*UID: from inclusion to exclusion*
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AMONG the many stated goals of the Unique Identification (UID) project,
which aims to provide a unique number to all residents identified by their
biometric features, was to facilitate and promote inclusion into government
programmes. It hoped to facilitate inclusion by providing a recognized ID
to all residents and to promote inclusion through 'de-duplication' of
One of the most appealing claims of the UIDAI project was to enable
inclusion of the millions of Indians into various government programmes
from which they were often wrongly excluded. Any project that helps
overcome the problem of exclusion from social welfare programmes is
welcome, especially since these programmes can play an important role in
narrowing social inequalities. A closer scrutiny shows that the UID
project's initial claims were based on a basic misunderstanding of the
causes for exclusion. Worse, the experience of the past five years of the
project suggests that the project itself has become a source of exclusion
from government programmes.
As far as the inclusion agenda of the UIDAI project is concerned, there
were two important objectives: one, to facilitate inclusion by providing
identification documents to all residents. In UIDAI's documents, the lack
of an ID was seen as an important source of exclusion. Thus, the provision
of ID documents was closely tied to improving access to government
benefits. Two, the project aimed to promote inclusion by reducing
corruption (especially duplication in databases). There can hardly be any
argument about the desirability of either of these two objectives.
*A* commonly held perception is that the lack of ID documents is very
widespread. However, the UIDAI does not provide any reliable data on how
many Indian residents are without ID documents. As far as I am aware, there
is no reliable estimate of this even today. To get a sense of this issue,
in a small survey of 2200 rural households in ten states in 2013, we asked
about possession of different identity cards (such as a voter ID, ration
card, NREGA job card, etc.). Between 85-95% of respondent households had
one of these IDs. Just over 80% had either a bank or post office passbook.
(At that time, only around 15% had aadhaar numbers.)
Even if the proportion of population without any ID is very large, there is
the question of what might be the best way to remedy the situation. One
option could be to launch a new ID-giving project (such as the UID
project). Another option is to focus on existing ID-giving procedures:
e.g., improving the birth registration system,1 enhancing the accuracy of
other ID databases, such as voter ID or ration cards, and then mandating
that these be accepted for various purposes, such as opening bank accounts.
Intriguingly, these options were never debated.
The UID project was designed to give aadhaar numbers to both categories of
people: those who had no prior ID documents and those who could produce
proof of ID and of residence (to get their third, an aadhaar number). To
reach out to those individuals who did not have any ID documents, the UIDAI
put in place an 'introducer system'. The UIDAI's own records on how many
aadhaar numbers were issued through the introducer system are damning. Out
of nearly 850 million aadhaar numbers issued so far, only 0.219 million
(i.e., 0.03%) have been issued to people through the introducer system.2 The
remaining aadhaar numbers were issued to people who already had two
pre-existing ID documents.
The small number of those who got aadhaar without any prior ID document
could mean one of two things: that the number of people without any ID is
quite small (less likely) or that the proportion of such people is large
but that the UIDAI has (so far, at least) failed to reach out to them. The
circularity of the ID-giving exercise and contradiction in claims versus
the actual experience has received little attention so far.
*A*part from the provision of ID documents, another concern for the UID
project was exclusion from government social welfare programmes such as the
PDS, NREGA, social security pensions, among others. UIDAI documents suggest
that they perceived the lack of identity documents to be the root cause of
exclusion from government programmes.
As pointed out by Khera,3 this understanding of the UIDAI is flawed.
Eligibility for these programmes requires a person to satisfy the
conditions of these schemes: e.g., for social security pensions such as old
age or widow pensions, the elderly are required to produce proof of age and
a widow will be required to produce a death certificate of her husband. A
widow with, say, an aadhaar number, but without her husband's death
certificate will continue to be excluded. Possession of *any* ID does not
guarantee inclusion; applicants need to possess the scheme-specific
Further, even among those who did have these documents, a major source of
exclusion – perhaps more than the lack of ID documents – is that the scale
of these programmes is capped by the government. Even if a person meets the
eligibility criteria and is able to produce all the necessary ID documents,
she/he may not be included simply because the government has already
exhausted its target coverage for that particular scheme. The cure, then,
is to expand these schemes.
The only way in which the UID project could have contributed to this was by
de-duplication. Here again, there are no reliable estimates of the extent
of duplication in government records. In the PEEP Survey of 2013, a
door-to-door verification of 3789 pensioners in ten states found only one
case of duplication.4
*W*e have seen how the UIDAI project had two important goals – provision of
ID documents to everyone, and better inclusion into government programmes.
While both goals are desirable, the experience so far tells a different
story. On the first (providing ID documents to the ID-less), the project
has achieved next to nothing so far (only 0.22 million out of nearly 830
million aadhaar numbers were issued to the ID-less). On the second, the UID
project cannot do much. The UIDAI's understanding of the source of
exclusion was inaccurate. The agenda of greater inclusion is better served
by expanding the scope and reach of government programmes by removing the
artificial caps on their coverage, which are driven by financial concerns.
To some extent, this has happened over the past decade.
*H*aving analyzed the intent of the UID project and outlined the limited
extent to which it could contribute to greater inclusion, we now look at
its actual record of implementation. Perhaps to the horror of its promoters
(and in ways unimaginable to them), there is now a lot of anecdotal
evidence showing that the UID has become a source of *exclusion* from these
programmes – the very opposite of what it set out to achieve.
