baleful look, like the villain in a comic opera. “One basic problem is people not having an acknowledged existence by the state and so not being able to access things they’re entitled to. Making the poor, the marginalized, the homeless part of the system is a huge benefit.”
Aadhaar is a key piece of the Indian government’s campaign for “financial inclusion.” Today, there are as many as 400 million Indians who, like Kiran, have no official ID of any kind. And if you can’t prove who you are, you can’t access government programs, can’t get a bank account, a loan, or insurance. You’re pretty much locked out of the formal economy.
Today, less than half of Indian households have a bank account. The rest are “unbanked,” stuck stashing whatever savings they have under the mattress. That means the money isn’t gaining interest, either for its owner or for a bank, which could be loaning it out. India’s impoverished don’t have much to save—but there are hundreds of millions of them. If they each put just $10 into a bank account, that would add billions in new capital to the financial system.
To help make that happen, Nilekani has recruited ethnic Indian tech stars from around the world, including the cofounder of Snapfish and top engineers from Google and Intel. With that private-sector expertise on board, the agency has far outpaced the Indian government’s usual leisurely rate of action. Aadhaar launched last September, just 14 months after Nilekani took the job, and officials armed with iris and fingerprint scanners, digital cameras, and laptops began registering the first few villagers and Delhi slum dwellers. More than 16 million people have since been enrolled, and the pace is accelerating. By the end of 2011, the agency expects to be signing up 1 million Indians a day, and by 2014, it should have 600 million people in its database.
Photos: Jonathan Torgovnik
Most Indians still live in rural hamlets like this, so getting them enrolled in Aadhaar requires some creativity. One evening not long ago, a man walked through Gagenahalli’s red-dirt streets beating a drum and calling the villagers to gather outside—the traditional way to make public announcements. He explained that the government wanted everyone to visit the village schoolhouse in the weeks ahead to be photographed.
A few days later, Shivanna, a stringy 55-year-old farmer—again, with just the one name—presents himself in a cement classroom commandeered by the agency. He doesn’t know what it’s all about, nor is he particularly interested. “When the government asks to take your picture, you just go and do it,” he shrugs. Shivanna takes a worn plastic chair at one of the four enrollment stations set up about the room. All the computer gear and the single bare lightbulb are plugged into a stack of car batteries and kerosene-powered generators—the village gets only a few hours of electricity a day from the national grid.
A young man in a polo shirt records Shivanna’s personal information in a form on his laptop. It’s bare-bones stuff: name, address, age, gender (including the option of transgender). He has Shivanna look into a camera mounted on the laptop. Once the Aadhaar software tells him he’s got Shivanna’s full face in the frame and enough light, he snaps the picture. The program runs similar quality checks on the agent’s work as Shivanna looks into the iris scanner and then puts his fingers on the glowing green glass of the fingerprint scanner. “We had to dumb it down so that anyone could learn to use the software,” says Srikanth Nadhamuni, Aadhaar’s head of technology, as he watches the scan progress.
About 100 miles east of Gagenahalli is Bangalore, the center of India’s booming IT industry. In one of its southern suburbs, across a busy street from Cisco’s in-country headquarters, sits the office building housing Aadhaar’s Central ID Repository. The information collected from Shivanna the farmer, Kiran the rag sorter, and every other person enrolled in the Aadhaar system gets sent here, electronically or via couriered hard drive.
This is Nadhamuni’s domain. He’s a trim, energetic, half-bald engineer with geek-chic rectangular glasses. His English is full of the awesomes and likes that he picked up in Silicon Valley, where he worked for 14 years. In 2002, he, his engineer wife, and their two kids returned to India, and a year later he and Nilekani launched a nonprofit dedicated to digitizing government functions. Nilekani even kicked the organization a few million dollars.
Some of the projects that Nadhamuni worked on—computerizing birth and death records, improving the tracking of schoolkids in migrant worker families—impressed upon him how much India needed a central identity system. When Nilekani asked him to be point man for the task of wrangling Aadhaar’s data, Nadhamuni says, “I was, like, delighted.”
The offices, like the identity program’s Delhi headquarters, are still under construction. When I tour them, rolls of carpet tied with string are stacked along a wall, and workers’ bare feet have left plaster-dust prints in a corridor leading to an unfinished meeting room. The rows of cubicles that will eventually accommodate roughly 400 workers are only about half full. The wall intended for a dozen video monitors showing incoming data packets is, for now, empty.
Photo: Jonathan Torgovnik
The unprecedented scale of Aadhaar’s data will make managing it extraordinarily difficult. One of Nadhamuni’s most important tasks is de-duplication, ensuring that each record in the database is matched to one and only one person. That’s crucial to keep scammers from enrolling multiple times under different names to double-dip on their benefits. To guard against that, the agency needs to check all 10 fingers and both irises of each person against those of everyone else. In a few years, when the database contains 600 million people and is taking in 1 million more per day, Nadhamuni says, they’ll need to run about 14 billion matches per second. “That’s enormous,” he says.
