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Why Nandan Nilekani could lose his job

Last updated on: July 29, 2011 16:40 IST

Why Nandan Nilekani could lose his job

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Gopal Krishna


The old maxim, 'If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear' has been given a very public burial.

Database State, a report from the United Kingdom states, 'In October 2007, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs lost two discs containing a copy of the entire child benefit database. Suddenly issues of privacy and data security were on the front page of most newspapers and leading the TV news bulletins. The millions of people affected by this data loss, who may have thought they had nothing to hide, were shown that they do have much to fear from the failures of the database state.'

Who is afraid of scrutiny in a context where corporate contributions to political parties are all set to be raised to 7.5 per cent from the existing 5 per cent of the average net profits during the three immediately preceding financial years?

Let us first identify the donors of political organisations before identifying the residents of India. The seemingly anonymous corporate donors are driving the Unique Identification (UID)/Aadhaar number project and related programmes amid popular backlash.

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Image: UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani.
Photographs: Reuters
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For instance, if someone reveals that Infosys Limited, that was started in 1981, made donations to the political parties which have proposed the Unique Identification number scheme and related proposals, would it not become a controversial issue -- that the entire effort was an exercise in quid pro quo?

Is it not the case that Nandan Manohar Nilekani aims to 'facilitate a secure and reliable record of register-able facts about individuals in the Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic of India and to ensure a convenient method for individuals to prove register-able facts about themselves' by recording all 10 fingerprints, iris scan and a picture of the face? 

This is what the UK government's identity programme sought to do when wiser sense prevailed and it finally withdrew the plan.

On June 29, when Nilekani's boss -- the prime minister -- met a few 'chosen' editors, he said, "Black money exists If you look at European countries too, the average amount of black money which is talked about is at least 25 per cent of the economies of a large number of European countries. These are transactions that are not taxed and intended to avoid social security payments. But this is a reality. We can deal with corruption, we can deal with black money but quite frankly it is wrong for anyone to assume there is a magic wand which will lead to an instant solution of these difficult societal problems."

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Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi launching the Aadhar number.
Photographs: Courtesy, PIB
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Explaining what a magic wand can be, he said, "We need system reforms. If the project Nandan Nilekani has promised to design . . .  if the UIDAI can give unique ID numbers to all our residents, we would have discovered a new pathway to eliminate the scope for corruption and leakages in the management and distribution of various subsidies to which our people are entitled. But it will take time. It cannot be done instantly."

The Nilekani-headed Technology Advisory Group (TAGUP) has recommended setting up of National Information Utilities (NIU) to deal with complex Information Technology (IT) systems and projects like Goods and Services Tax (GST), Tax Information Network (TIN), Expenditure Information Network (EIN), National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) and New Pension System (NPS).

The NIU is likely to be set up under the proposed new Companies Act (Companies Bill 2009 needs to be re-examined in light of this). The TAGUP report refers to UIDAI Strategy Overview document prepared by Wipro Technologies Pvt and published by UIDAI. This document is not available in the public domain.

Of the 46 databases assessed in the UK report, only six were found to be legitimate -- that is, only six are found to have a proper legal basis for any privacy intrusions and were proportionate and necessary in a democratic society.

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Photographs: Reuters
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The 29 databases had significant problems and were made a subject for an independent review.

Some 12 databases were found illegal under human rights or data protection law. In view of such experience in a Commonwealth nation, it is extremely important to withhold creation of new databases and examine the legal basis of existing databases. 

In his opening remarks in his interaction with the editors, the prime minister said, "We live in a world of uncertainty -- and whether it is the Comptroller and Auditor General, whether it is a Parliamentary committee, they analyse post facto. They have a lot more facts which were not available to those who took the decision."

In this context, given the fact that Nilekani took charge on July 23, 2009, there is a case for the Comptroller and Auditor General of India to 'analyse post facto' the work of UIDAI which was notified in January 2009 and the performance of Nilekani who has been implementing UID number scheme for almost two years since without legislative approval.

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Nilekani has given a plan to implement the scheme to transfer cash directly to the bank account of the urban and rural poor and the farming community across the country in three phases for LPG and fertilizer, and in two phases for kerosene that will cover all beneficiaries by March 2012.

This is planned through direct cash transfer undermining the Public Distribution System (PDS), which has been under constant attack from free market fundamentalists.

It was motivated onslaughts that led to conversion of PDS into a targeted public distribution system (TPDS), which too did not work. Nilekani's scheme too is following the same path.

