What this criticism of the UID reveals

To oppose the UID project on the grounds that it makes government services efficient is bizarre

Over in the op-ed pages of The Hindu there’s a surreal op-ed by R Ramakumar that argues that Aadhaar, India’s new Unique Identification (UID) project will lead to an invasive state security-wise and a retreating one development-wise. Now reasonable people can debate whether or not UID will lead to these outcomes, and whether these outcomes are desirable or not. But reasonable people cannot argue that the government must spend money indiscriminately. That, however, is exactly what Mr Ramakumar argues! The UID project, he alleges aims “to keep benefits restricted to the so-called “targeted” sections, ensure targeting with precision and thereby, limit the government’s expenditure commitments.”

How will UID lead to human rights violations? Mr Ramakumar’s argument is “Because Amartya Sen says so.” Appealing to authority is not quite the most persuasive way to make such an argument. The fact that the UID is not compulsory and the fact more than 500 million Indians have mobile phones—it’ll takes years before that many people get their Aadhaar—that are already capable of being tracked and profiled is ignored.

Let’s face it: the very existence of the state is a compromise on individual freedoms—and an implicit contract where a citizen derives some benefits in return for curbing some of his freedoms. It is fair to contend that the UID subtracts some freedoms. But it is ridiculous to jump to the extreme conclusions that such subtractions are “violations”, not least because those who do not want to make this trade-off need not make it. We can’t say the same about so many of the Indian government’s policies.

Mr Ramakumar’s second objection—that it will lead to the qualitative restructuring of the state in the social sector—, if accurate, is a very strong argument in favour of the UID project. It is unfathomable how anyone can argue that targeting social welfare schemes on those who really need it and eliminating inefficiencies and wastefulness is a bad thing. It is unfathomable why Mr Ramakumar should presume that the poor will somehow be better off if the state directly distributes food to them when the epic, systemic and self-evident corruption in the public distribution system (see an example) has so miserably failed to deliver.

Indeed, it remains to be seen whether the gargantuan political economy of massive corruption in the PDS will permit the use of an instrument like Aadhaar. It’s unlikely that the UPA government has the incentives or the will to push through such a transformational reform. The ultimate social welfare programme is a system of targeted cash-transfers to the genuinely needy. The UID project, if implemented properly can make such a programme technically feasible. It requires a high degree of incredulity to believe, however, that technical feasibility is the only, or even the main problem, holding this proposal back.

Mr Ramakumar confuses socialism for development. If the state retreats from the business of buying, storing, transporting and retailing groceries, it will certainly hurt socialism. It won’t necessarily hurt development.

45 thoughts on “What this criticism of the UID reveals”

  1. In response to “it’ll takes years before that many people get their Aadhaar” – here is a live submission of the process I underwent! Govt folks came home, took about 20mins to collate my data from me, filled it in their respective Marathi forms, left behind a small handwritten chit in Marathi for me to come the following day to get myself finger printed and photographed.

    So the following day robotically despite high fever I landed there- just so that I shld not miss my turn now- else these Govt people are quite capable of pushing me around from one table to another or one office to another!! Only to be told on landing at the pre determined office -” our software has not yet come- so pls come back next week”

    Next week being week 2- my office people followed up, paid personal visits but the software had still not arrived! Now in Week 5- the software has arrived but is malfunctioning! Week 6- finally I am told that all is clear- so I arrive at their office at 9am. I have precisely 5 people ahead of me in the queue. I can see frenetic hassled sweating workers who are clueless about the computers and the finger printing machines. So much so I had to actually volunteer by handing over some wet tissues from my bag by asking them to clean the surface of the finger printing machine which was perhaps unclean and hence refusing to accept new data (soaked with the previous persons clammy hands!)

    My turn arrived at 1130am! Tht shld tell you how inefficiently run this prog is!:(

    So finally I gave my finger prints, thumb prints, retina images, face photograph, and the irony or the ridiculousness of the situation is just when all this is over or you think it is- the computer man asks- ” Wld u like to share this information with the Govt?!” I was flabbergasted! I actually did a double take and asked him “who is conducting this survey if not the govt”- and now it was his turn to be stumped!

    I stomped off in disgust with an acknowledgment receipt in my hand and half a wasted day behind me!

  2. A “total flight from logic” would be a generous description.
    In general, there’s plenty wrong with “The Hindu”

  3. Excellent rebuttal..awesome..what was ramakumar smoking..High time Chindu and JNU be shutdown for saving future generations frm these defeatist idea mongers.

  4. If the idea of Aadhar is to flush our land of aliens, it is indeed a good objective. But considering the morons who are running the show (read Mee’s comment above).

    How are they going to prevent Bangladeshi illegals from obtaining a UID? They already got voters’ ID, I guess it won’t be too difficult to get a UID with some bribes. In fragile states like West Bengal and Assam, the government should be extra careful in the verification procedures.

  5. Mee: “My turn arrived at 1130am! Tht shld tell you how inefficiently run this prog is!:(”

    Correcting inefficiencies such as this is a continuing process, but the citizen must actively work with the people implementing the UID system (or any other broken process) if the process is broken, like it was for you. The important thing is that there needs to be a mechanism for people to provide feedback to the UIDAI so that they can fix these broken processes — without the feedback, there will be no awareness that the process needs to be tweaked. No system is perfect, but a system has no chance of progressing towards perfection without the feedback of the people using the system.

  6. Hi Nitin,

    Your dismissal of the argument on the basis of the author of the piece using authority is basically “cell phones already do that”. Precedence is no more stronger an argument than calling on authority.