Coping with that load takes more than just adding extra servers. Even Nadhamuni isn’t sure how big the ultimate server farm will be. He isn’t even totally sure how to work it yet. “Technology doesn’t scale that elegantly,” he says. “The problems you have at 100 million are different from problems you have at 500 million.” And Aadhaar won’t know what those problems are until they show up. As the system grows, different components slow down in different ways. There might be programming flaws that delay each request by an amount too tiny to notice when you’re running a small number of queries—but when you get into the millions, those tiny delays add up to a major issue. When the system was first activated, Nadhamuni says, he and his team were querying their database, created with the ubiquitous software MySQL, about 5,000 times a day and getting answers back in a fraction of a second. But when they leaped up to 20,000 queries, the lag time rose dramatically. The engineers eventually figured out that they needed to run more copies of MySQL in parallel; software, not hardware, was the bottleneck. “It’s like you’ve got a car with a Hyundai engine, and up to 30 miles per hour it does fine,” Nadhamuni says. “But when you go faster, the nuts and bolts fall off and you go, whoa, I need a Ferrari engine. But for us, it’s not like there are a dozen engines and we can just pick the fastest one. We are building these engines as we go along.”
Using both fingerprints and irises, of course, makes the task tremendously more complex. But irises are useful to identify the millions of adult Indians whose finger pads have been worn smooth by years of manual labor, and for children under 16, whose fingerprints are still developing. Identifying someone by their fingerprints works only about 95 percent of the time, says R. S. Sharma, the agency’s director general. Using prints plus irises boosts the rate to 99 percent.
That 1 percent error rate sounds pretty good until you consider that in India it means 12 million people could end up with faulty records. And given the fallibility of little-educated technicians in a poor country, the number could be even higher. A small MIT study of data entry on electronic forms by Indian health care workers found an error rate of 4.2 percent. In fact, at one point during my visit to Gagenahalli, Nadhamuni shows me the receipt given to a woman after her enrollment; I point out that it lists her as a man. A tad flustered, Nadhamuni assures me that there are procedures for people to get their records corrected. “Perfect solutions don’t exist,” Nilekani says, “but this is a substantial improvement over the way things are now.”
For the past year or so, Mohammed Alam, 24, has spent his nights in a charity-run Delhi “night shelter” for the homeless. Inside the weathered cement building, nearly 100 men and one 3-year-old boy in various states of dishevelment sprawl on worn cotton mats in a gloomy open room. A bloody Bollywood action movie flickers on a small TV sitting on a folding table in a corner. The stench of ammonia wafts from the group bathroom across the foyer.
Alam looks markedly healthier than most of his compeers, his glossy black hair elaborately gelled and his teal shirt and jeans spotless. He left his home in Lucknow because of family problems he’d rather not specify and has been getting by in the capital ever since, doing odd labor jobs. In a good month, he pulls in about $50. That makes it hard to afford his own place to live. But the Unique Identification Authority came to enroll the shelter’s inhabitants a few weeks ago, and Alam just received a letter from the authority with his randomly generated 12-digit Aadhaar number.
The authority doesn’t issue cards or formal identity documents. Once enrolled, each person’s eyeballs and fingertips are all they need to prove who they are—in theory, anyway. For now Alam keeps the folded-up letter in his pocket. It serves as ID when the police stop him, he says. But more important, he just used it to open a bank account. “I tend to spend more money when it’s on me,” he says.
Banks, however, are in short supply in the countryside, where most Indians live; the one nearest to Gagenahalli is 7 miles away. That’s one reason only 47 percent of Indian households have bank accounts (compared with 92 percent in the US). So Indian financial institutions have begun introducing “business correspondents” into bankless areas, essentially deputizing some shopkeeper or other trusted local who has access to a little cash to handle villagers’ tiny deposits and withdrawals. Here’s how it’s supposed to work: Say Shivanna wants 50 rupees from his savings account. Instead of schlepping miles to an actual bank, he goes to the little kiosk down the road from his house. The guy in the kiosk scans Shivanna’s fingerprints with an inexpensive handheld machine. (There are several on the market already; other similar gadgets—and even cell phone apps—that scan irises are in the works.) Then he transmits the image via cellular network to the tech hub in Bangalore and gets a simple confirmation-of-identity message. (The same process works for deposits.) Once Shivanna’s identity is validated, the kiosk guy gives him his cash or deposit receipt, minus a small commission. Shivanna’s bank reimburses the kiosk guy. Shivanna saves time and money, the kiosk guy makes a little profit, the bank gets more capital, and the rising tide lifts all boats.
