India’s UID project – discussion needed

UID Resources for other UID articles and updates
Note: This is an old incomplete critique. The updated doc can be read In addition, a few people are organizing for a concerted effort to mainstream a discussion on UID – if you would like to join, please email me (

On November 13th, Wikileaks released the confidential working paper for India’s UID number project. The paper discusses UIDAI approach and provides high level numbers for enrolment, costs etc.

In its ideal implementation, there are potential benefits of a UID number; however given the scale of the program and its potentially invasive use, there is need for discussion in the civil society in the planning and design stage. Extracts from the paper and questions/concerns for discussion below.

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was established in February 2009, attached to the Planning Commission. The purpose of the UIDAI is to issue a unique identification number (UID) to all Indian residents that is (a) robust enough to eliminate duplicate and fake identities, and (b) can be verified and authenticated in an easy, cost effective way (Page 5)

The UIDAI envisions full enrolment of 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 – the NREGA, RSBY, and PDS – will help bring large numbers of the poor and underprivileged into the UID system (Page 6)

The stated agenda throughout the document is pro-poor/pro-rural; however, the impetus for the UID project came after the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. In January 2009, the Center issued notice to maritime states and two UTs to issue identity cards to all coastal residents. In an interview in the aftermath of the terror attacks, Chidambaran said that the Government had decided to set up the UID authority. The UIDAI was established within three months of the attacks in February 2009; Pranab Mukherjee allocated Rs. 100 crore for the project in the interim budget (side note: overall cost of program is estimated to be over Rs. 3000 crore). Given that there is at least in part an anti-terror agenda, there is need to safeguard against potential harassment of undocumented individuals, esp. poor migrants (the enrolment strategy for migrant workers is irrelevant for seasonal migrant workers).

In India, an inability to prove identity is one of the biggest barriers preventing the poor from accessing benefits and subsidies (Page 5)

The UID method of authentication will also improve service delivery for the poor (Page 6)

The UIDAI is only in the identity business. The responsibility of tracking beneficiaries and the governance of service delivery will continue to remain with the respective agencies – the job of tracking distribution of food grains among BPL families for example, will remain with the state PDS department. The adoption of the UID will only ensure that the uniqueness and singularity of each resident is established and authenticated, thereby promoting equitable access to social services. (Page 26)

Service delivery in rural communities is hampered less by the inability of resident to prove identity (population size is small; everyone knows each other) than by defalcation and corruption. Two of the biggest government outlays for social security are NREGA and PDS. In NREGA, there are two avenues for misappropriation: labour (fake names, over/understated days worked) and material (overstated amounts, fake bills). UID will not address the latter and will address the former only if the worker physically clocked in/out using automated biometric readers, and if money could be taken out of bank accounts only after positive biometric proof. The simplest fingerprint readers cost $50 (Rs. 2000) and it’s financially unviable to put one in each of the 600,000 villages in India (or even ~300,000 Panchayats). Likewise in PDS, eliminating defalcation using UID will require positive biometric proof before grain disbursement otherwise what is to stop the FPO from making fake entries, or not opening the ration shop etc? In addition, the problem in targeted welfare schemes is of eligibility and not of identity. The varying numbers of BPL families in the country is not a problem of inability to identify the uniqueness of an individual but of his/her eligibility based on different criteria such as income, nutrition (calories), other wellness indicators.

By providing a clear proof of identity, the UID will also facilitate entry for poor and underprivileged residents into the formal banking system, and the opportunity to avail services provided by the government and the private sector. The UID will also give migrants mobility of identity (Page 9)

The UID number will only store name, DoB, gender, parent’s name, address (permanent and current), photograph and biometric info (Page 7), the benefits in case of mobility will be contingent on the systems used by the various organizations, which should allow transfer of benefits on proof of identity instead of requiring the beneficiary to prove eligibility all over again. E.g., ration cards for migrating family

Enrolment will not be mandated: The UIDAI approach will be a demand-driven one, where the benefits and services that are linked to the UID will ensure demand for the number. This will not however, preclude governments or Registrars from mandating enrolment (Emphasis added) (Page 7).

If any organization mandates UID number before providing social security services, then the onus of enrolment should be on the organization as opposed to the beneficiary, which implies at least that non-enrolment cannot be treated as illegal; and service cannot be unreasonably withheld due to non-enrolment. Moreover, safeguards need to be put into place to ensure that populist and xenophobic state governments don’t use the UID number to exclude unwanted poor migrants from accessing essential services. Lastly, the estimated cost of each card is Rs. 20-25 (Pg 19), which should not be taken from the outlays of social security schemes without clear explanation of consequent benefit in service delivery.

The Authority plans to cover 600 million people within 4 years from the start of the project (Page 9)

In the absence of universal coverage (target enrolment at ~50% population four years from launch), there will always have to be alternatives to the UID to obtain service, verify identity etc. Since, enrolment in UID will not be mandated, but “demand driven” to “access the benefits and services associated with it”, the benefit (one identity to prove identity for life) will need UID to be accepted as preferred proof of identity by all significant private and public organizations. Since this method of verification will be chargeable (up to Rs. 10 per verification, Page 28), private organizations may at times prefer other forms of proof of identity.

Fingerprint authentication is not fool-proof: The quantity and direction of the pressure applied by the user, the skin conditions and the projection of an irregular 3D object (the finger) onto a 2D flat plane introduce distortions, noise and inconsistencies in the captured fingerprint image. These problems result in inconsistent, irreproducible and non-uniform contacts and, during each acquisition, their effects on the same fingerprint results are different and uncontrollable. The representation of the same fingerprint changes every time the finger is placed on the sensor plate, increasing the complexity of the fingerprint matching, impairing the system performance, and consequently limiting the widespread use of this biometric technology.


3 responses to “India’s UID project – discussion needed

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention India’s UID project – discussion needed « Bourgeois Inspirations --·

  2. Pingback: Is your number 24601? « Calcutta Chronicles·

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