Identity Crisis: Why India’s Big States are Reluctant to Embrace Biometric Data

By Avanti Narayanan

Source: platforma's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

India’s more powerful states have resisted new id programs. Source: platforma’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Attempting to bring together India’s gargantuan population of over 1.2 billion under a single identification system is not a task for the faint-hearted. Yet, this is precisely what the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) set out to do in 2009 through the creation of Aadhaar, India’s first unique ID system based on biometric data. Lauded as a means of organizing citizens to ensure the delivery of public services, the launch of Aadhaar came with great anticipation. Four years later, low levels of program enrollment in powerful Indian states raise questions about Aadhaar’s accessibility.

Aadhaar seeks to provide each Indian citizen with a unique, 12-digit number to enable a universal system of identification “devoid of any classification based on caste, creed, religion and geography.” Using a combination of finger prints, iris scans and a recording of demographic data, the Aadhaar program encourages citizen enrollment as a means of facilitating access to government and non-government services. Aadhaar’s founder, Nandan Nilekani, aims to enroll 600 million residents by 2014.

The enthusiastic approval of Aadhaar by some states sheds a positive light on the ambitious venture. In the state of Kerala, enrollment has reached 80% of the population, and chief minister Oommen Chandy proudly affirmed that his home state “appears to be ahead of most other states in implementing the scheme”. Similarly, Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister of Rural Development and MP from Andhra Pradesh, praised the program. As of 2011, a little over 75% of Andhra Pradesh’s population has been enrolled in the program. The success of these states has been attributed to their technology oriented civil services, who have rolled out parallel programs and IT initiatives for those unable to access enrollment offices in person.

However, some economically important states have seen low enrollment. In Tamil Nadu, a paltry enrollment rate under 30% stems from dual causes. On the supply side, there is a lack of regional UIDAI offices, ineffective operators, and difficulties in contacting authorities with questions. On the demand side, there appears to be a general sense of apathy among more affluent citizens. Tamil Nadu’s chief minister J. Jayalalithaa recently issued a strongly-worded letter to Prime Minister Singh, contending that Aadhaar and other similar schemes “fly in the face of federalism and democratic decentralization”.

Meanwhile, in West Bengal, an enrollment rate of a little over 20% has been linked to flawed software and incorrectly recorded names. The state’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee has argued that “They [the Indian government] have to set up banks and post offices” before thinking about issuing Aadhaar cards. Concerns over the provision of basic rights and services are also reflected in remarks by Gujarati chief minister and potential BJP prime-ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, who expressed cautious approval for the program by stating, “Gujarat is keen to implement the… project provided the national interest is not harmed in any way and at the same time people are benefited by being able to avail rights.” Gujarat’s enrollment rate is approximately the same as that of West Bengal.

The low rates of enrollment in influential states are a concern. While factors such as the difficulty of distributing services to a vast scattering of citizens across each of these states must be noted, they cannot entirely explain away paltry enrollment. An associated issue is the security of Aadhaar’s biometric data and the potential for it to fall into the wrong hands. India’s capacity to protect data has also been questioned by the United States and the United Kingdom, who have expressed reluctance in sharing sensitive information with the nation. On the flipside, then, the success of Aadhaar could serve as a means of allaying both domestic and international fears.

Ultimately, the pattern of enrollment in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Gujarat provides three important recommendations for the program. First, campaigns outlining its benefits for middle and upper class citizens should be undertaken alongside the advocacy targeting the poor. Simultaneously, efforts must be made to extend Aadhaar’s reach into rural areas, utilizing mechanisms from its successful efforts in other states, including mobile vans and IT services. The extension of such services should in turn address Nilekani’s pending concerns on enrolling “the last 5-10 per cent [of the population] that is the most challenging.” Finally, UIDAI must maintain vigilance over the recording and storage of personal details—after all, the data security of the world’s second largest population hangs in the balance.

Ms. Avanti Narayanan is a researcher with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.


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