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In two minds?

Print edition : Dec 02, 2011

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The government seems confused on key aspects of the UID scheme, and so is the main opposition.

in New Delhi

FOR all the hype about it, the hallmark of the UID [Unique Identification] programme is a sense of incompleteness in terms of both conception and implementation. The muddled political perceptions on it within the government and outside emerge naturally out of these imperfections, This was how a senior bureaucrat in the Finance Ministry responded when Frontline sought his reaction to the recent controversial developments vis-a-vis the UIDAI. The refrain in the Central bureaucracy refers to the multiple conflicts within the government on the programme and the confusion in the political leadership. Interestingly, the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also seems to have got sucked into this vortex of confusion and has not articulated a clear position on the project and its implementation. The Left parties, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), have expressed reservations about some aspects of the project. The CPI(M) leadership has stated that it is closely monitoring the project and the moves to bring about legislation on UID and will come up with interventions as and when required.

In the midst of all this, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance has through a number of sittings considered a Bill to accord legal status to the UIDAI. While the Standing Committee's deliberations are confidential, there are indications that several of its members have questioned the necessity of such a project. Some wings of the government have raised similar questions. The merits and the functioning of the UIDAI have been questioned also by the Planning Commission. Several political observers are of the view that the UIDAI could face a third line of trouble from the audit initiated by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). The Finance Ministry rejected a demand from the UIDAI to increase its outlay from Rs.3,023 crore to Rs.17,863 crore and enhance its biometric capture mandate from 200 million to all 1.2 billion. The Home Ministry questioned the accuracy of the UIDAI data and asserted that the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India, which functions under the Ministry, would complete the collection of biometrics that it had already initiated as part of the Census.

Doubts raised by Planning Commission

The Planning Commission even questioned the approximately Rs.3,000 crore that the UIDAI was spending to collect fingerprints, iris scans and photographs of a section of the population. In fact, Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia and the Commission's Member-Secretary Sudha Pillai reportedly objected to the UIDAI's proposal to raise its implementation costs and the methods adopted by the authority to collect citizen biometrics. In a letter dated August 30, Ahluwalia requested the Home Minister to kindly see the note below with the duplication in the rollout of Aadhaar numbers by UIDAI and the ongoing exercise of the national population register by the Registrar General of India. Obviously following up on this, Sudha Pillai pointed out that a reasoned decision is missing [on] whether iris [scans] really needs to be collected. She also added that the Planning Commission was keen to avoid the duplication of data and expenditure.

While these missives and the rejection of the proposed outlay signify the turbulence in the government in relation to the very purpose of the UIDAI and the way it has evolved and sought to implement its schemes, the performance audit initiated by the CAG in early October involves inspecting the functioning of the UIDAI so far. Naturally, the expenditure incurred by the authority would also come under the CAG scanner. Several political observers, including a number of Members of Parliament, are of the view that the CAG report could raise some questions on the UIDAI's expenditures, especially in the context of the financial autonomy that has been provided to the authority. Supporters of the UIDAI and its Chairman allege that the CAG audit is unwarranted since the authority has been functional barely for a year.

The relative financial autonomy accorded to the UIDAI is being perceived as improper by a number of seasoned bureaucrats, including CAG Vinod Rai and Sudha Pillai. The style of functioning of UIDAI Chairman and Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani has also apparently rankled several people in the government machinery, both politicians and bureaucrats.

Technically the UIDAI is supposed to be under the Home Ministry, but there have been several occasions when the authority dealt directly with the Finance Ministry, giving the clear impression of bypassing the designated reporting Ministry. This has not been taken lightly by many in the Home Ministry, a senior Home Ministry official told Frontline.

Discomfiture for Prime Minister

Clearly, all these pulls and pressures have put the political leadership of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in a spot. In particular, these developments have added to the discomfiture of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who apparently had a major say in initiating the UIDAI project. Naturally, the political spokespersons of the Congress have not made any effort of their own to clear the air in regard to the conflicting pressures and pulls within the government machinery. The matter has not figured in the issues routinely addressed by the party in its diverse forums.

However, talking to Frontline, Congress spokesperson Abishek Manu Singhvi said that the UPA government was committed to taking the UID project forward. Specifically referring to the contradictory views within the government and in institutions such as the Planning Commission, he said: Dissent and contrary views are always welcome in India, but democracy should not begin to mean that every person must be convinced and must express agreement before a public interest, national interest project is implemented. Every issue would certainly have a contrary view, but debate cannot continue ad infinitum and ad nauseam. What needs to be seen is that the UID is likely to transform the face of India by effectively dealing with the scourge of leakages in public welfare development projects and providing a uniform model of verification for one of the largest populations in the world. If these are not good enough reasons, so be it. Singhvi also added that the Congress was of the view that the benefits of the UID project far outweighed the apprehensions and complaints about the fear of data and identity theft as also the reduction of subsidies and decrease in the number of beneficiaries of welfare projects.

The Left parties, however, are questioning the ruling party's assertions. Speaking to Frontline, CPI(M) leader Nilotpal Basu pointed out that the government and the authority itself had derailed the original idea that formed the basis for the UID project.

There are several concerns about the objectives that the UIDAI proposes to pursue now, especially in the way the project is being channelled to become an instrument for effecting changes in the subsidy regime. One of these proposals is the cash transfer scheme that has been contemplated for delivering food and fertilizer subsidy. We have expressed our strong protest at this. There is also an apprehension that the UID would become an intrusionary instrument for reducing the number of beneficiaries in poverty alleviation programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme [MGNREGS]. Basu added that the Left parties would inspect the proposed law concerning the UID closely and would oppose anything that sought to reverse the existing rights of the poor.

BJP leader Yashwant Sinha pointed out that he could not make pointed comments on the merits and demerits of the UID as he was the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance, which is considering the Bill to accord legal status to the UIDAI. But he agreed that the understanding that the UID could not move forward without the imprimatur of a legislative act of Parliament was a sound one.

Sinha's party has broadly welcomed the initiatives on the UID, but its spokesperson Shanawaz Hussain cautioned, in keeping with the party's Hindutva-oriented nationalist perspective, that the authority should take care not to give the UID to illegal immigrants, especially from Bangladesh. Hussain told Frontline that the party was considering other criticisms against the UID and would formulate concrete views in the days to come.

Obviously, the two mainstream parties are thinking on similar lines. Both seem to support the UID and both seem confused on crucial issues concerning the project's conception and implementation. Whether this bodes well for the project or not is a moot question.

There are supporters of the UIDAI who feel such confusion in political circles may actually facilitate easier functioning of the authority. But several others are of the view that this lack of political direction will facilitate unwarranted and mischievous bureaucratic interference.

It remains to be seen which of these projections actually dominates the UID's trajectory.

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