UID – An Apolitical Enabler or a Political Tool?

February 12, 2011

By T. V. H. Prathamesh and Shiv Sethi, Sanhati

UID (aadhar) is an attempt to make a biometric data base for the entire population of India. According to the UIDAI website [1]:

Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique number which the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) will issue for all residents. The number will be stored in a centralised database and linked to the basic demographics and biometric information —photograph, ten fingerprints and iris—of each individual.

On the face of it UID appears to be a technological upgrade a society undergoes periodically. The proponents of UID emphasize its technological aspect and underline its role as an apolitical enabler in providing much-needed social services to a vast section of Indian population. However, no technological ‘development’ can be assessed without understanding the social context in which it is introduced. Even on a purely technological level UID has faced strong criticism (e.g. a set of articles on Center for Internet and Society web site [2]). This article will look primarily at the social implications of UID.

The case for UID

UID is projected to be a unique data set containing important information of an Indian citizen (e.g. name, address, phone number…and biometric profile such as fingerprints and iris scan). At the present, such information is highly fragmented and not easily portable. As the supporters of UID point out, a fair fraction of Indian population remain without proper identification papers. This includes not only the 100 million strong internal migrants, but a majority of people in rural areas. Their only form of identity, the ration card, is considered grossly inadequate. Its lack of portability prevents, in particular, the large immigrant community from availing social services they are earmarked to receive. Most of the rural community also remain outside the ambit of formal banking, which requires acceptable identification. The UID will provide a unique, easily verifiable and portable identity. And therefore UID is expected to integrate a vast body of Indians into the national mainstream and make a wide range of social benefits accessible to them. According to UIDAI[1]:

By providing a clear proof of identity, Aadhaar will empower poor and underprivileged residents in accessing services such as the formal banking system and give them the opportunity to easily avail various other services provided by the Government and the private sector. The centralised technology infrastructure of the UIDAI will enable ‘anytime, anywhere, anyhow’ authentication…The UIDAI envisions full enrolment of the residents, with a focus on enrolling India’s poor and underprivileged communities. The Registrars that the Authority plans to partner with in its first phase such as—the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA), Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna (RSBY), and Public Distribution System (PDS)—will help bring large number of the poor and underprivileged into the UID system. The UID method of authentication will also improve service delivery for the poor.

The case against UID

There are many problems with the outlook delineated in the foregoing.

First and foremost, the claims about radical improvements in public distribution system, apart from being vague, are also irrelevant to
the actual problems confronting the Public Distribution System. This will be elaborated later in the article.

Second, even though UID is now being peddled as an enabler of social services, it was initially conceived as a security requirement. Ramakumar notes[3]:

The first phase of today’s UID project was initiated in 1999 by the NDA government in the wake of the Kargil War. Following the reports of the “Kargil Review Committee” in 2000, and a Group of Ministers in 2001, the NDA government decided to compulsorily register all citizens into a “National Population Register” (NPR) and issue a Multi-purpose National Identity Card (MNIC) to each citizen. To ease this process, clauses related to individual privacy in the Citizenship Act of 1955 were weakened through an amendment in 2003…

…The parallels between the UPA’s UID and the NDA’s MNIC are too evident to be missed, even as the UPA sells UID as a purely “developmental” initiative. The former chief of the Intelligence Bureau, A.K. Doval, almost gave it away recently, when he said that UID, originally, “was intended to wash out the aliens and unauthorised people. But the focus appears to be shifting. Now, it is being projected as more development-oriented, lest it ruffle any feathers”.

Therefore, many sections of the civil society view UID as a harbinger of thinly-veiled threat to civil liberties.

Third, according to UIDAI, aadhar is voluntary. However, it also expects UID as a pre-requisite for availing essential social services, which undermines the voluntary nature of UID.

Fourth, a project with such pious overtones of providing social services to the poor should at least have a budgetary requirement commensurate with such an aim. According to UIDAI, the total financial outlay of the project for the year 2010-11 is less than 2000 crore rupees. However, it has been reported, based on the presentation made by UIDAI to the ministry of finance, that the total expenditure over next four years would exceed 45000 crore rupees, as the cost of issuing a UID has jumped nearly 15 fold from Rs. 30 to Rs. 450 [4]. In addition, the central and state governments will spend thousands of crore rupees as incentives to the rural families to acquire UID. The issuance of UID is still at an early stage, and the cost overruns appear to already exceed the initial projections by up to an order of magnitude. To put this in perspective, the total financial outlay for NREGA, the flagship project of the government in rural areas, for 2010-11 is expected to be around 40000 crore rupees.

UID–the enabler in an enabling state

As already noted above, one of the most important selling point of UID is as a conduit to reliably provide essential social services to the most deprived sections of the society. This might seem like a self-contradictory claim in the present social context in which the state is gradually withdrawing itself from providing these services.

