Tagging Citizens

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Barely two per cent of India’s 1.2 billion people have got the 12-digit Unique Identity number but the UID Authority of India is pushing hard for issuing digital tags to all J&K citizens within next three years. Some stiff criteria are being waived to help the project complete in time.

IT IS A CONCEPT that seems to have been simply lifted straight from a sci-fi movie. By converting the identities of more than billion individuals into unique numbers, a mix of biometric and demographic information, India will be the first country in the world to have undertaken such a massive project.

It was on the suggestion of the software giant, Wipro that the central government agreed to create a unique identification number for each Indian citizen.
Under the system, designated professionals would take a photograph of an individual besides the impressions of his iris and ten fingers. Together with address and name, the data will go to a central server – currently operating from Bangalore – that will generate a unique numerical identity of the person called Aadhaar. The identity is a 12-digit number that is sent by post to the individual’s home address.

As the project was launched in J&K, chief minister Omar Abdullah became the first resident who applied for his digital identity. At a gala function at the SKICC, Omar faced a computer that clicked his mug shot (picture of the face), offered his finger impressions to a scanner as a special device took the pictures of his iris. Initially it was a bit embarrassing as the scanner skipped accepting his impressions till his finger topes were cleared of sweat and moisture.

The UID Authority of India is a central government entity that is run by former co-chairman of Infosys Technologies, Nandan Nilekani. The Authority works under the Planning Commission but is not yet backed by a law to guide its functioning. It has come under severe criticism from civil society across India because of fears of violating privacy of an individual and other related issues currently being intensely debated in the country. But the government is investing heavily and appears determined take the project forward and complete it as early as possible.

The Authority has entered into an agreement with the government of J&K that on July 14, 2011 appointed the J&K Bank as Registrar for the UID project in the state. “The biggest concern at the time of signing the agreement was the ‘state subject’ because there were apprehensions that the number may designate domicile or citizenship rights,” a senior government officer, privy to the discussions, said. “But finally the two sides entered clause 12 in the agreement that made things clear that UID has nothing to do with the state subject issues.”

Under the system, the J&K Bank is the sole authority for the project. It is to the state government what the UID Authority is to the central government. The bank has to hire enrollment agencies (EA) from the market that would take the required information from individuals in designated areas and submit the data to the Authority in a prefixed format.

To rationalize the project J&K has been divided into seven strata – Ladakh, Central Kashmir, North Kashmir, South Kashmir, Rajouri-Poonch, Chenab Valley and Jammu-Samba-Kathua.

“But we have got people working on three strata only. Wipro has bagged the contract for Jammu, and a Baramulla based company Comptech has got two strata, central Kashmir and north Kashmir,” an official with the Registrar of the project said.

A stiff system is in place for choosing the vendors or the EAs. The UIDAI has already empanelled groups /companies from across India that can apply for these assignments. From J&K, there is only one empanelled company – Comptech.

Sheikh Imtiaz who owns the Comptech Institute of Technology told Kashmir Life that he started operations from Baramulla in 1997. A resident of Uri, Imtiaz is a computer engineer with an MBA degree as well. Instead of opting for a government job, he decided to be an entrepreneur. From the beginning he started specializing in the identity card processing. Comptech is the sole company that carried out the operations of photo election cards, processed electoral rolls both for Panchayat and the assembly elections in the state. This has brought enough experience to the company to bid for major projects like the Aadhar.

“For implementing the UID project there were 38 vendors who applied and only one of them was a Kashmiri,” Imtiaz said. “Apart from experience, the IT companies that bid for this project need to have a net worth of more than Rs 5 crores.” Comptech already has a yearly turnover of Rs 10 crores and Aijaz is busy appointing workers and managing investment of three crores in acquiring the kits that he requires. “We would require 480 professionals and 100 kits to implement the Rs 12 crore project,” he said.

But that does not help the Registrar to implement the project in the four strata, which still have nobody working on it. After a lot of brainstorming, the UIDAI has agreed to the J&K Bank request of recruiting local EAs. The decision was taken after the two parties were convinced that outside companies were unwilling to work in the state. “In selecting the new EAs, we will have to adopt the same eligibility criteria that UIDAI has evolved,” said a senior officer in the J&K Bank. “It will add to our capacities.”

Seeking a UID is voluntary. Apparently, this has been done in wake of a raging debate over how the project plays with the privacy of the people. Lot of people are opposing the idea suggesting the UID will be eventually linked to the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) that will leave no room for privacy to the people living in India. The NATGRID is an MHA initiative that is aimed at linking bank accounts with the surveillance systems.

But in future, all the services would be linked to the UID in such a way that Aadhaar becomes vital to avail any service. For seeking passport, opening a bank account or getting insured the UID will be the key. The government says that the UID will help detect the losses the public finance suffers in feeding the fake beneficiaries.

“Aadhaar would remove chances of use of fake job cards, fake ration cards, false identity cards and ghost employees who exist only on paper,” chief minister Omar Abdullah said after offering his finger tips for scanning. “This number would prove more efficient in ensuring benefits to weaker sections of society under various schemes in the sectors of Rural Development, Social Welfare, Health and Education. It will also check pilferages and protect privacy of the card holders.” He said the UID would be used in seeking a cell phone services and other facilities as well.

Omar, in fact, has started thinking in terms of creating smart cards for every resident of the state that would be linked to Permanent Residence Certificate (PRC) and then to ration cards, MGNREGS job cards and other such cards to make public service delivery hassle free.

Besides Omar, his IT minister Agha Ruhullahalso talked in detail about the usefulness of the UID. It is, Agha said, more useful for states like J&K that faces problems of policing and security. “It will make policing much easier,” he said. Perhaps that is why the state government is planning to retain a copy of the data that the exercise will generate for its own use in future.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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