‘UID isn’t compulsory, but will become ubiquitous’

At software giant Infosys, Nandan Nilekani was credited with consolidating India's position on the global software map and taking it to new heights. In his new avatar as the chief of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), he is hopeful that this ambitious programme to tag every Indian will usher in inclusive growth for the millions who have been left out of the system. Unruffled by criticism from the programme's detractors, he seems elated with the swift progress it has made under his leadership, but also insists that a privacy law has to be in place to protect the interests of individuals. Excerpts from a conversation with Sadiq Naqvi and Akash Bisht

You left a cosy, well-paying job and instead opted to lead this ambitious programme. Do you have any regrets?
No, I think it has been a tremendous experience for me. I have learnt a lot and the overall experience has been different in many ways. My decision meant I was moving from the private sector to the government, and also from Bangalore to Delhi. Moreover, I was the head of the top management of a hundred-thousand-employee-strong company, and here I am starting all over again. It is indeed a very different situation. But I think I have enjoyed it tremendously. I have got terrific cooperation from everybody. And I think we are moving quite quickly. 

UIDAI has a unique blend of people from corporates and the bureaucracy. Your comments.
 I think we have a very interesting group of people. We have encouraged diversity, including diversity within the government. For example, we have people from all kinds of backgrounds - the Indian Administrative Service, Accounts Service, Postal Service, Telecom Service. We brought diverse people from the government and then, of course, very talented people from outside. Either they are working for us or they are on sabbatical, or they are volunteers or interns. So we have been able to bring a talented crowd together for a common national purpose. 

In our country we already have different documents for authenticating identity like the voter's ID, PAN card, passport etc. So what is the need for this ambitious programme?
We think it is a very important programme. The government of India is extremely committed to this programme. We have got tremendous support from the prime minister, the cabinet, and everybody else. Because at the root of this is the fact that there are a large number of Indians whose existence is not acknowledged by the State. They don't have any form of identity. Even if they have something like a ration card, which is relevant within their village it is not something that covers them round the country. So we believe the UID is giving them something  that gives them identity and acknowledgement by the State. Moreover, it's a portable identity. It will work the same way, say for example, in Bihar as it will in Delhi.

Don't you think that in a technologically backward country like India, authentication would be a problem? How would it be done?
Biometrics is just one of the methods of authentication. You can also authenticate using a pin number that will act as a password or by using the card you possess. So authentication is of three types: what you are now, your pin number, which is like a password; what you have, like a phone or the card; and who you are, which is biometrics. We can use all three types of authentication. Authentication will be done online. It is very simple. You go to some place and say I am X and this is my number and this is my fingerprint. And someone will go and check and come back. This service will be made available to different service providers, but the cost of infrastructure is borne by the government. 

What will be the cost of authentication? Do people have to pay to get themselves authenticated?
No, people are not going to pay as right now we have made it a public good. But later on the service provider may have to pay.

Do you think this number will act as an incentive for the people, and how?
Today, cell phone coverage is becoming more and more common. The number won't ensure but rather enable you to get services. For example, take banking services. You can use this number to open a bank account. And you can operate your bank account via a business correspondent in a small village. It extends the reach of services. But somebody has to build the applications for that. But, at the very least, we think the immediate benefits are identity, portable identity, financial inclusion (in banking etc) and, of course, re-engineering of public services.For example, banking will create a new network of business correspondents using the micro-ATMs. The public distribution system (PDS) can be re-engineered. The MNREGS payments can now go into the bank accounts. 

But, MNREGS payments are already being made through banks, so why do we need UID?
Yes, but there is no reach. How many branches do we have? We have only 60-70,000 branches in India. And out of 6,00,000 villages we have branches in only 6 per cent. So even though people have a bank account, the bank is far away. Indeed there is no point of having that account if you have to travel 30kms to a branch. So, it's not about opening an account, it's about providing access and convenience. With our system in place, you can have a business correspondent sitting in a village using our technology. 

