We don’t need no Unique I.D

Written by  //  December 19, 2010  //  National Politics, Uncategorized  //  23 Comments

Nandan Nilekani’s Unique Identification Scheme bothers me.

Isn’t it interesting how modernity has meant the use of “technologies of governance” or ways for “power” to assert itself? (Trust Foucault to put it best.) And yet, this “governmentality” need not be bad. Censuses for example, are a very effective channel for power to influence all aspects of a subject or a body and yet, one can’t condemn a census. In fact a census is a good thing. So is the UID a good thing?

Nilekani argues it is. It can be used as effective security against terrorism. Oops! And here Nilekani shuts up and changes track –Umm, through the UID we solve the problem of fake ration cards so we can ensure that the food under the PDS goes to the BPL population only. Recruiters or universities can gather information about a student candidate immediately and the problem of fake degrees can be easily dealt with and what’s more –it’s not that Nilekani or the Government are forcing the UID down our throats. The scheme is demand driven. If you want a biometric I.D, a biometric I.D you get… but only if you want one.

Two questions present themselves almost immediately.

Firstly, why did the Government change the focus of the pitch for UID from issues of security to issues of development? It clearly indicates that somehow, somewhere, the government could not hold on to their national security argument for the UID amidst cries against intrusion. Long after Foucault wrote on governmentality, Giorgio Agamben thought fit to remind us –what if we end up in a ‘state of exception’? In other words, all democracies leave a little leeway for the declaration of an emergency or a ‘state of exception’ when basic civil rights are suspended and citizens become more like inmates than citizens. They are reduced to bare life. So censuses may be a good thing but a census in Nazi Germany can be used to figure out which are the Jews and which are the Gentiles so that the Jews can be singled out and sent into a ghetto or a camp. Similarly, a UID in a state of exception may be pretty dangerous. If you have a database on everyone it is easier to locate which is a Muslim’s house (in case the BJP is in power) or which is a political dissident’s house (I’m a little worried for Left cadre in a Trinamool Bengal next year) and to concertedly kill, loot or rape whoever hides inside. In other words, these very technologies of power can become very dangerous in a state of exception and as can be seen from the 1971 experience Indian democracy is very frail.

Yes it has succeeded but it is frail.

The second question is simply the demand driven bit. If all universities and work places suddenly start demanding UIDs, it will be rare for students not to get an ID. Similarly, if ration shops start demanding a UID, you’ll have a long queue for one and what’s worse, getting a UID may be as difficult as getting a ration card so if the system for doling out UIDs is not efficient enough, people may die of starvation.

Nonetheless, we can now agree that Nilekani and the Government cannot safely claim not stuffing the UID down our throats.
The development arguments however, beg further questions.

Let us look at food security. Currently, the public distribution system is about giving free grain to the BPL population. The idea is to give the foodgrain free to the people who need it. The question however is, how do you decide who needs the foodgrain and who doesn’t? Now you say –ah ha! We have a poverty line.

This poverty line of ours is based on the minimum caloric requirement of 2400 calories in rural areas and 2100 calories in urban areas as of 1973-4 multiplied upwards by the appropriate consumer price index. This means that the poverty line in say, 2004 would be Rs. 13.8 a day in rural areas and Rs. 17 a day in urban areas on average according to the Tendulkar Committee Report which in turn means that anyone who spends Rs. 14 a day in rural areas or Rs. 18 a day in urban areas on average (Let me remind my readers that this covers food, clothing, rent and everything else) is not eligible for benefits under the public distribution system.

What is more, as pointed out by Professor Utsa Patnaik from NSSO figures, at least 86.7% of the rural population as of 2004 consumes less than 2400 calories a day and 64.5% of the urban population consumes less than 2100 calories. The official poverty ratios are 28.3% in rural areas and 25.7% in urban areas which means that only 28.3% of the rural population and only 25.7% of the urban population are eligible to benefits under the PDS. In other words, 58.4% of the rural population and 38.8% of the urban population fall out of the PDS net even though they consume less than the minimum nutritional intake that is considered to be subsistence consumption by the National Nutrition Monitoring Board.

And they say that the UID is an answer? What will the UID do? It will only make the PDS more targeted. To give food to the poor, one doesn’t need the UID, one needs to universalise the PDS.

What is Nilekani thinking?

Similarly most Centrally Sponsored schemes are targeted in nature except the NREGA which is self selecting as it pays a bare subsistence wage even lower than the Minimum Wage. The UID will only make these more targeted instead of universal when there really isn’t much difference between someone just above poverty line and someone below it. In fact it may result in no more than marginal cash transfers to those just below poverty line to just above it to claim a stupendous fall in poverty ratios on the part of the ruling political party.

