Milestone Achieved–First UID Issued in India Today

Today the first set of Indian citizens from the village of  Nandurbar, Maharashtra  will get their UIDs.

It is heartening to see that the talk is finally resulting in the walk. With Mr. Nilekani heading this project, there was never a question of “if” but “when”. We had panned some aspects of the UID/Aadhar Project to good measure. We still believe there is a long way to go for this to become a part of the mainstream like the Social Security Number (SSN) in the US – but this is the first step and a big one.

Aadhar Project
Aadhar/ UID Project

Remarkably, the UID project also sits close to a philosophy called Government 2.0 which is taking the world by a storm. The whole intent behind UID is to touch the citizens at “multiple levels” by linking up services around all stakeholders of the country i.e. citizens, agencies and providers.

Some reasons why we think this will work:-

  • Aadhaar is being backed to the hilt by the Government. Leadership & its intent is the single most important factor which would determine the success or failure of a project of this stature. And till now the government has been behind Aadhar, closely. That is a good sign.
  • Mr Nilekani – With him at the helm, a lot of things are automatically assumed. As some internal noises suggest, he runs a tight ship and that is saying something especially when you are working with government officials.
  • The effect of the first movers – As they are starting out from a rural example, the first few success stories (e.g. making a clear connection between NREGA and Aadhar ID – thereby reducing corruption) etc. would go a long way in demonstrating the efficacy of this mechanism. That said however, it wouldn’t be hard to guess the challenge and cost of reaching out beyond the line of the digital divide.
  • Biometric identification – Is being tried out on such a huge scale for the first time. In a country where identities are a dime a dozen, Bangladeshi workers work with abandon and families own half of the CWG contracts – biometric identification would go a long way in making business, governance and law and order administration easier. As we mentioned earlier, hygiene in defining the scope, scalability and updatability will go miles in achieving better results.

The website lists a press release (in a doc format) which mentions a few other showcase use cases. We quote:

The Aadhaar number will also enable the delivery of various services at the grass root level in a cost effective and efficient way. An example of such an Aadhaar-enabled service is in banking for the poor. With the Aadhaar number, residents will be able to easily fulfill the Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements of banks. They will be able to verify their identity through the Aadhaar number to banks both in person or remotely, using a mobile device. As a result, banks will be able to provide branchless banking services to hard-to-reach rural regions, and the use of electronic transactions will further bring down costs. Similarly, electronic transfers of benefits and entitlements can be enabled through Aadhaar-linked bank accounts of the beneficiaries.

The project has a lot of roadblocks – many of which are artificial (i.e. seemingly because of hunger for hype) and can surely be overcome. However in a generic sense, the few major challenges that we see upfront:-

a) The first one we assessed was that of the definition of UID/Aadhaar:

Who can get an Aadhaar?

An individual who is a resident in India and satisfies the verification process laid down by the UIDAI can get an Aadhaar.”

So this means the project excludes Indian citizens who are residing outside of national boundaries, LoC etc. and that includes the Indian Foreign Service officers, embassy staff and high value NRIs who bring great value to Indian Business & International presence.

b) The Indian propensity to game the system – This is one major issue in India (not only in UID) where the patches use more rubber than the tire itself. A lot of checks and balances need to be built into the system – especially when easily “gameable” systems like mobile phones etc may be a part of the UID concept.

c) Remembering and tracking – As the numbers won’t be cards, remembering and storing these numbers needs a novel approach. Tattooing (sic)?

d) Access to right authorities and on a need to know basis – While the statement above encompasses a lot of services, the same would require a high degree of confidentiality and data access rules. The SSN concept was also misused in many ways before the Government stepped in with a lot of ground rules.

e) Religious and regional profiling – In diverse country like India, this is critical. Any advantages to be gained by regional number allocations would soon be overruled by the problems arising out of communal concerns.

d) Biometric identification working – As is often the case, the biggest advantage might turn out to be the largest detriment. In this case, biometric identification (after UID issue for verification) might be a weak link.

Lastly in a country where the social fabric is stretched with issues like the Babri Masjid and the shame of the Commonwealth Games – this is a welcome change. This is a large step in the right direction and we eagerly look forward to the change this promises to bring to our country.

What’s your opinion?