Targeting beneficiaries of social services

It has been widely claimed that the poor are not able to avail services owing to duplication of identity. In a working paper, UIDAI elaborates on this issue and makes a case for better targeting of social services by using UID to identify the poor families. (The working paper
grandiousely entitled “Envisioning a role for Aadhaar in the Public Distribution System” (available at UIDAI site [14]) portrays duplication of identity as the major malaise besetting the PDS. The only data it presents to support its outlook is the single sentence “ one state government unearthed 29 lakh bogus ration cards in 2009”. While no one doubts there might be widespread identity fraud which deprives the poor of essential services, the protagonists of UID never seek roots of this corruption in the deep historic social and economic inequalities in India.)

However, such a discourse implicitly assumes that poor, e.g. Below and Above Poverty Line (BPL and APL) divide, can be unambiguously defined. This is simply not the case in India at the present.

BPL is an arbitrary and much debated demarcation. The planning commission of India estimated this number to be 27.5% of India’s population in 2004–2005. This estimate was revised up by two official committees appointed by the government—Tendulkar committee (37 %) and Saxena committee (50%). Another important official report (Sengupta report [5]) computed that 77% of Indians spent below Rs 20 per day per capita (2005 prices). Detailed analyses of National Sample Survey (NSS) data show that nearly 75% of Indians are below poverty line if calorific norms defined in 1970s are used [6]. Other multidimensional poverty indices (e.g. Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative) have pointed out that there are more poor in India than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. The National Family Health Surveys (NFHS) paint an extremely bleak picture of the health of women and children in India, e.g. over 79 per cent in children under five and 56 per cent in young women are anaemic; much worse, these numbers have only increased in recent years [7]. The UN data, in agreement with Sengupta report, show that nearly 80% of Indians spend less than 2.5 PPP US dollars per capita per day. The same data shows that nearly half these people spend 1.25 PPP US dollars per day. All these data are strongly indicative of the depth of poverty and underline the futility of drawing a sharp boundary to define poverty in India.

Apart from the measurement of BPL, the discrepancy in identification of BPL families also stems from the method of identification. Identification of a family as BPL is done by aggregating the score over 13 criterion, where fulfillment of each criterion would increase the score by a unit [15]. The cut-off scores to be used for identifying the poor could vary at the level of districts, blocks or villages.
Such a method leads to omissions because 1) Many of these criterion cannot be compared against each other to determine poverty. 2) The very fact that they are counted using an aggregate delinks them from local conditions of deprivation, even if cut offs are decided by local authorities.

For instance, weavers in Varanasi on the verge of deaths due to malnutrition deaths were not allotted BPL cards because they built pucca houses during the years of their relative prosperity [13].

In fact it is incredibly difficult to design any foolproof method to identify ‘deprived population’, which would hold true across India. More so, given any cut off criterion for poverty quite a few people will always hover around these levels and keep shifting in and out of these levels because of the nature of poverty and subsistence in India. It is fair to conclude that these problems cannot be dealt with short of universalising different benefit schemes.

While these facts underline the foolhardiness of any attempt to provide social services to a targeted group in India, UID is geared to achieve exactly that. Those who tout the virtues of UID piously proclaim that unique identity will enable better targeting of social services to the poor. Absent a social context, this might seem like an honorable intention; but in the socio-economic setting of India, such a claim is nonsensical.

A good illustration to understand the impact of Targeting social services is the public distribution system (PDS), which started its transformation from a inclusive system to a targeted scheme in 1996. In one fell swoop, only a fraction of people living below an arbitrarily defined line, BPL, were deemed worthy of receiving food grains at subsidized rates. The repercussions of this policy were immediate. According to Food and Agriculture Organisation [8] data the absolute number of malnourished people in India increased by roughly 20 million (over an already very high number of 200 million) in the last five years of the 20th century, for the first time in nearly 40 years. As food grain prices, now determined by ‘market forces’ for a majority of Indian population, spiralled out of reach for most Indians, the government built a large reserve of food grains. In 2002, India had a net 64 million tons of food grains, an all time high, in its warehouses; most of this food was sold on international markets [7,9]. The decade of 1991-2001, saw a drop in average annual food consumption for the first time since 1947 [6].

As noted above, UIDAI seeks to identify the major failure of PDS in large scale duplication of identity [14]. Even while UIDAI blames the leakages in PDS on the inclusion errors on bogus cards, it does not provide anything more than an anecdotal evidence even in its working paper. Nor does it prove that unintended beneficiaries do not fall within one of other accepted definitions of deprivation. As UIDAI itself accepts [14], many of the leakages in PDS have been adequately addressed by Tamil Nadu through use of technology without any biometric data or an identification number.

As the Indian state makes a transition from the ‘welfare’ state to an enabling state, UID is one of a long chain of measures that facilitate it. As a ‘welfare’ state, the government explicitly recognized the failure of markets to reach essential commodities and services to a majority at affordable prices. The government dominated the food procurement, distribution, and pricing. Health and education of citizens were considered the responsibility of the government. The banking system had the social role of providing credit to the rural sector. The actual performance of the government during this phase was always far less than satisfactory. However, there doesn’t exist a spec of evidence from anywhere in the world that the withdrawal of government from these activities could cause an improvement. In fact, all data points to the opposite, as evidenced by the performance of PDS in India.