    The privacy angle is important to look at especially considering even powerful Businessmen and MLA’s involved in horse trading often get their mobiles tracked or bank details published in papers. To provide the govt a single point of contact where they can shop for information is a concern especially in India where privacy is not a matter of serious discussion in policy/intellectual circles.

    Just look at how even in the ever watchful west we hear of high profile companies like Facebook violating privacy laws. In India, awareness of privacy is just too low to not be very very worried.

    This is not to take away from other benefits of the UID but a serious policy debate on privacy is long overdue.

    1. Ravi,

      Points well made. Yes, we need debate on privacy laws. I had made this point in an earlier post about the BlackBerry episode.

  7. “This is not to take away from other benefits of the UID but a serious policy debate on privacy is long overdue.”

    This UID system is very different from existing systems in the USA or Europe. There are some basic reasons why this UID system is hard to breach without the collusion of someone in the government, which is the real issue Indians should keep an eye on.

    The Indian UID system improves on existing systems by:

    1. Only giving out a number to the citizen — there is no “UID card” at all. Instead, the government keeps a database of the biometric information as the “password” for the UID number.

    2. A simple API for application developers for the UID system — the API is a simple one. Given a number and biometric information, do they match? Yes or No? That is the only question that the database answers. Thus the only information revealed in such a transaction the minimum information required to authenticate a person who provides a number and a fingerprint for identitication.

    3. Privacy can only be maintained if individuals are careful with their own private information — even today, all public records and “private information” of an Indian Citizen that are not stored in cyberspace can be accessed by anyone who know how to break the Indian system.

    4. Your personal information HAS VALUE, so do NOT hand it to anyone just because they give you a free stainless steel platter…what you give away is worth more than “prizes” handed out by people who want your personal information. Marketers and advertisers can no longer do their job if they cannot analyze private information of a person. People have become millionaires by just collecting the information on other people (who just handed it out for free) and then selling them to data mining and advertising companies. Spread the message to other citizens to follow such rules on not giving away personal information.

    5. If one wants a facebook page, one can go ahead and get one, but there is nothing that says that the personal information provided during registration has to be true or correct — if Facebook can unethically sell the private information of its customers, its customers are allowed to provide incorrect personal information when they register on Facebook.

    6. DO NOT TRUST PRIVATE VENDORS TO SAFEGUARD YOUR PRIVACY. THEY HAVE EVERY INCENTIVE NOT TO DO SO.

    Short of intelligent behaviour from the public, and a sharp focus on the integrity of UIDAI by public interest groups, nothing else can preserve the integrity of the UID system in the long term.

  8. Indeed unfortunate that such a naive response must come from you who has unfortunately too many followers on the internet.
    Ram Kumar is a social scientist………..and his argument makes perfect sense.
    It is your interpretation of his argument that does not make sense.
    “Intellectuals” like you are responsible for the huge excpenditure on a futile exercise that we are going to be put through.
    I WOULD ADVISE YOU TO INFORM YOURSELF before you go out there and criticise what is a coherent argument, unlike your interpretation of Ram Kumar’s argument.
    And ooooo.. the use of the “s” word (socialist) is a great final touch to your argument.

    1. Dear Deepak,

      I am deeply touched though entirely persuaded by your argument that says Mr Ramakumar is right because he is a social scientist. That is much like Mr Ramakumar who says UID will violate human rights because Amartya Sen says so.

      Most of us stop being persuaded by such logic by the time we are in 2nd standard, but evidently, there are some who don’t.

  9. Heh,
    Your entire argument is based on the assumption that getting an UID is optional. That is delusional to say the least. All it would take to make it mandatory is something like, a) banks suddenly requiring an UID while opening a bank account, b) cell companies suddenly making it required while getting a new connection.

    The government saying it is optional doesn’t have any value. The real fear is about it getting to be a de-facto identification standard. Something like how the social security number in US is being used for reasons beyond it’s original intention.

    1. @Sandip Bhattacharya: U hit the nail on the head- I know some folks inside the UID prog- and for sure in 2-3 years time this will be mandatory!

  10. While I agree that the UID is a very useful tool and I am very strongly in favour of it (notwithstanding Mr. Ramkumar’s arguments), I do not dismiss outright the rationale against targeted food subsidies.

    In his article Mr. Ramkumar references Madhura Swaminathan whose original article appeared here

    That link offers a number of reasonable arguments against the targeting of food subsidies. My favorite amongst these is the fact that 95% of the population should be covered under the subsidy (if calculated according to western standards).

    I re-iterate that I am strongly in favour of the UID. However, I would like the arguments against targeted food subsidies to receive greater attention.

  11. From the Hindu article: “In a country like India where the target group is very large, and where it is clearly important to focus on ensuring that the malnourished are reached, a universal scheme is better than a narrowly targeted scheme.”

    I fail to understand this logic, assuming I understand what is being said. If the target group is “large”, then clearly the subsidies required for this group is going to be enormous.

    The truth of the statement in the Hindu article is clearly dependent on the meaning of the word “large”. Is it 50%, 60%, 90% of the overall population. Even if it was 60%, then arguing that “the group is so large, so might as well subsidize everyone”, means that subsidies should now target approximately, 1 Billion (100% of population) instead of 600 million, which means additional government subsidies for 400 million people (which is larger the entire population of the USA, just for comparison).

    Clearly, what is important is how much more money is needed to target everyone outside the target population, not whether the target population is a “large fraction of the total population”, which points to why the reasoning in the hindu article is wrong and misleading.

    It is a very common mistake made by people where they use percentages instead of actual numbers. Actual numbers have all the information, where as a percentage value loses information. That is, 3% could mean 3 or 3 million depending the value for 100% — so it is always instructive to look at information both as percentages and actual numbers.