It has been reported that middlemen have started to make money from MNREGS even through banks.
 You have to think in terms of progressive improvements. The fact that they are transferring wages directly to the bank accounts is a point of progress. But now we need to marry that with access and convenience. And, often, one of the reasons why you get someone else to withdraw money is possibly because of the bank's inaccessibility. But, once we create access through business correspondents and there is authentication, only the accountholder can withdraw from his account. All this will help in streamlining things. 

 As of now, it is a voluntary scheme. However, service providers might make UID compulsory for availing services. What about those who will be left out?
Yes, it is voluntary. But the service providers might make it mandatory. In the long run, I wouldn't call it compulsory. I would rather say that it will become ubiquitous.  

 Why are the registrars being given the authority to seek additional information in states like Orissa and Jharkhand - bank accounts, mobile numbers etc? 
Registrars are gathering information from people all the time. When you apply for a ration card, you are asked to provide information about your income etc. The same is the case when they want to do a BPL survey. When you open a bank account, you are again asked for information. It is absolutely normal to seek such information. 

Don't you think that this kind of information can be misused to the detriment of the applicant? 
What does our database have? It only has name, address, sex or biometrics. It doesn't carry information on financial transactions etc. Once information enters our database, it is like entering inside a wall. It can't be taken out. 

Once different databases like NPR, NATGRID and UID are converged, you can actually track all the information. Your comments.
 I don't want to talk about that. I am only talking about the UID, which will allow people to access better services. It will give them identity, in fact, a national portable identity. And it will make government expenditure more efficient. 

You have this provision of an introducer for persons who do not have any document to prove their identity. What is the liability of this introducer?
If there is a fraud, yes. Remember, in our system you get only one number. So if you are introduced by somebody else, we have the UID number of that introducer. This system ensures full traceability.

There have been allegations that the de-duplicating firms you have shortlisted are working for the US intelligence agencies as well. How do you ensure that there is no misuse of sensitive information?
These guys are just there for the de-duplication. We just give them the data, they compare and answer back. The data is going to their engineer. It's going inside our software. It's inside our firewall.

Civil society groups have been arguing that there have been no concrete feasibility studies, no cost-benefit analysis, not even a budget, before implementing the programme. Your comments.
Any new initiative in a democratic set-up will have some people who may not agree with it. It's perfectly all right. But our view is that the large majority of people want it. It has been supported by the cabinet. It has been supported by Parliament, which has approved our budget. The law has been placed for consideration in Parliament. We have made presentations to the standing committee on finance. So we have enough people supporting it. 

How would this scheme benefit the intended beneficiaries, i.e., the poor of the country?
There are hundreds and millions of people in this country who don't have any ID. Their lives are affected by that. Recently we gave IDs to the homeless people in Delhi. You can see how happy they are, because for the first time they have something which says who they are. We feel that the value of the UID for the poor in this country, who have always been marginalised and left out of banking and other services, far outweighs anything else. That's the point of view of the government as well as those outside it who want inclusive growth. 

Biometrics has been known to malfunction when it comes to such a huge number of people. Here we are looking at one billion people. Your comments.
I think it will work despite the problems. Obviously, when you implement a brand new technology, there will be challenges. But, fundamentally, it will work. In a context where many people have no identity and the ways of authenticating identity are not very robust, the fact that we are taking this to 99.99 per cent of the population is in itself a huge improvement. We must look at the programme's progress in terms of where we are and where we are going. 

How do you intend to protect people's privacy? 
There is a draft approach on the privacy laws which is being put out by the department of personnel and training... In fact, I was the one who wrote to the prime minister in May, saying we should have a privacy law. Now they have got comments and will take it forward. I am sure they will come up with a good law.

 What would be cost for the entire scheme?
As of now, we have a budget of Rs 3,000 crore. We believe that the cost of one enrolment is Rs 100, so you can extrapolate from that. 
There have been fears that the databases could be used for profiling in the future. Your comments.
That's where laws come in, where parliamentary oversight comes in, where everybody else comes in. We have a provision for an independent committee to evaluate the performance of the UIDAI. A lot of checks and balances have been put in place.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2011