The new mantra of the enabling state is aptly captured by The Economic Survey 2009-10 report of the government[10]:

The standard way to [cushion the poor] is by using some kind of subsidy. However, a common mistake is to suppose that a subsidy scheme has to be coupled with price control. This is typically a slippery slope. In a large and complex economy, it is difficult for the state to gauge what the right price of a good is. Moreover, once the Government becomes involved in setting the price of a commodity, this becomes a matter of politics and lobbying, which cumulatively adds to the distortion. Hence prices are best left to the market. If we want to ensure that poor consumers are not exposed to the vagaries of the market, the best way to intervene is to help the poor directly instead of trying to control prices, which almost invariably does more harm than good in the long run, and often even not so long a run.

That this outlook is nothing more than an ideological construct is amply proved by the performance of markets in providing essential commodities at affordable prices. A case in point is the prices of food commodities in India in the past three years. Government deregulation has resulted in a sharp increase in prices of food grains, pulse, and vegetables. Even though the proponents of market forces attempt to invoke high demand for rising prices, a more than cursory look reveal the pattern expected in unfettered markets: exports to international markets for profits at the cost of local demand, speculation on futures markets (banned since 1952 but allowed again in the past 5 years), and hoarding.

However, it has not stopped the proponents of UID from putting a positive spin on this state of affairs. Ramakumar [3] explains:

According to the UIDAI, the most important benefit from the UID could be that you could have a ‘portable’ PDS. In other words, you could have a system where you (say, a migrant worker) could buy your PDS quota from anywhere in India. The claim, of course, has a deceptive appeal. One would have to dig deeper to grasp the real intent.

If we take the present fair price shop (FPS) system, each FPS has a specified number of households registered to it. The FPS stores grains only for the registered households. The FPS owner would not know how many migrants, and for what periods, would come in and demand their quota. Hence, for lack of stock, he would turn away migrant workers who demand grains. Hence, the FPS system is incompatible with the UID-linked portability of PDS. There is only one way out: do away with the FPS system, accredit grocery shops to sell grains, allow them to compete with each other and allow the shop owners to get the subsidy reimbursed. This is precisely what food stamps are all about; no FPS, you get food stamps worth an amount, go to any shop and buy grains.

While the UID professes to facilitate a break from the ‘tyranny of the fair price shop owner’ by granting the consumer a choice, the real intent is to unleash the far more pernicious tyranny of ‘free markets’ [12].

Once the real import of the ‘social role’ likely to be played by UID is understood, one can also get a better appreciation of the the other – security related – role of UID. As the government continues on the path to repudiating its direct social role, social unrest has increased, especially in the rural areas. Even as the government has introduced programs like the NREGA to prevent this unrest from turning into organized resistance, it is not lost on the ruling elite that the only possible impact of their policies would be to further undermine the entitlements of the toiling masses. And therefore the urgent need of security. As the state moves to facilitate the transfer the vast mining resources of central India to private global and local mining giants, an open state of war exists between the tribal inhabitants of the region and the government forces. Clearly UID, with its comprehensive biometric data base, can play an important role in this regard. Dreze [12] clarifies in a recent article:

The biggest danger of UID, however, lies in a restriction of civil liberties. As one observer aptly put it, Aadhaar is creating “the infrastructure of authoritarianism” – an unprecedented degree of state surveillance (and potential control) of citizens. This infrastructure may or may not be used for sinister designs. But can we take a chance, in a country where state agencies have such an awful record of arbitrariness, brutality and impunity?

In fact, I suspect that the drive towards permanent state surveillance of all residents has already begun. UIDAI is no Big Brother, but could others be on the job? Take for instance Captain Raghu Raman (of the Mahindra Special Services Group), who is quietly building NATGRID on behalf of the Home Ministry. His columns in the business media make for chilling reading. Captain Raman believes that growing inequality is a “powder keg waiting for a spark,” and advocates corporate takeover of internal security (including a “private territorial army”), to enable the “commercial czars” to “protect their empires.” The Maoists sound like choir boys in comparison.

UID will no doubt be hailed as an important symbol of the modern, shining India. It might turn out to be no less sinister for a vast majority of Indians.


1. See website

2. See e.g. cis-india.org and other related articles on the web site

3. Ramakumar, R. 2010, Hindu, Oct 21

4. See e.g. Moneylife, and here

5. Available at nceuis.nic.in

6. Patnaik, U. 2007, The republic of hunger and other essays, three essays collectives

7. Athreya, V. B. et~al, 2008, Report on Food Insecurity in Rural India, available here, and references therein

8. Food and Agricultural Organization, 2002, annual report, available online here.

9. For relevant references see e.g. Rupe-India

10. See Rupe-India article

11. Swaminathan, M. The Hindu, August 3, 2004 discusses the pitfalls of food stamps vis-a-vis universal PDS

12. Dreze, J. 2010, The Hindu, Nov 25

13. Anne Zaidi, The Hindu, Jun 24, 2006

14. Envisioning a role for Aadhaar in the Public Distribution System, UIDAI and Planning Commission of India.

15. For details and further references see Sundaram, K. 2003, EPW, 38, 896

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