Last Friday I attended parts of this workship on UID, organized by ALF, PUCL and CIS. It was a fairly long event, with successive panels talking about social & legal implications, economic implications etc. Almost all the speakers were opposed to the project. I've tried my best to summarize the event.
But first watch this snippet of a very recent interview with Nandan Nilekani the chairman of UIDAI:
When I walked in, some legal scholar called Usha Ramanathan was speaking and made a good case against the UID based on legal and civil rights principles.
She said that information collected as part of Census Act can't be used for any other purpose - even in a court of law (see Section 15), and it strictly forbids individual profiling. To overcome this, the government in 2003 utilised the Citizenship Act and issued a separate notification (PDF) that empowered it to create a "National Population Register" containing individual details and issue a national identity card. You can find all her arguments summarized in this Hindu article.
Moving on to the UID itself, she said, "Everytime I talk about UID I stutter or explode". Even though getting a UID is completely optional, so many government agencies will start asking for it that it will become a "choice of choicelessness". She was concerned that a lot of power is being handed over to the State in the name of fear, and history shows that government has never been able to handle our personal information without abusing it.
If that's the political case against UID, ethically she feels there's a problem of transparency. On one hand, the government turns squeamish if judges are demanded to come under purview of the RTI act, but they want personal information of every common citizen! She asserted the UID project can't validly claim "informed consent" of the people. And that we need to ensure that the silos of info we present to different government agencies should remain as they are without getting linked up.
Next was a person called Prof. Dominic who is a Reader at Bangalore University. His remarks were almost irrelevant to UID. He spent all his time talking about the caste system, Hindutva, Dalits, and ended saying that the State is being driven by monopoly capitalism instead of social ethics. He placed the UID project in this context and said it's an anti human rights exercise. An interesting anecdote he mentioned was that in 2001, police commissioner of Bangalore H T Sangliana issued an order that all youth living in slums have to register with the police with photo id.
Gautam John - a lawyer, "libertarian" and currently working in the social sector of education - spoke next. He made it clear that he was opposed to the UID, but acknowledged that a successful identification scheme will help to track the progress of a child throughout his years in the education system. Though the government has a lot of aggregate data, the quality of information is not upto the mark and does not really help in coming up with improvements. He said the UID project is trying to achieve too much and therefore not feasible.
At this point, the moderator Malavika Jayaram summed up this session by saying the UID is a sledgehammer being used to crack a nut. It's a moving beast. Even being a lawyer she doesn't fully understand it and it is a technological solution to a problem that is not technological.
There was a Q & A session. Someone commented that tracking enrolment in schools should be done by the Panchayat body and not Central Government! Another person called Rahul Tongia who is faculty at Carnegie Mellon Univ. asked whether the UID is trying to do too little instead of too much? Instead of just saying Yes-No to a person's identity, maybe it should offer more and we should help towards making it a success.
The subsequent panel was about the economic implications, though they didn't adhere to that theme much. It was moderated by Prof. Rajiv Gowda of IIM-B.
First up was R Ramakumar of TISS whose major contribution towards UID discourse has been this Frontline article. Hm..actually many of his arguments are present in that article so go read it first. To me the points that appealed from his presentation were:
1) No amount of assertions vis-a-vis service delivery can justify violations of our freedoms
2) The roots of inequality and the problems with Public Distribution System in India are not lack of identity
He said that lack of land reforms in many parts of India has led to an imbalanced power structure. Regarding economic efficiency, India spends a very small amount of its GDP on social sector schemes and optimizing that is not of much value. He feels that in a deeply unequal society like ours. social transformation is a prerequisite for any technological transformations. Despite that, he stressed that he is not "anti-technology" and supports Bt Cotton, for example.
On a political note, he quoted some 2006 report on how the UID can be the fulcrum of smart card initiatives and even accessed by private players on a Pay-As-You-Use basis. That could make the UIDAI an economically self sufficient branch of government in the future. He cited this Indian Express article by (earlier panellist) Usha Ramanathan which states that "Apollo Hospitals group has offered to manage health records through the UIDAI" with scant regard for security and privacy. He questioned the technological logistics of the project (so many millions of PDS outlets to be connected to one system?, and if it goes down then no food for the people?). This much quantity of biometrics has never been successfully collected elsewhere in the world and sanitized/de-duplicated to a usable extent.
Matthew Thomas the Secretary of Citzen Action Forum spoke next. At the outset he admitted that he is "not a lawyer, sociologist or economist", but nevertheless his "common sense" approach shed enough light. He alleged that not enough of a feasibility study has been done, and there are no proper milestones and timelines presented for the UID scheme. He called it an "economic sleight-of-hand" and said they're ducking the issue of costs.
He noted how similar identity card schemes in the US and UK have run into political and economic trouble (Read about REAL Id and National ID). He quoted parts of a report commissioned by the London School of Economics under their Identity Project to buttress his claims.
Even he feels the UID is a moving target: It started off as a card and then became just a number. We'll be maintaining a huge central database at a large cost. Regarding the promoter Nandan Nilekani, he has written in his book that "IT is not a tool, it is a strategy". That makes him a man with a hammer in search of a nail. And he questioned whether we've got our priorities right, "We can't preserve the foodgrains that we produce, and we are spending so much money on some cyberspace scheme"
He closed off by describing what life's like in a police state, by way of recollecting his experience in Soviet Russia. Once they were invited by some locals to join them for some drinks on the banks of the Muskova river. Very soon the police arrived and the locals scooted (Back then it was a crime to talk to foreigners). He was curious as to how they got wind of the event, and he was told, "Oh, everybody is watching everybody".
The event continued with a Q & A after that, but I couldn't stay till the end. Here is Anand Bala asking if all the technology decisions have already been made and contracts awarded to big companies, or is there scope for open source software also.
And a big thanks to Sidharth Kuruvila for telling me about this event.