    1. @Srikanth: you have raised several crucial issues that the author of this article glosses over, possibly because of a scathing dislike of the “JNU” mindset, or of “socialism”, or maybe of “The Hindu”, but that is a digression.

      1. Privacy: Very nobly, UIDAI has mentioned privacy as an issue, and then moved on regardless, treating it as Someone Else’s Problem (the caps are deliberate, the reference is to Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”). However, even a weak privacy law is likely to make several processes within the overall UIDAI protocol illegal. In fact, designing a process without taking account of the environment within which that process will work is just bad engineering. It is what some kinds of businesspeople and politicians do (Ready, Shoot, Aim), not good engineers.

      2. Targeting: Targeting was mooted as a means of saving public expenditure. There are circumstances in which targeting works, but, arguably, India’s PDS is not one of them. If the purpose is to channel benefits to the deserving, and only to the deserving, but to all the deserving, then targeting is pointless, because it imposes huge costs on the logistics side (in fact it forces this gigantic and humongously expensive identification exercise, whose timeline is inextricably linked with intrusive initiatives of the former NDA government) for relatively little gain. As noted in other reader responses, the deserving population can go as high as 95%, but even generous estimates put it as upwards of 70%. The Government is trying very hard to contain target numbers below 30 and 40 %, but that is by tweaks to the BPL calculation, instead of paying heed to the grim reality of skewed growth that has imposed a heavy cost on those outside the economic mainstream.

      What makes this situation patently ridiculous is that better governance can bring about huge improvements in PDS deliveries, because it is widely recognised (but only outside of UID apologists) that most leakages take place within the logistics chain, and not at the edge of the cloud. The leakage figures vary widely between states, reflecting the level of skew as well as the efficiency of governance. Simple and inexpensive remedies have worked very well already in some states. In addition, the BPL identification exercise is being refined this year.

      Between these two initiatives (which are already underway, so no fresh allocation of money is needed) much of the rationale for allotment of UIDs (if, as advertised, the purpose is to minimise leakages from the public beneficial system for the economically excluded) is already taken care.

      3. The author argues that Ramkumar’s main planks are a creeping security state (the popular term is “police state” – why avoid the words?) and a retreating development perspective, and says both are debatable. This may be true, but, firstly, a police state is incompatible with a participatory democracy. The author is free to argue for other forms of government, like anyone else, but at least keep the lines clearly drawn. Secondly, the development perspective is also part and parcel of a participatory democracy: a government of, by and for the people, in which all are equal. Huge economic disparities are anathema to this ideal. India right now boasts of several ignoble global records: economic disparity is one of the worst, where the ratio between highest earning and lowest is of the order of hundreds, even within corporations, and much worse for the general population, where as many as 70% could be living on an average of Rs 20 per day. Yes, upwards of 700 mn people, not some abstract quibble between percentages and absolute numbers.

      4. Lastly, something not central to either Ramkumar’s argument or to its rebuttal: the UID scheme as it stands today, a simple number, whose unique association with an individual can be verified using technology, overlooks the fact that this technology is neither in place, nor is there a roadmap for implementing it. In fact, achieving it is a huge exercise, but aside from a government sponsored connectivity plan meant to link together government offices across the country, nothing is on the anvil today. How UIDAI expects ration shops (PDS endpoints) and random work sites (NREGS endpoints) to be connected online to a central database, is unknown.

      Rather than wondering what Prof Ramkumar is smoking, as reader Mr Kannan asks, one must rather look elsewhere for sources of fantasy and surreal thinking, one of which is backed by Rs 42,000 cr of an unilaterally undebated budgetary allocation. A heady mix, but not one worthy of a nation trying hard to establish itself on a solid footing, overcoming centuries of economic exclusion.

  12. Dear Nitin Pai

    I am amused at the contents of this blog. You are not only confused but also overboard in your McCarthy-style attitude towards anything which sounds remotely ‘socialist’ to you. Please mind that the proposal need not be socialist (or, for that matter, any-ist), what is necessary for it to appear on this blog is the fact that it sounds ‘socialist’ to YOU. And this is a general feature of this blog and your wannabe pink-business journalism. You have supported permits for Bangladeshi immigrants and you also have clubbed Amartya Sen into some group of people who mistake development for socialism.

    Your knowledge of public policy is limited to metropolitan centres of the country. I am reasonably sure that you have never been part of any process of ‘public’ policy formulation. Or is it that you devise pension plans for our hardworking corporations? Further, it is clear that you do not even have a clue of the history of many of these welfare schemes in India.

    In this particular context, you have simply forgotten all lessons that your Gurus (you must be liking this form of address- the institution that you have founded is called Takshashila!) have given you to indulge into a debate with another researcher/academic/’social scientist’. I will elaborate upon your style and arguments below.

    Firstly, I deeply sympathise with you for your inability to comprehend the meaning of ‘surreal’. Kindly consult a basic dictionary before using it again.

    Secondly, I also appreciate that you believe that you and your blog readers are all reasonable people. But I fail to understand why when R. Ramakumar debates precisely the questions that you deem ‘reasonable’ enough- about outcomes of UID and desirability of those outcomes, you take refuge to rhetorical blindness and try to obfuscate the long-standing real issues with respect to UID. If we are all reasonable, then let us arrive at another ‘reasonable’ definition of ‘indiscriminate’ spending. Do you have an idea about the nutritional standards of the Indian populace? Have you ever heard of the hunger deaths that have been occuring across states including developed ones like Maharashtra? What do you think was/is the purpose of a scheme like PDS (and also ICDS, Mid Day Meal Scheme etc.)? Do you know the places where PDS works the bestr- Tamil Nadu, for instance, it is universal? Have you been taught in public policy how did welfare states in Western Europe come into existence? Or the fact that they still continue to spend ‘indiscriminately’ on public services? Or the simple fact that public expenditure over a long period of time can make a huge difference to human development? Otherwise also, How do you think investing in basic human development, ‘indiscriminate’ expenditure?

