Rajnath pushes national ID cards: Will Aadhaar go out of the window?

Nandan Nilekani's Unique ID scheme may ultimately turn out to have been a costly boondoggle. Under the new NDA dispensation, Home Minister Rajnath Singh has already issued directions to make the National Population Register (NPR) plan the centerpiece of citizen identification, which could mean a downgrading of the Aadhaar scheme championed by Nilekani through the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). He was chairman of UIDAI till he resigned to contest the recent Lok Sabha polls - which he lost.

According to The Economic Times, the home minister wants to give NPR the top priority so that all adult citizens can be issued identity cards. While it is not clear whether NPR will replace Aadhaar, or both will coexist, a home ministry official has been quoted as saying that "the minister wants the UIDAI scheme to complement the NPR scheme by merging them...the NPR will get priority." The NPR idea was floated during the time of Atal Behari Vajpayee, but it was partly derailed under UPA.

The problems with Aadhaar were always clear. Without any legislative support, private parties were unleashed to collect the biometric data (iris and fingerprints), with no official guarantees against the misuse of data. Even though Aadhaar was never mandatory, the UPA government pushed it through bureaucratic action, and mild coercion. A case against Aadhaar is being heard by the Supreme Court, and the interim order is that no benefits can be denied to anyone without an Aadhaar number. A parliamentary panel also rejected the UIDAI plan are unacceptable.

The home ministry has always been keen on the NPR rather than the Aadhaar scheme because its concerns primarily stemmed from security issues, with infiltration and illegal immigration continuing unchecked. However, some time after the UPA's 2009 victory, Manmohan Singh brought in Nilekani to work out a scheme to issue unique numbers to all residents (and not just citizens) so that it could also be used to identify subsidy beneficiaries and cut down on leakages.

For two years, while home ministry officials gnashed their teeth in anguish, Nilekani's Aadhaar ruled the roost. But around end-2011, with P Chidambaram as home minister, the matter suddenly came to a head and Manmohan Singh had to find a compromise. The net result: both NPR and Aadhaar were given half a mandate, with each being asked to enroll 600 million Indians. The idea was to let both do their jobs in different areas, with the whole being stitched up later, by issuing Aadhaar numbers to anyone already covered by NPR.

In January 2012, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, then Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, was quoted by The Indian Express as explaining the compromise thus: "While the UID will only give Aadhaar numbers in 16 states and Union Territories to 40 crore more people (20 crore having already been already done at that point), the NPR will continue to cover the entire Indian population with minimum biometric duplication".

Now, with Rajnath Singh giving primacy to NPR over Aadhaar, there are more questions than answers. The questions that will need answering are the following:

One, will we end up having two IDs or just one? The NPR's aim is to issue ID cards to adults based on photographs and confirmation of basic citizenship details. Aadhaar's aim is to give a 12-digit number to anyone staying in India, including non-citizens and kids. What happens to those with Aadhaar numbers who don't get an NPR card - that is kids and non-citizens?

Two, with 600 million Indians sharing their biometric details with UIDAI, what will happen to the data so collected? Will legislation be enacted to protect their privacy, or will the data just lie unused - and vulnerable to misuse?

Three, what happens to the UIDAI, which now operates under the Planning Commission? Will it be brought under the home ministry, now that NPR is being given primacy?

Four, Aadhaar was supposed to enable direct-benefits transfer - cash payments of subsidies to the poor, paid directly to their bank accounts. The UPA could never really leverage this, since banking penetration was weak, and the Supreme Court anyway said Aadhaar could not be used to deny anyone a subsidy. Will the NDA government, which also needs to cut subsidies, use the NPR ID to link benefits or also use Aadhaar?

Five, what will happen to people the NPR decides against issuing cards to? Since NPR cards depend on proving citizenship, those without a card may be left out in the cold, creating a political problem for state governments who woo the same illegal immigrants for votes? Will they continue to get their subsidised grain, having got themselves ration cards?

Six, Aadhaar was also supposed to create an authentication ecosystem on which lots of private players could build businesses - and transactions - based on perfect customer identification. This could have generated fees for UIDAI. Will this go out of the window?

It is early days yet, but suddenly the future of Aadhaar is up in the air.

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Updated Date: Jun 19, 2014 13:28:31 IST