The Planning Commission (PC) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) are slugging it out on who should run the prestigious unique identification number project. The decision will be made this week.
Apart from the turf-battles that are commonplace in government, the debate is also one about the fundamental objective of such identity markers. The PC sees Aadhaar as providing a platform to more effectively deliver welfare benefits and improve governance in general. The MHA sees the biometric identity cards as a marker to identify citizens and track immigrants for national security considerations.
Both are obviously divergent objectives. But the country needs both. In simple terms, the debate is superfluous since it should not be a debate about one of them but should be about both. Fortunately, a critical analysis of the objectives of both sides reveals that the differences may not be irreconcilable.
Stripped off all the rhetoric, there are two fundamental issues at the heart of the present controversy. First, MHA questions the rigour associated with the data being collected by UIDAI. Second, it also raises questions about who should control this data and the terms governing its sharing and use.
All this can in turn be reduced to four basic questions. Who should be the enrolment agency? What should be the rigour of data capture process? Who should manage the data? What should be the protocols that define the use of the collected data?
Evidence so far regarding the enrolment process appears to point towards the UIDAI's model of decentralized enrolment, through state-level registrars, being more effective than the RGI’s centralized National Population Register (NPR) model. If any proof of this were needed, one only needs to look at the progress of enrolment in the respective states - 8 million enrolments in the NPR to UIDAI’s 100 million.
The MHA is right to be concerned about the rigour of the enrolment process. But that does not mean that the process should be so rigorous, with the type of multi-step screening now mandated, as to virtually ensure that the enrolment will take years and maybe even decades. The slow progress of NPR enrolments is itself an indicator of the difficulty of pushing ahead with this enrolment strategy. However, it is possible to do a multi-track enrolment whereby the data collected by the Registrars can be topped up with a more rigorous re-validation so as to meet the NPR requirements.
In any case, as the NPR enrolments gather momentum, more invasive MHA enrolment processes will raise concerns about privacy and are bound raise bigger controversies and legal challenges. It is possible to continuously, over a ten year period, build-up the data rigour, through a phased-out manner of validation and rigour enhancement.
Organizationally and in terms of professional competence, there can be little doubt that the UIDAI is better positioned than the Registrar General of India (RGI) in managing the technology platform and database. In any case, given that most of the hardware infrastructure is already in place or its procurement is in progress under the control of the UIDAI, it is only appropriate that it continue and complete the process.
This four-pronged approach would enable a reconciliation of the apparently contradictory aims of the two wings of the government. All this should be brought under a legislative framework and should be defined in the Parliamentary Bill that would give statutory basis to the entire process.
The Aadhaar number has benefits that go much beyond its immediate utility by way of enabling user departments to eliminate fraud arising from duplicate, ghost, and impersonation of beneficiaries. The more long-term and functionally high-value utility of the Aadhaar number will come from linking up multiple department databases using the Aadhaar number. Smart data analytics can help reveal inconsistencies within each database and help minimize and even eliminate many categories of inclusion and exclusion errors. It will not only ensure that ineligible beneficiaries are screened out, but also prevent eligible beneficiaries from being excluded.
The massive amounts saved from the elimination of these inclusion errors can be used to improve the quality of service delivery and in other public infrastructure investments. Aadhaar holds equally impressive potential benefits for the private sector. A secure and reliable Aadhaar database and Aadhaar-linked bank accounts will help reduce business transaction and contract costs in many sectors.
There are certain very valid data protection and privacy concerns associated with the Aadhaar project. For a start, it is important to immediately bring the Aadhaar project under a statutory mandate and formulate an enabling policy framework that governs the terms of its use. Adequate care can be taken to ensure that privacy concerns are addressed and only the basic data is made shareable across departments. As already indicated, there should be clear protocols and rules governing the sharing of information across departments.
However, none of this can detract from the undeniable benefits associated with the Aadhaar project. The dangers and concerns are far outweighed by the substantial benefits in improving governance.