    Thirdly, “How will UID lead to human rights violations?”. R. Ramakumar’s argument is not based on what Amartya Sen says. Please read his other writings on UID, this is a basic requirement when you review an article. Find out about the author and his previous writing, more so when he has been writing on the concerned subject. And whoever told you that UID is like a mobile phone, in its implications at least. Then why not ask your pink press to argue for phone-cards- all Indian citizens with mobile phones buying food and other entitlements!

    Fourthly, you invocation of your own article for the assertion that ‘the very existence of the state is a compromise on individual freedoms’- goes against your high moral principle. Further, your whole argument rests on the fact that UID is not compulsory. Who told you so? Nandan Nilekani himself does not know if it is. Kindly keep visiting relevant websites and documents before writing. Have you seen the LSE-led Identity Project website and why a similar project in the UK failed? And in numerous other countries. And you, of course, did not care to read the historicity of the UID and IB chief’s comments. Your desire for keeping Bangladeshis out through the alibi of the Indian poor is too clear to miss.

    Fifthly, let us find out what has failed- the universal state-run PDS in Tamil Nadu and Kerala or the targeted system in India after 1997. Again refer to some literature before wondering why others are so sure of what they say. The beginning could be to do a proper research on the nutritional needs of the people of India and deduce how many people need support. You will be, provided your concerns are taken at face value, astonished to see the results. Simply, take NSS, NFHS, DLHS or any other dataset and tell me why PDS should be targeted. And why in places where is strong public action towards these schemes have always performed far ahead, like TN and Kerala? Do you even understand words like politics and public action or is it only corruption and ‘genuinely needy’.

    Fifthly, I believe you are an economist. Do you read the debates on the poverty lines in India? What has been the basis of arriving at the poverty line? The fact that Nitin Pai committee arbitrarily felt that it is 27 per cent? Do you how Famine commissions in colonial India arrived at the genuinely needy? Dont you see the irony of the term itself?

    Sixthly, give some agency to the ‘poor people’ you are so concerned about. It is not only the ‘incentives’ and the ‘will’ of the UPA government which determines the form and substance of public policy in India.

    Seventhly, UID itself is not technically feasible. Again read the LSE report, for instance. Do you know the diversity and the population of India? What to say of UID as an enabler for direct cash transfers?

    Finally, you confuse standard pink-business rhetoric as serious academic matter. Please enlighten yourself first and then come on the table. Also please dont hide behind the poor of India.

    And it has nothing to do with socialism, it much more basic- the trait of honesty.

    1. Your comments and counter-arguments are welcome. But personal attacks are not. It is perfectly possible to make the points you want to make without abandoning civility.

  13. haha, as a precursor to what’s gonna happen with Nandan’s number, your blog ate my comment. trying again now. in the meanwhile i posted it on my blog too.

    ***************************

    a disappointing Yes Tank post.

    its fairly obvious that UID will lead to “human” or rather citizen rights violations. lets take the PDS example.

    the fundamental problem with PDS is not that there are more ration cards than families, but that many needy families don’t have a ration card.

    and not having a ration card, not just denies a beneficiary of food ration but also several other state benefits from a handloom saree to a color tv 🙂 but more crucially denies access to pension, ladli lakshmi, kalaigner health insurance etc. and don’t even ask me about how premium the possession of a BPL ration card is against the APL one.

    how will UID solve this problem? no way. it’ll make the situation a lot worse.

    the possession of a UID number will now become the premium possession and there is no reason to believe that govt will deliver such numbers any more efficiently than its bungling with ration/voter/pension cards. infact Nandan Nilekani’s overly optimistic (rather outlandish) claim that govt offices will ping the Aadhar network for the citizen’s identity, further strengthens the argument that the poor and the needy will be denied access to several benefits because they don’t have a UID number.

    The parliament authorizes the govt to spend billions of taxpayers money to provide food (and other essential benefits) but a needy citizen will be denied the benefit becos of a non-possession of a mere UID number. Parliament is going to makes laws proclaiming the RIGHT TO FOOD and the govt machinery jolly makes that conditional on a possession of a card?!! Or is parliament also gonna mandate the possession of a UID number a fundamental duty? and Nilekani claims UID number is optional!! yeah, right.

    Now, pls don’t under-estimate the difficulty in getting a card, any card from the govt if you are poor or belong to a backward caste. Any one of you who reads this post and doesn’t have a voter ID, try to get one for you and your house maid from the same AROs office but going separately. There is a extremely high probability that your maid won’t get it.

    I’m part of a citizen’s group in Bangalore which has worked on electoral roll/turnout mobilization efforts and I’m also studying PDS for another project. I can testify to the fact the India’s poor are having a hard time getting any card from the end levels of the govt. Not to mention the bribes one has to pay, once the babu deigns that the poor person could be entitled to the “benefit” of possessing a card.

    *****

    And this post is lot more disappointing becos its contrary to a widely held economic consensus (surprisingly on both left and right) that the targeted PDS is doomed to fail. Several left leaning members of the NAC (lead by Jean Dreze) have advocated universal PDS as opposed to TPDS. Harsh Mander and N C Saxena (who doubles up as a planning comm. member as well) wrote in detail about the merits and demerits of TPDS in their reports as the Supreme Court Commissioners (link) on the “Right to Food”.

