Economy Dec 8, 2011
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Nandan Nilekani's unique ID project has just got a royal kick in the butt from the parliamentary standing committee on finance.
The committee, which vetted the National Identification Authority of India Bill 2010 to give the Unique ID Authority of India (UIDAI) headed by former Infosys chief Nilekani, has, according to a report by CNBC TV-18, recommended that the Bill be trashed and be replaced with another, more acceptable, one.
While the government does not have to go by the committee's recommendations, given the fiasco over foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail, where it had to hastily backtrack, it cannot afford to eat crow again over UIDAI.
Like FDI, the unique ID project is not central to the Congress party's electoral interests, and there is no unanimity over it even in the cabinet. In fact, key members of Sonia Gandhi's National Advisory Council have questioned it. Aruna Roy has called the project "invasive" which could "facilitate communal targeting of certain minorities."
As analysed by Firstpost as early as September this year, Nilekani's project, which is backed primarily by Manmohan Singh, faces serious opposition from within the government. Given the weak equations among the PM, Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaram in the wake of the 2G scam, and given that the same three players have different views on the unique ID project, there is a good possibility that Nilekani's project will be either cut to size or mothballed.
While the finance ministry is worried about the bills Nilekani is going to rack up, the home ministry says the UID project - which is about capturing biometric and other data of residents and giving them a unique ID - will clash with its own National Population Register (NPR). Even the Planning Commission, headed by the Prime Minister's pal Montek Singh Ahluwalia, says the UIDAI's books need to be audited.
"The home ministry says the data collected by the unique ID project is not good enough for its own National Population Register (NPR) - a project to provide citizens with identity cards....the ministry wants to collect its own data since it finds the Unique ID Authority of India's (UIDAI's) data unreliable. It also thinks iris scanning is a waste of money," Firstpost reported in September.
A Business Standard report quoted an NPR source as saying: "We can collect the data for the whole country by 2014 and at half the cost."
While the home ministry's NPR will cost Rs 13,438 crore, UIDAI's will cost Rs 17,864 crore. If both projects are cleared, which the finance ministry is sure to veto, the country would have been saddled with a humongous bill of Rs 31,302 crore for two ID projects that would essentially have done the same thing.
A report in India Today says the UID project has faced opposition on four counts: "the inclusion of residents as opposed to citizens; issues related to privacy of those being assigned the UID numbers; duplication of the work being done for preparing the NPR using the same biometric attributes; and the massive expenditure that the project entails."
Criticising the "hasty manner" in which the scheme is being implemented, the committee apparently expressed concerns that collection of biometric data by private parties could leave sensitive data in the wrong hands and could possibly be "misused".
But the real issue obviously is the fact that politicians don't like professionals invading their turf - and that is why Nandan Nilekani is being given the thumbs down by the system.
In an interview to The New Yorker, Nilekani rhetorically asked his interviewer: "Am I a virus?"
The answer is now clear.
More From R Jagannathan.