So do we really need this UID?

23 Comments on "We don’t need no Unique I.D"

  1. Alok December 19, 2010 at 8:05 pm ·

    Certainly no one who visits this website and comments on it or reads it needs one. The State already recognizes our existence and entitlements, (along with our from our duties and demands) in the form of the PAN Card, the Bank Account, the Passport, the Driver’s License, the telephone/mobile connection, what else and what not.

    I’m sure the millions of Indians who otherwise struggle to establish their identity to avail of the most basic services from the State would greatly appreciate one. Something as simple as address proof, which most of India’s middle class and above take for granted, is simply beyond a significant section of the people of this country because of our ridiculously kafka-esque bureaucracy and their hidebound rules.

    What I think is that a lot of the fears being expressed are a classic case of the social sciences being utterly suspicious of the hard sciences and technocrats. The basic argument of most opponents of the UIDAI (including such eminent scholars like Jean Dreze) seems to be: technology = bad; UIDAI = technology; therefore UIDAI = bad. Having read through multiple pieces on the same issue, I am still unable to understand if the problem is with the mere fact that there exists a database this size or the possibility of its misuse or the possibility that technology may sometimes, just sometimes provide answers to intractable social problems.

    Some of the fears mentioned in this post are too ludicrous to respond to, but seeing as to how the argument is made without reference to the UIDAI Bill or the way in which the Authority works, I don’t think they need to be addressed.

    Also, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law prevents me from seriously taking up the fears sought to be put forth.

  2. Ruchira December 19, 2010 at 8:31 pm ·

    Alok, your links to wikipedia aren’t working. Could you post it again?

    Also could you please provide a proper rebuttal of Ram Kumar’s work on this issue? (Since I am too ludicrous.)

    It’s no point writing scathing comments unless you say something useful in them.

  3. Soumyadip December 19, 2010 at 10:56 pm ·

    1. The argument that “To give food to the poor, one doesn’t need the UID, one needs to universalise the PDS”, is a weak one. The UID is supposed to provide support to the food distribution system by identifying the target population. It is NOT supposed to operate as a distribution system itself. Nobody is asking not to universalise the PDS, the point here is whether UID will help identify the poor or not. It’s function is only to enhance the functioning of the PDS, and I don’t see any contradiction here.

    If the rural/urban poor are not benefiting from PDS, then it’s the fault of the official definition of poverty. In no way can UID harm the reach of the PDS. If PDS can make use of the data provided by UID then PDS functioning can be improved. The question here is whether this data can be trusted or not. It can very well be the case that data collection system is flawed and corruption leads to incorrect data (for example the rich and powerful manipulating the data to appear poor and weak). However, if the data is accurate I see no reason why the UID should not be welcome.

    2. As far as I know, the UIDs will be given to people free of cost. Has it been announced that it will be bought and sold in the market? If so, I agree with you and the system makes no sense if it is traded in the market because only those people would be interested in buying the IDs who are competing in the job market or looking to go abroad etc. The poor won’t be interested at all unless it’s made mandatory to have a UID to get food from PDS – in which case it’s highly unlikely that they will be forced to pay. This point needs to be cleared Ruchira.

    3. The question of buying/ selling of information to make profits or suit political motives/ cause genocides seems valid. In India, where cyber crime laws are not strict (and anyway the judiciary never punishes the rich and famous) this seems a valid fear. The extent of damage this can cause is tremendous.

    4. There is the question of invasion of privacy too. What if I don’t want to reveal my information and I already pay taxes and abide by law? Can the state force me to reveal my details which I might not be comfortable in revealing? These questions are even more valid in a country like India which has a highly corrupt bureaucracy. If data collected from me is being used to target me or harm me then why should I reveal my true details? And if UID data is filled up by using census data then it makes no sense to incur this highly expensive project.

    The above questions have not been addressed in the article which appears to be a misdirected personal attack on the very talented Nilekani who probably is the first of his kind – leaving the top job job in a major IT company to work for the country. Maybe we should be more respectful here.

  4. Ruchira December 20, 2010 at 5:13 pm ·

    et tu Soumyadip? I was just criticising the devt idea used to justify the UID i.e. it can help Centrally sponsored schemes. I’d like to say, if you really want to improve centrally sponsored schemes, make them universal. And wait, who said anything about buying or selling?

  5. Abhishek December 20, 2010 at 6:18 pm ·

    Some brief points to note:
    Is the argument against the Unique ID project or against the way Government has chosen to market it?

    For if one is convinced in the idea, the second should not be much of a concern anyways.

