Centre for Internet & Society

The government is looking to the ID programme to help ensure that various welfare programmes reach the poor

In the first significant challenge to the government’s ambitious programme to give more than one billion Indians a unique identification number, a group of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are planning to take the government to court over a range of issues, including concerns over privacy and the safety of information.

About 100 NGOs, including Alternative Law Forum, Centre for Internet and Society, People’s Union for Civil Liberty and Slum Jagathu, have come together to oppose the implementation of the project in its current form, Mathew Thomas, general secretary of Citizens’ Action Forum, said in Bangalore on Wednesday.

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) “is not a statutory body, not having been created by any Act or under any law, but by executive fiat”, he said. “It is set up as an appendage to the Planning Commission. It cannot be scrutinized either by Parliament or the Comptroller and Auditor General.”

In what had been expected to become a hurdle to the project, those against it are citing data protection and privacy, factors that led to the failure of a similar initiative in the UK.

“The government could not prevent recent cyber attacks by Chinese hackers on its own websites. What guarantee is there that a centralized database would be safe?” said Sunil Abraham, executive director of Centre for Internet and Society, one of the groups opposed to the ID programme, which has been named Aadhaar. “Also, data collected might be misused to discriminate against minorities and other vulnerable sections of society.”

R.S. Sharma, UIDAI director general, declined to comment in detail.

“Everything is transparent. Whatever we have been doing, we have been putting it on our website,” he said. “As to their specific complaints, I will not be able to respond over the telephone.”

The NGOs are also questioning the cost of the project and why no feasibility study was conducted. UIDAI is headed by Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and former chief executive of Infosys Technologies Ltd, India’s second largest software firm.

“First, the government has to respond how the chairman was chosen and appointed,” Thomas said. “Would the same person in his earlier organization authorize a project involving thousands of crores without a preliminary project report on feasibility? Public money is being spent without accountability.”

Nilekani wasn’t reachable for comment.

The government is looking to the ID programme to help ensure that various welfare programmes reach the poor. This objective would be difficult to achieve, the NGOs said.

“In a country with 48% illiteracy, a 12-digit card might prove to be a handicap instead of help,” they said in a release. “The project in its present form must be scrapped.”

The NGOs also said that projected savings from the stemming of leakages owing to the ID programme were not authenticated or backed by independent data. “It’s surprising that the project is being implemented with no discussion in Parliament nor consultation with other political parties,” they said.

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