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04 UID and Accountability

The parent is often a good indicator of how the child would be, and the shenanigans of UIDAI do not inspire confidence in NIA or Aadhaar. They have consistently tried to keep themselves above accountability and good governance.

Repeated requests under the RTI have been turned down—yet R S Sharma Director General of UIDAI makes the astounding claim that the UIDAI has undertaken a wide range of consultations … with economists … civil society activists and scholars, academics, law experts as well as biometric experts. The UIDAI has also engaged in discussions and consultations with several stakeholders at various levels across the country–various ministries and departments of the government, all state governments, the Planning Commission, the Thirteenth Finance Commission, and various independent regulatory authorities. (The details of these consultations are publicly available on the web site.)

The reality is that such information is not available on the website, and it is doubtful that they have it. RTI request F-12013/3/RTI/2010-CPIO regarding consultations conducted by UIDAI from July 2009 to March 2010 for the information on who was consulted, the date, time, venue and participants at the meeting was returned with the same claim after one month. On looking up the website it was found that this crucial information was missing. Does meeting someone on the airport tarmac for 10 minutes count as a consultation? Was the meeting with prior information with briefing papers exchanged beforehand? There is no way of knowing from the website. UIDAI either has the information and is stonewalling or does not have the information and is simply inefficient, not even knowing how to write minutes of meetings. Either way, it bodes ill for the endeavour.

Aadhaar will be more of the same. They know it will be misused on a large scale, and so they ensure that UIDAI cannot be held accountable. The draft NATIONAL IDENTIFICATION AUTHORITY OF INDIA BILL, 2010 is on the lines of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), keeping them beyond the pale of accountability. While for others (that is you and me) intentional damage will be punishable (Sec 38, NIA Draft Bill) with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall be liable to a fine which shall not be less than one crore rupees (Rs 10 million) the officials (Sec 52, NIA Draft Bill)—but not citizens—are given virtual impunity both for ‘acts done in good faith’ —never mind the vast data available publicly on the technical flaws and socio-legal demerits. Tucked away in the earlier section 46.1 is that only the UIDAI, and later the NIA, can sue itself: 46. (1) No court shall take cognizance of any offence punishable under this Act, save on a complaint made by the Authority or any officer or person authorised by it.

The other disingenuous excuse is the ‘we are only’ excuse. They say that Aadhaar would be ‘voluntary’—keeping eyes wide shut on the government proclamations that it is compulsory—and that they are ‘only’ going to store the ten fingerprints, iris scan and face linked to a number. They are quite clear about keeping eyes closed about other implications. The spin doctors at UIDAI come with this rather disingenuous word craft to retain their innocence: While Aadhaar per se will not be mandatory, other agencies—such as the passport office or banks—may make it mandatory to have the UID number. With the government bringing out detailed plans on making Aadhaar compulsory, UIDAI cannot keep harping back to this intentional ignorance either on the use that the Government of India is going to put it to, or the experience of other countries.

The experience regarding phone tapping in the recent past is illustrative. Those who were using it confirm that there was no authorisation. In fact, all phones and their signals were being heard without a single authorisation from the Union home secretary as required by law. … Completely illegal and dangerous. As usual, all this activity is conducted without obtaining any written authorisation for any specific phone number. These are random sweeps, which pick and record calls with impunity.

It strains credulity that UIDAI does not know about the experience of UK, where it was scraped in 2010 with an estimated savings of at least BP 80 million, or the US. A simple net search—surely not beyond the capacity of the authority—would confirm these.

With caste being enumerated, and the biometrics being taken, the master key will provide permanently rigid caste identities despite the provision in the draft NID Act 9. The Authority shall not require any individual to give information pertaining to his race, religion, caste, tribe, ethnicity, language, income or health. This is not as contradictory as it seems. It is fully in keeping with the UIDAI position that it is ‘only’ going to give the numbers and ‘only’ going to validate ‘yes’ or ‘no’ queries and the Government of India’s attempt—helped in no small measure by Nilekani’s tunnel vision, single minded obsession and messianic zeal—to make the number mandatory virtually everywhere from the PDS to passports to bank accounts to school admissions.

In the hurry to get things done, UIDAI has learnt the art of working around government regulations. As we are informed, UIDAI has hired five experts to help communicate different messages to different sections of the Indian population for a buy in. Due to government regulations, the five specialists advise in an individual capacity and not as representatives of their organizations.