    On the other side of the spectrum, Swaminathan Aiyar advocates self-targeting by which the benefits are universal but come with strings attached (like taste of the flour distributed via PDS, becos of iodine, iron, millet flour mixed), that only the poor will opt for it.

    on the whole, its fair to say that UID will lead to violation of citizens rights, unless ofcourse this blogger and the other pro-govt agencies think you are not a citizen unless you possess Nandan’s Number.

    ps: i have given five more reasons why we all should SAY NO TO UID. click on my name above to read the blog post.

    Update: I didn’t write this while commenting on Nitin’s blog. but now I think about it, UID could be used to commit caste and gender based atrocities and almost certainly to demand bribes.

    If UID is implemented as Nilekani claims it will be, where citizen’s identity will be found by a govt office by pinging the Aadhar network, then thats a disaster waiting to happen. Currently, a govt official has to be very brazen to refuse identifying a citizen, when the latter submits copies of ration/voter/PAN card.

    But if the onus of identifying the citizen is the domain of the babu, who’ll look it up on the Aadhar network, then the citizen is a goner. The official can simply say “your name doesn’t exist” and that “you are an imposter”. A poor citizen will have no option but to bribe his/her way out of this insurmountable Babudom obstruction. And one can’t even prosecute the official later. “Its not working on my computer” claim is as old as the computer itself.

    And I can think of thousands of villages where upper castes in cooperation with the babus, will make the UID number more like a Manu (as in Manu Smriti) number. Our poor citizen being the pariah (outcast, untouchable) without a number.

  14. I used be for UID until I talked to a friend of mine who explained to me the flaws of the system. UID doesn’t have specific purpose. UID is being given out just because it can be. Essentially it is just collection of data. It will be later figured out how the data will be used.
    If it is so, the security agencies are bound to take the lead in using the project. That is not good. Do not give undue credit to our security agencies. Living in a country where the security agencies are notorious for human rights violations, and with MHA that more tries to rule the people than to protect them, such data can end up doing more damage than good.
    I may be going over the top on this and would be happy to be proven wrong but please understand that our security agencies already have way too much power than most other democratic countries. In most of the countries a cop can not just walk into your house or shoot you and get away with it. In our country, though there are laws, a cop can still confidently get away with assaulting your dignity in the worst way possible.

  15. Vic:”Very nobly, UIDAI has mentioned privacy as an issue, and then moved on regardless, treating it as Someone Else’s Problem”

    That is your opinion, and not necessarily correct at that. From what I understand, the people at UIDAI are taking the security of the biometric information seriously. What do you want them to do that they are not doing? and why?

    UID is only meant to assist in providing public services to people who are outside a corrupt PDS, and benefits never reach them — the UID is compulsory for a citizen only if he/she wants to avail of govt. services, and it is optional for everyone else. All of this is spelt out in the UIDAI website.

    “But if the onus of identifying the citizen is the domain of the babu, who’ll look it up on the Aadhar network, then the citizen is a goner”

    Another wrong opinion stated with aplomb. The UID database can be accessed by application programs only via what is known as an Application Programmer Interface (API) which is the means by which anyone writing software to access the database has to use. This API insulates the actual information in the database and treat the database as a black box to which only the following question can be asked “Does this number and this fingerprint belong to the same person?”. The answer for this question will be computed at a different machine that is in a secure UIDAI site that no Indian can access without appropriate national security clearance. In a democracy, the citizens need to keep watch to ensure that the people in the government keep away from political interference in the functioning of the UIDAI.

    “And I can think of thousands of villages where upper castes in cooperation with the babu..”

    That is only because you seem to be unaware as to how computers work — the UIDAI database will be in a remote location in India when “the babus and the upper castes” use their computers to query the database.

  16. Sandeep:”UID doesn’t have specific purpose. ”

    The stated purpose at this time is to improve the PDS system and allow people who are outside the system to have “ID” required to open bank accounts or otherwise be part of the Indian economy. do you have a problem with that?

  17. Vic:”I didn’t write this while commenting on Nitin’s blog. but now I think about it, UID could be used to commit caste and gender based atrocities and almost certainly to demand bribes.”

    You seem to want to make outrageous claims such as the above without any substantiation, and the specifics of how the system can be broken as the details are very important — if all you have is paranoia and hand waving to offer, you are not offering anything of value to other citizens or than Fear and Loathing.

    Your concerns about privacy are fine, but your privacy concerns seem to arise from believing that the information in the UIDAI database leave the secure site, but that is not how the UIDAI implementation is planned.

  18. “If it is so, the security agencies are bound to take the lead in using the project. That is not good.”

    Unless the information of a majority of Indians is in this database, what use are they to security agencies? I suggest that you never apply for a UID ever — that should take care of your fears.

  19. Balaji:”I can testify to the fact the India’s poor are having a hard time getting any card from the end levels of the govt. Not to mention the bribes one has to pay, once the babu deigns that the poor person could be entitled to the “benefit” of possessing a card.”

    Clearly, your Citizens Group needs to get informed before you can assist any other citizen — there is no “UID Card” given out in the UIDAI project which could explain why “India’s poor are having a hard time getting a UID card”.

  20. Not an apologist:” Find out about the author and his previous writing, more so when he has been writing on the concerned subject.”

    One can only comment on the reasoning of people like Ramakumar — there is no necessity to read about Ramakumar’s life story and thought process.