Under UPA-II, following the announcement of 'direct benefit transfers' in
late 2012, there was massive pressure to make aadhaar *de facto* compulsory
in various government programmes involving transfer of cash – including
scholarships, pensions, NREGA wages and, to an extent, even in the PDS. The
idea was that cash would be transferred into bank accounts (often opened
with the help of aadhaar numbers) and beneficiaries would authenticate
themselves at the last mile using aadhaar-biometrics, using banking
correspondents wherever required. Letters were issued by concerned
ministries to states and districts asking them to enter the aadhaar number
against the name of each beneficiary of these schemes (referred to as
'aadhaar-seeding'). Often the pressure took the form of imposing impossible
deadlines to complete 'aadhaar-seeding' of beneficiaries.
In September 2013, the Supreme Court intervened and directed the government
to ensure that benefits were not denied for lack of an aadhaar number.
However, the court's message, either intentionally or unintentionally, did
not adequately percolate down to the field. After the Supreme Court's
interim orders (in September 2013, March 2014 and 2015), government letters
have carefully avoided the use of the term 'compulsory' or 'mandatory', but
between the lines the message is clear (e.g., instead of entirely removing
aadhaar as a requirement, the circulars now state that those without
aadhaar should be helped to enrol). Some state officials claim that the
pressure is now conveyed orally at review meetings (e.g., video
conferences) that take place between the Centre and states.
*B*ureaucrats in favour of the aadhaar linkage maintain that its use is
necessary for de-duplication of government records. They point to a
reduction in the number of beneficiaries since aadhaar-seeding began as
proof of duplicates who have been weeded out. On the other hand, there are
field reports which suggest that at least some of the reduction in numbers
is the result of a pressure to show that 100% aadhaar-seeding has been
achieved. When beneficiaries of various schemes do not present their
aadhaar numbers to add to the database, the response of field staff has
been to simply strike off their names.
In Jharkhand, due to the pressure for aadhaar-seeding the NREGA database,
job cards were cancelled for workers who did not have aadhaar numbers.5 The
cancellation or deletion of names from databases is the first way in which
aadhaar has become a source of exclusion from NREGA. This was applicable to
the PDS in Delhi where aadhaar was compulsory for new ration card holders
under the National Food Security Act.6 This has also happened in the case
of scholarships and pensions in several states.7
*I*n Andhra Pradesh, it has become a source of exclusion due to the errors
in the aadhaar-seeding process.8 The third reason why aadhaar is a source
of exclusion is when biometric authentication is made compulsory but there
are issues with matching biometrics. For example, if the electronic point
of the sale machine at the ration shop erroneously rejects a person's
fingerprint, it may become necessary to re-enrol their biometrics.
The insistence on showing the aadhaar number to register demand for work
under NREGA is the fourth source of exclusion. In Bihar (Katihar and
Araria) and Jharkhand (Latehar), reports from the field show that demand
for work under NREGA is not registered unless aadhaar numbers are provided.
In many cases, while people have not been excluded, the process has caused
some hardship – getting an aadhaar number (often paying money to get
enrolled), having it seeded with the relevant administrative authority,
making repeated trips when biometric authentication fails (either due to
lack of connectivity or biometric mismatch) and so on. People are routinely
illegally charged for enrolment into the UID database.9 In a nutshell, the
UID project has ended up excluding some people from existing entitlements
and has complicated paperwork for accessing government programmes rather
than simplifying it.
The role of social welfare programmes in reducing social inequalities is
well recognized. In India, legal entitlements under the National Rural
Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and the National Food Security Act (NFSA),
as well as welfare schemes such as social security pensions and
scholarships, have played an important role. The UID project was expected
to be an enabling technology which would contribute to this goal by
enhancing inclusion in welfare programmes, simplifying access and improving
implementation. However, the experience of the past five years with UID has
shown that it has not done well as far as enhancing inclusion is concerned.
On the contrary, perhaps unintentionally, it has ended up being another
source of exclusion from these crucial programmes.
The unintended consequences of the UID project point to a larger concern.
It is important to remind ourselves that the UID project continues to
operate without any binding legal framework. (The bill prepared by the
UPA-II government was rejected by the concerned standing committee.) This
opens up the possibility of the project being used in unanticipated and
unintended ways.10 If the project is to continue, the very least that must
be done immediately is to put an adequate legal framework in place in order
to prevent its abuse in the future.
1. The civil registration system has shown significant improvements over
the years. According to Census estimates, in 2012, 84% of all births were
2. This data is based on a reply to a right to information application
filed by Ujjainee Sharma.
3. Reetika Khera, 'The UID Project and Social Welfare', *Economic and
Political Weekly* 46(9), 2011.
4. Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera, 'Water for the Leeward India', *Outlook*,
24 March 2014. Accessed online on 25 May 2015.
5. Ankita Aggarwal, 'The Slow Destruction of MGNREGA: Evidence from
Jharkhand', *India Together*, 16 March 2015. Accessed online on 20 May
6. Aarefa Johari and Mayank Jain, 'Why Poor People in Delhi are Desperate
to Get Their Babies Uniquely Identified.' Accessed online on 20 May 2015.
7.* The Pioneer*, 'Aadhaar Now Must for Post-Matric Scholarship.' Accessed
online on 20 May 2015.
8.* The Hindu*, 'Many go Without Ration Card in Agency Due to Mistake in
Aadhaar Seeding', 19 May 2015. Accessed online on 25 May 2015.
9. Ankita Anand and Nachiket Udupa, 'How to Get Married Without Aadhaar', *The
Caravan*, May 2015.
10. Jean Drèze, 'Unique Identity Dilemma', *The* *Indian Express*, 19 March
2015. Accessed online on 25 May 2015. http://indianexpress.
com/article/opinion/columns/unique-identity-dilemma/; G. Sampath, 'Missing
the Big Picture on Big Data', *The Hindu*, 20 May 2015. Accessed online on
20 May 2015.