    About the idea:
    a) See not the UIDAI project as another in the line of policies aimed at addressing issues marred by abstractions at every level. For years if one thing everyone, who has given a thought on Indian state, has agreed upon is it’s not the lack of apt policies – it is the inefficient implementation.
    And this is where UIDAI fits in. It is a tool towards addressing this core deficiency in our system – that of inefficient implementation.

    b) Any person who is in the ‘business’ of execution/implementation of a given set of untested ideas aimed at addressing specific issues (which largely what our policies are), would be able to tell you one thing upfront – and that is to put in place a monitoring mechanism. A mechanism which allows for Measurable, Reportable and Verifiable results (MRV).

    So if a centralised databases can help analysts ascertain complex issues of weather and outer space – I need a concrete reason to say why can it not help us in addressing the issues of social upliftment by providing us a clearer picture of impact assessment.

    In my humble view – the first step towards inclusion is identification / acceptance.

  6. Varun Hallikeri December 22, 2010 at 5:07 am ·


    If I understand correctly, you make two points – 1) UID can be used to persecute ethnic, religious and others minorities given the frailty of our democracy (read as Emergency provisions in our Constitution) and 2) UID does not really aid development and you use the skewed definition of BPL drive home your point.

    While there is some substance in your concerns, it does not warrant a complete rejecting the idea of UID. To take the first point, the mere possibility of abuse of a technology is no ground to not have it at all. Email accounts can be hacked and private information stolen by anti-social elements. So, should be not have email accounts at all? [This is just an example] Similarly, one can give hundreds of examples where tools (technologies) can be put to wrong use but that does not mean that we don’t have those enabling tools at all. In such cases, we should guard against throwing the baby out with the bath water. In fact, history teaches us that authoritarian governments have existed even without intruding technologies. The solution would be to change provisions in the Constitution to make the imposition of Emergency more difficult and also create sufficient accountability mechanisms to eliminate the risk of authoritarian behaviour. Empower people. That is the real answer to any threat of ‘state of exception’ and not banning of or giving up on useful technologies.

    Second, you use a valid example of skewed definition of BPL to explain how futile UID can be in ensuring food security. Good point but again the problem is not UID. It is the problematic definition of BPL (poverty). We need to change the definition of the targeted group for ensuring food security. UID does not target vulnerable groups – it is only a tool to identify these targeted groups. The utility of this tool in development depends on how well you define the targeted group. There is no denying that there are many poor who get left out of the PDS because they cannot prove that they fall within the targeted group. In such a scenario, a tool like UID can be immensely helpful for such groups to assert their identity.

    So far, I have not said anything about the benefits of UID. There is ample literature on that front. I make only one simple point on this. UID is not a panacea for India’s developmental problems. It is only a tool which can get the poor better access to development programmes. How is that so? It does this by giving the vulnerable groups an assurance of their identity by incorporating their demographic and biographic information which no babu in a government office can deny.

    Another good concern that you raised was about how people can be forced to adopt UID. That is a real concern. Many have already argued that forcing the poor to adopt UID might adversely affect them in accessing governmental programmes in the short run. I have also read documents available on UIDAI website. Mr. Nilekani and his team are aware of this problem [please read some of those documents and his interviews] and have therefore not made UID mandatory but only voluntary to start off. To guard against this problem, a provision in the NIA Bill to the effect that no person shall be denied a service or benefit due to the absence of UID is a good starting point.


  7. Nirav January 5, 2011 at 4:32 am ·

    Hi Ruchira,

    It was an interesting article. There is a critical aspect which is missing in the article.
    The real benefit is “ACCOUNTABILITY”. With a UID every individual will have a credit and criminal history.

    Once you have that in place corporations and government agencies will have a very critical database to review individuals.

    “Every one will be accountable for their bad and wrong actions” .

    Frankly india has abundant cheat’s and thugs who now can be traced.

    UID is the need of the hour. EMR and millions of other project will embark on it.

  8. Kushal Bhandari July 16, 2011 at 11:15 am ·

    The moot point here is that the the people who have the access to the records can use the same for surveillance of the citizen, there can be an unwarranted prying into the private life of the individual, the sensitive records can be used for blackmailing or using coercion against the opponents or the people with influence or authority to follow the dictates of the person who has accessed the records. Also, in case of a dictatorship or an Emergency, the same can be used for controlling the opponents and critics of the persons in power.
    Until and unless there are substantive safeguards to prevent such follow-on, whatever be the claimed benefits, they pale into insignificance against the possibility of the undermining of the freedom of Human Rights.
    It is primarily keeping in mind this intrusion into the freedom and privacy rights of the people, that the UID scheme has been scrapped in countries like England.

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