    All the people here arguing “by authority” need to grow up. Claiming that your opinions are correct “Because Amartya Sen said so and he is a great guy” or “Ramakumar’s previous articles were extremely brilliant, so this article is also brilliant” is known as “Argument by Authority”, and a fallacious way to argue.

    The following quote is from the wikipedia page Argument_from_authority, just to be clear as to why this method of arguing is wrong.

    “Appeal to authority is a fallacy of defective induction, where it is argued that a statement is correct because the statement is made by a person or source that is commonly regarded as authoritative. The most general structure of this argument is:

    Source A says that p is true.

    Source A is authoritative.

    Therefore, p is true.

    This is a fallacy because the truth or falsity of the claim is not necessarily related to the personal qualities of the claimant, and because the premises can be true, and the conclusion false (an authoritative claim can turn out to be false).”

  21. Vic:”What makes this situation patently ridiculous is that better governance can bring about huge improvements in PDS deliveries, because it is widely recognised (but only outside of UID apologists) that most leakages take place within the logistics chain, and not at the edge of the cloud. ”

    I can see that the UID will assist in revealing this leakages because these thieves of the PDS system must deprive a citizen of benefits in order to steal them for personal profit. Thus, thieves in the system can be identified by the fact that a group of UID card holders do not get the benefits targeted at them.

    What I do not see is how the UID system is a negative in this situation — to catch the criminals in the system, one would have to monitor whether benefits are reaching the target group and if not, provide due publicity so that the public can force the govt. to take corrective action. Everything is a process where some human has to take some effort to do something other than sit and whinge constantly.

  22. “This is a fallacy because the truth or falsity of the claim is not necessarily related to the personal qualities of the claimant, and because the premises can be true, and the conclusion false (an authoritative claim can turn out to be false).”

    The above statement from the wikipedia quote is confusing. To clarify, it just explains the meaning of “imply” in logic. That is, if logical statement A implies logical statement B, then it is written in logic as “A => B”, and it means that state B is true only if statement A is true. If statement A is false, then just based on the truth of A, we cannot know if B is true or false.

    So in this case, A is “Amartya Sen’s opinion is correct”, and B is “the UID system is bad for India”.

    Amartya Sen may be a smart guy, but even smart guys can say wrong things as everyone knows, so Amartya Sen’s Authority in Economics does not mean that everything he says is true, and thus his smartness has nothing to do with the truth of his opinions on the UID. He is hand waving and indulging in FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) like all other opponents of the UID system so far.

  23. Correction: I meant to write: ” If statement A is false, then just based on fact A is false, we cannot know if B is true or false.”

    That is, we need more information to determine the truth or falsehood of statement B (assuming that the real-world context of this logical reasoning is the same for both A and B).

  24. Srikanth,

    i can see you are writing too much and hence not even reading what others are saying.

    1. on accessing the aadhar data center.

    everyone perfectly knows how data is stored in Aadhar. but accessing that information is from the govt offices across the country. That means govt officials now decide the identity of a person by pinging a system that lies elsewhere. copies of any id card in the possession of the citizen become secondary if not useless. Now the govt official in expectation of a bribe can harass the citizen claiming that a query on his/her name resulted in a negative response from the datacenter and hence he/she is a imposter. Try going to any rto/aro/tehsil/taluk office etc in the country and see how citizens get treated by officials.

    2. with regard to the citizen’s group, i clearly stated its “any card”.

    namely Voter ID card and ration card. its really a nightmare for poor people to get these cards. bribery and political connections rule the ration cards. i have myself given form 6, given instructions and sent people to the AROs office and few weeks later their name doesn’t get added in the updated voter list. i and many people in the “upscale” neighborhoods don’t face such problems. becos the officials think we must be legitimate or they could even fear phone calls from higher ups if they mess with someone important/informed/proactive.

    and in the case of the UID, poor citizens can be denied a number too. how do you think thousands of muslim names disappear from electoral rolls? local level officials in connivance with political leaders can easily do this. possession of a voter id card is meaningless if officials remove your name from the voter rolls. Bangalore has 7 million voters in the rolls when the entire voting population cannot be more than abt 5 million!! a UID number has to get into the database through the hand-(i)-work of officials in every village/town of the country. imagine that.

    3. possibility of caste/gender atrocities very much exist with UID.

    its very common for Sarpanchs/VAOs to deny ration/pension/antodaya cards to real beneficiaries, create fictitious ones and fill their pockets. almost all the states have more ration cards than families. And its also fairly common that the real beneficiaries who disappear from the system are often lower caste people (bpl card mostly) and women (old age pension mostly but also cycle, pregnancy benefits, ladli lakshmi etc). now these people will be even more dependent on a govt official to look up their identity on the Aadhar database and recognize it. good luck with that.

  25. Balaji,

    Regarding point 1, you need to read up on client/server system before continue with your bogus fear govt. Officials accessing the database. You need to understand the tyranny of the API in determining access to the UID databases. Thus, your fears are based on ignorance in this regard. This is why I demand specifics of how any information. Other than “this person possessing this finger is telling the truth about his/her number”. Pray tell what information can you extract from this fact that can be a threat to the privacy of a person. To be taken seriously, you need to explain that first.

  26. Balaji, regarding point 2, let us stick to the topic of UIDs for now. Also, UIDs can be use to authenticate any other card like the voter card — in fact, with UID and biometric information and one other piece of identification with a photo of the person is a fool-proof way to authenticate the identity of a person. that is the only technical problem that the UID solves — people like you and your citizens group are supposed to track the use or abuse of this card in order to make specific claims of abuse against a government official. That is beyond the scope of computer software.