Photo: Jonathan Torgovnik
Anyway, Nadhamuni points out, credit card numbers are stolen all the time, but everyone still uses them because the card companies have come up with enough ways to spot when they’re being used fraudulently. In the big scheme of things, credit card fraud is a relatively small problem compared with the gigantic benefit of being able, say, to buy stuff online. He believes the same calculus will hold for Aadhaar. And if Aadhaar data is stolen, they have countermeasures to deal with it.
There’s also the question of whether India’s cell phone network, which will carry the bulk of the verification requests, can handle such a load. “We expect to be getting 100 million requests per day in a few years,” Nadhamuni says. “And the authentication needs to happen fast. The answer needs to come back in maybe five seconds.” Partly to meet that demand, the federal government is investing billions to massively expand the nation’s broadband capacity. “It’s not there yet,” Nilekani says. “But if someone had told you 10 years ago that there would be 700 million mobile phones in this country today, you’d say he was smoking something.”
The technological problems may pale compared to the potential civil liberties issues. Anti-Aadhaar protesters showed up at Nilekani’s January speech at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Several anti-Aadhaar websites have sprung up. And members of parliament and prominent intellectuals have criticized the whole idea. (A Christian sect even denounced it as a cover for introducing the number of the Beast.)
Technically, Aadhaar is voluntary. No one is obligated to get scanned into the system. But that’s like saying no American is obligated to get a Social Security number. In practice, once the Aadhaar system really takes hold, it will be extremely difficult for anyone to function without being part of it. “I find it obnoxious and frightening,” says Aruna Roy, one of India’s most respected advocates for the poor (and, like Nilekani, one of Time’s 100 most influential people). India, she points out, is a country where people have many times been targeted for discrimination and violence because of their religion or caste.
Earlier this year, privacy concerns scuttled an effort to give every citizen of the United Kingdom a biometric ID card, and similar worries have slowed ID plans in Canada and Australia. “But the intentions were very different. It comes more from a security and surveillance perspective,” Nilekani says. “Many of these countries already have ID. In our situation, our whole focus is on delivering benefits to people. It’s all about making your life easier.”
The Unique Identification Authority is very deliberately not collecting information on anyone’s race or caste. But local governments and other agencies subcontracted to collect data are permitted to ask questions about race or caste and link the information they harvest to the respondent’s Aadhaar number. In Gagenahalli, for instance, agents asked villagers several extra questions about their economic conditions that the Karnataka state government requested. “I haven’t seen any agencies asking for caste or religion, but the fact that they can seems problematic,” admits a midlevel Aadhaar official who asked to remain anonymous. And while the agency has pledged not to share its data with security services or other government agencies, “if they want to, they can,” says Delhi human rights lawyer Usha Ramanathan. “All that information is in the hands of the state.” It’s not an unreasonable concern; in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks, security is a major preoccupation in India. Armed guards, x-ray machines, and metal detectors are standard features at the entrances of big hotels, shopping centers, and even Delhi subway stations. Police officials have told Indian newspapers that they would love to use Aadhaar numbers to help catch criminals. And, in fact, some of the agency’s own publicly available planning documents mention the system’s potential usefulness for security functions. “We would share data for national security purposes,” Nilekani admits. “But there will be processes for that so you have checks and balances.” Every official I speak with, from Nilekani on down, seems impatient when I bring up this issue. They breezily remind me that there’s an electronic data privacy bill before parliament—as though the mere fact that the government is thinking about the issue is enough.
For supporters, the bottom line is simple: The upsides beat the downsides. “Any new technology has potential risks,” Nilekani says. “Your mobile phone can be tapped and tracked. One could argue we already have a surveillance state because of that. But does that mean we should stop making mobile phones? When you have hundreds of millions of people who are not getting access to basic services, isn’t that more important than some imagined risk?”
Indeed, Kiran, the mother of three at the Mongolpuri enrollment station, actively wants the government to have a record of her and her children. She’s a bit mystified when I ask if the idea worries her. If you’ve never read a newspaper, let alone fretted over your Facebook privacy settings, the question of whether the government might abuse your digital data must seem pretty abstract—especially when you compare it with the benefits the government is offering.
The first thing Kiran plans to use her Aadhaar number for, she says, is to obtain a city government card that will entitle her to subsidized groceries. “I’ve tried very hard to get one before, but they wouldn’t give it to me because I couldn’t prove I live in Delhi,” she says. Having that proof will take some other stress off her mind, too. She’s constantly afraid the police will order non-Delhi residents to leave the overcrowded slum, but now she has something to show them if they do.
Her three children come running up, fresh from having their own irises scanned. They’re excitedly waving their receipts for the numbers that will be attached to them for the rest of their lives. “It was fun!” 7-year-old Sadar says. “It wasn’t scary at all.”
Vince Beiser (@vincelb) wrote about activists combating Chinese online censorship in issue 18.11.