Red herring: Aruna Roy gives 'communal' angle to UID

Aruna Roy is at it again. After mocking the Planning Commission for its Rs 32-a-day poverty line claim, the National Advisory Council (NAC) member is now targeting Nandan Nilekani’s Unique ID (UID) project – which Manmohan Singh sees as the key to the targeting subsidies better to the poor.

But Aruna Roy apparently sees something more sinister in it. According to The Times of India, UID is an “invasive” project that will “facilitate communal targeting of certain minorities.”

Worse, she spoke like a real low-level politician by inciting the minorities to revolt against UID. She said: "The UID is a dangerous thing. I'm shocked minorities and other communities are not boycotting it."

Aruna Roy. joe athialy/flickr

Come again? The UID will help communalists target the minorities? Tell us another one, Ms Roy. The UID will actually benefit the poor among minorities by directing subsidies to them.

Everyone and his aunt know where the minorities live anyway. If anyone wants to target them, do they need a UID database to target them? There are voter databases, income-tax data-bases, ration card databases, and bank databases that can be used for this purpose.

In fact, evangelical organisations use even pin code data to target conversions in India (read a Tehelka story on on this).

The point is, if anyone has to be targeted, they can be targeted through existing means anyway. In fact, availability of such data can help an administration to give extra protection to vulnerable communities – if at all the need arises.

Ms Roy, this is a new low you have sunk to. This is not expected from a secular person like you. By doing so, you have actually diverted attention away from the more substantive points you have raised on UID.

The most important issue is privacy guarantees. When so much data is available in one database, we need foolproof safeguards that they won’t be misused.

The problem, though, is that privacy is a larger issue compared to UID. Consider existing databases where there are no real guarantees on privacy.

The country has over 800 million mobile phone numbers. That’s over 80 percent of the adult population. The misuse of telephone tapping is widespread, as the Radia tapes and other cases of phone tapping show. Anyone in power – politicians, intelligence agencies, and even policemen and criminals - seems to have access to this data. Ms Roy, this is the first area you should be concerned about.

The second area of privacy concern is banking. The know-your-customer (KYC) norms are now so stringent that as much information is collected about individuals by banks as UID – barring the biometrics. It is tougher to get a bank account opened than getting a UID number. How do we know inclusive banking won’t create privacy concerns on a wider scale?

We need bank data to be protected. With so many public sector banks being run with practically no safeguard against the sharing of this data with intelligence agencies or the taxman or criminals, Roy should be fighting this, too.

Income-tax data is another source – and a dangerous one at that – where privacy concerns need to be paramount. Imagine how much money extortionists will offer to get details of the tax returns of the rich or near-rich? But Roy does not have concerns about them?

It is quite possible that Roy’s real concerns are that the UID will be used to de-universalise the social security schemes by trying to exclude the non-poor. This may be why she is probably campaigning against the UID so hard.

Among the other concerns she has raised are the possibility that private companies might be milking the exchequer through UID contracts. Also, she is worried that the scheme is no longer optional, since benefits to the poor may be linked to UID. The technology may not work.

The last one can be dismissed right away since technology can fail in any project. But that is not an argument against it. The thing to do is build safeguards, and improve it. The other option – of not using technology - has been a roaring disaster. Forty percent of grains distributed through the public distribution system is pilfered or wasted. Technology is the only way to minimise it.

It is surprising that Roy, who claims to be against systemic corruption, is opposing the one measure that will ensure that only the right person will benefit from social schemes.

The other objections raised about the UID project have to be addressed by proper audits and transparency. We are sure the Comptroller and Auditor General will have things to say on it, when it sinks its teeth into it.

But Roy has damaged her case by needlessly bringing in the communal angle. It is the one angle that is totally irrelevant to the UID debate.

Updated Date: Oct 17, 2011 11:13 AM

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