  27. Regarding point 3, common sense indicates that you should be protesting against the inclusion of caste information in the database, if you do not want people to abuse others because of their caste. How does the UID add to the problem of casteism in India? Perhaps you should explain that before you pretend you have a point in your point 3.

  28. Balaji, Citzens groups are not supposed to sit and whine continuously about how corrupt and screwed up everything is — go inform the people who depend on the PDS to contact citizens groups in case of bureaucrats denying services by lying that the UID number is wrong. Short of this information reaching the people who can fix such things, how do you expect such things to fix themselves magically?

  29. What no one seems to have addressed is how we’re going to prevent private corporations from linking up their databases with each other using the UID as glue.

    If your hospital needs and stores your UID to provide you with services, and your bank also does the same, who’s stopping your bank from meeting your hospital and saying “Hey, you let me see your database and I’ll let you see mine?”

    Your hospital will then know your financial details which can have an impact on how they provide services to you. There are so many other possibilities that I don’t know how to start.

    India has very poor information sharing laws. Already the UID authority has taken LIC’s data and SBI’s data without asking any of the customers! Is this a sign of things to come?

  30. Srikanth,

    this is my last comment on this post. sorry, but please do read what others are writing. i haven’t said anything about privacy violations. i’m talking about Citizen’s Rights violations where a supposedly optional number becomes the means to deny benefits/services and discriminate against citizens.

    the blog post by Nitin is about targeted benefits and I have pointed to links on why targeting benefits is unsound and that UID is not in anyway going to help taxpayer funded benefits reach the needy. i wrote about discriminations against citizens (especially the needy) that arise from using UID for targeting. this is economics and public policy. The computer science and technology involved in UID is rather trivial and i don’t have much concern there. its officials who feed the network and access it, that I’m skeptical about.

  31. Balaji,

    You have written a lot of crap and not justified it — yes, I have read your post and you are just frothing at the mouth with ignorant and worthless objections.

    Let me ask you: the PDS system is broken is well understood and it is broken because of corruption, and the UID is to protect the citizen against these elements by fixing one part of the problem where person X cannot cheat by pretending to be person Y. This is the envisioned solution to get more accountability in the PDS system. So it is clearly not acceptable to bypass the UID system as that is how things are today.

    So what exactly are you whining about? Do you have an alternative to improving the services provided by the PDS system that closes the same loopholes that the UID does? If not, your whining is worthless.

  32. The nonsense about “targeted benefits must be made universal” is wrong as explained earlier. All the jokers repeating that line need to explain where India is going to get the money to support additional subsidies for 100s of millions of more Indians? Do you jokers even stop and think for 5 minutes before you repeat nonsense from some article by another ignorant joker elsewhere? Clearly not.

  33. Srikanth,

    err, pls … there is no need to be disrespectful.

    PDS is socialism. UID is a means to deliver freebies. apparently with better targeting. Economists from both the right and the left, have argued why targeting doesn’t work, keeps beneficiaries out and instead helps the crooks/babus swindle the money. I also mentioned self-targeting argued by Swaminathan Aiyar. This discussion is all becos PDS is sanctioned/budgeted by parliament and hence people are trying to fix the problems.

    if you insist on a real solution, here’s a right-liberal one.

    1. Govt has no business running PDS or the Minimum Support Price (MSP) racket. both disturb the free market on food grains and hence should be abolished. Abolish fertilizer subsidies too.

    2. Allow FCI (Food Corporation of India) to open retail shops. PDS works somewhat better if all aspects are owned by a single entity as observed in Tamilnadu and Chattisgarh govt owned PDS shops/transport.

    3. Let FCI find real estate in every corner of the country with partnerships from Amul, Nandini, Aavin, HOPCOMS, Karpagam etc. Let state govts provide real-estate in exchange for equity.

    4. Let FCI procure food grains by open competitive bidding. with small farmers getting the option to match the lower price quoted by big industrial farming companies.

    5. Allow 100% foreign direct investment in Food retail. Let Wal-Mart, Costco, Carrefour, Tesco compete and force Ambani/Mittal/Biyani to bring food prices down.

    6. Remove all restrictions on export or import of food grains. Quantitative restrictions are so uncool in Laissez faire economics.

    7. If despite all this, FCI/others can’t sell food grains at reasonable prices (say wheat at 3 rupees), and remain profitable, then let parliament write off the losses of the food retail industry. Such write-off is anyday more acceptable than bailouts for the aviation industry. And those bailouts will be lot cheaper than what goes down the drain in PDS/MSP.

    And all the above is not some terrible scheme against farmers. Infact its farmers who are demanding something like that. Or atleast those behind Shetkari Sanghatana and Swatantra Bharat Paksha do. (shetkari.in)

  34. Here is the basic question to all those who are repeating the bad logic from the Hindu Article

    Let us say X percent of the population is currently covered and let Y be the level to which all those who want subsidies to target more people, where Y > 90%. Let us say India’s total population is T. Let the total tax collected by t he government be TT.

    (Y-X)*T is the total number of people who will need to be given “subsidies”.

    Where “subsidies” are basically funded by the “Taxpayer”.

    Now, out of the same amount TT, (Y-X)*T is being handed BACK to the public if the subsidies are going to be covering Y% instead of X%. So the real question is why do the people pushing this idea think it is a smart one?

    Giving money back to the public in that manner means less money for funding other public institutions and programs — Why is this being considered a good idea is the real question? Because it is not a good idea to effectively collect less taxes (by handing more money back) than we currently do…because the next whine will be how the poor are being shortchanged.

    Guess what, if the effective collected tax is smaller, after subsidies are subtracted from gross tax collected, then that means lesser money to support the people who are not paying taxes, i.e., the targets of the UID program, earn less than they need for minimum subsistence. Anyone pushing such policies is clearly not look out for those who are poor and ill-equipped — they just want to pay less taxes because they are not in favour of subsidies for the poor, and cloak that with a deceptive veneer of looking out for the Public Interest, when they are not.

  35. @Srikant: Sorry I am not as efficient as you in replying but UID stated goal is “initiative that would provide identification for each resident across the country and would be used primarily as the basis for efficient delivery of welfare services. It would also act as a tool for effective monitoring of various programs and schemes of the Government.”

    What services? What programs? Nobody is working on that. Therefore I have a problem. You can open a bank account with plenty of documents. If you can get UID you can get those documents as well.

    What you are not getting is that it CAN be used for PDS and other systems but is not being used so. It is embedded in Planning Commission and is not attached to any other executive body in the country. They are not giving it a purpose other than some vague ideas. Why? If you start working on a metro train, you start coordinating with the PWD dept from the planning stages itself. You don’t make the metro and then tell PWD to make its flyovers accordingly. May not be a perfect analogy but it serves the purpose here.

  36. Sandeep:”What services? What programs? Nobody is working on that. Therefore I have a problem. You can open a bank account with plenty of documents. If you can get UID you can get those documents as well.”

    Please check UIDAI website on how the data is collected — to get a UID you need to present such documents or be “confirmed” by another person who has such documents. This is the status of people in India in 2010, where they do not have an identity they can use to do simple things like open a bank account. What else can you do if you do not have a bank account?

    The UID program is in its inception, and the first phase of the implementation was started only a few weeks ago, so it is silly to “expect results” now, unless one is politically motivated to speak against the UID.

    The UID is only needed currently if you are receiving or would like government funds and access development programs for the poor, so fears of a compulsory UID are overblown and irrational at this stage. If you want govt. services, you get a UID — that is entirely reasonable.

    Err..the UIDAI started implementing a trial version of the project in specific places to work out the kinks in the process — this is necessary to fix as many issues as possible with a small sample population before reaching a wider population.

  37. “What you are not getting is that it CAN be used for PDS and other systems but is not being used so.”

    I think this kind of worldview seems to ignore the fact that everything takes time.
    Let us breakdown this UID project for instance, and what is the minimum set of actions that need to be taken by a person implementing this project.

    1. Discuss and create the right process to collect the biometric information, such that some individual takes responsibility every bit of information recorded, in case there are issues down the line with respect to any specific person in the UID database.
    2. Train such people to collect information
    3. Get out and collect information
    4. Get Organizations to use the UID services wherein they can hook up their software to just invoke the UID API for authentication, thus reducing one problem for the people developing the software for that Health organization or Bank.

    Note that one cannot change the ordering of these steps 1 through 4 above. Also, every step will take S minutes per person, and when you sample set it N people, and you have C people performing the step. Then, you need at least, S*N/C minutes for each step. Basically, “go do the math” and plug in different values for N, you can take S and C to be some “reasonable” values, does not matter what they are. And determine the value of N that will be done in 1 month and 1 year, and you will see that the progress of this project will be in the order of years, not days as the expectation seems to be going your comments.

  38. Baslaji:”But if the onus of identifying the citizen is the domain of the babu, who’ll look it up on the Aadhar network, then the citizen is a goner. The official can simply say “your name doesn’t exist” and that “you are an imposter”.”

    That is rather easily solved by making sure that the affirmation is seen on both sides — do you really think that the official can say the machine is lying in front of everyone else, when everyone knows it is now? The best the official can do is turn off the device, but tampering with such devices must be an offence that carries a severe punishment along with it, in order to deter people from abusing the system.

    I happen to personally believe/think it is necessary to have Closed Circuit Camera at every location where there is a UID device with the output saved in a remote location, in order to cut down on fraud and abuse of the UID system.

    Considering how criminals think and act violently without external instigation in general, a more likely way the UID system is likely to be abused at some point is as follows: A criminal can easily learn the UID of an individual and then commit a violent crime, such as chop off a finger or two and then start using the UID along with the chopped-off finger, and take over the life of the victim. However, violent crimes are always reported at some point.

    The response from policy makers to resolve such issues should be to create policies for anyone using such biometric information to also have video recordings of every person making a UID-based transaction. This would not involve violating anyone’s privacy since this is what Banks and other institutions already do, but would be useful to prosecute violent crimes committed to abuse the UID system.

    Such violent crimes never go unnoticed and leave a trail of evidence that can then be pursued by Security Agencies — the one point to note is that process could be weeks before the crime is discovered, and so backups of these security camera videos must be maintained for a few months at least.

    It is for this reason, it is going to be useful and necessary to protect the abuse of the UID system by having material evidence one can present in court to convict criminals who abuse the system. The above example of criminal thinking is just to show that it is possible to see abuse of the UID system before it happens — there is a lot of value to that. There in no value to sticking with the Status Quo because it is not working.

  39. @Sandeep

    “What you are not getting is that it CAN be used for PDS and other systems but is not being used so. It is embedded in Planning Commission and is not attached to any other executive body in the country.”

    Often, those who build a database in an organisation do not (and cannot) know all the possible ways in which the information stored therein can be used to monitor and improve performance of various divisions and units of the organanisation. But as the system is used, it becomes obvious how to use the data to help the various sub-orgs.

    So yes, while we can imagine the various applications of the system on this website, many of them may not be in scope of this project currently, because the primary emphasis right now is to build the database – once that is done, surely the scope of data warehousing of this information will be identified (something that is essential to crunch this amount of data to get actionable results)

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