In the UK, the Home Secretary explained that they were abandoning the project because it would otherwise be 'intrusive bullying' by the state, and that the government intended to be the 'servant' of the people, and not their 'master'. In the late nineties, the Supreme Court of Philippines struck down the President's executive order A.O 308 which instituted a biometric-based national ID system calling it unconstitutional on two grounds: the overreach of the executive over the legislative powers of the congress, and the invasion of privacy.

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The same is applicable to India; UIDAI has been constituted on the basis of a GoI notification and there is a fundamental risk to civil liberties with the convergence of UID, NATGRID etc.

If tagging of Indian students with a radio collar in the US is deemed offensive and an assault on human rights, which it indeed is, how are proposals like Public Information Infrastructure & Innovations and Nilekani's UID Number/Aadhaar project -- that intends to tag all Indian residents -- acceptable?

It is relevant to refer to a statement on the matter of Tri-Valley University scam released to the media dated February 12, 2011 by External Affairs Minister S M Krishna wherein he said, 'You will be happy to know that radio tagging has been removed from some students and other cases are being actively pursued.'

It reveals that government of India, through its Embassy in Washington and Consulates in America, has been working closely with the US Department of Homeland Security and the US State Department to get a 'fair and humanitarian outcome' for the students who were tagged with radio collars.

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The fact remains that some of other students remain tagged with radio collars in the US. Such a situation is fraught with both unintended and intended consequences impacting monetary, non-monetary aspects of citizens' life and their civil liberties.

The multiple identities of Nandan Manohar Nilekani, who has the rank of a Cabinet minister without oath of Constitution and secrecy appears to be linked to corporate contributions to the ruling parties.

Nilekani has been provided with the following multiple identities:

1) He is head of Technology Advisory Group on Unique Projects (TAGUP) that proposes 'private company with public purpose' and with 'profit making as the motive but not profit maximising'.

2) He is head of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which is functioning without legislative approval either at the Centre or in the states and has signed contracts with US companies like L1 Identities Solution that works with US intelligence agencies.

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3) He is head of Committee on Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) technology for use on National Highways that proposes Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).

4) He is head of an inter-ministerial task force to streamline the subsidy distribution mechanism, which recommends something which contrary to the provisions of the Draft Food Security Bill.

5) He is head of government of India's IT Task Force for Power Sector.

6) He is member of National Knowledge Commission.

7) He is member of Review Committee of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.

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8) He is member of National Advisory Group on e-Governance.

9) He is member of Subcommittee of the Securities and Exchange Board of India that dealt with issues related to insider trading.

10) He is member of Reserve Bank of India's Advisory Group on corporate governance.

11) He is member of Prime Minister's National Council on Skill Development.

Nilekani has many more identities as a shareholder and as a former head of a corporation.

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In his interim Budget Speech on July 6, 2009, Pranab Mukherjee said, "The setting up of the Unique Identification Authority of India is a major step in improving governance with regard to delivery of public services. This project is very close to my heart."

On June 5, 2009, the Prime Minister's Office issued a release through Press Information Bureau stating, 'The Cabinet today approved the creation of the position of Chairperson, Unique Identification Authority of India. The Prime Minister has invited Shri Nandan Nilekani, currently Co-Chairman Infosys, to join the UIDAI as Chairperson in the rank of Cabinet Minister.'

Mukherjee had said in his speech, 'The UIDAI will set up an online data base with identity and biometric details of Indian residents and provide enrolment and verification services across the country.' What is not disclosed is that in Draft Land Titling Bill too there is a reference to Unique Property Identification Number.

Nilekani, in a ministerial status of the Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, is promoting a 'solutions architecture' by advancing the logic of Hernando de Sotto's book The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else through his own book Imagining India arguing that a national ID system would be a big step for land markets to facilitate the right to property to bring down poverty!

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Who is hiding the real motive of the UID number from the citizens of India? Does 'online database' of residents of India safeguard the sovereignty of the Republic?

The UID number is linked to Islamabad-based National Database & Registration Authority (NADRA) that was established in March 2000 to provide integrated homeland security solutions in Pakistan.

Earlier, it was established as a National Database Organisation (NDO), a department under the Ministry of Interior, Government of Pakistan, in 1998.

On March 10, 2000, NDO & Directorate General of Registration (DGR) merged to form NADRA, an independent corporate body with requisite autonomy to operate independently and facilitate good governance.

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With the mandate of developing a system for re-registering 150 million citizens, NADRA launched the Multi-Biometric National Identity Card project developed in conformance with international security documentation issuance practices in the year 2000.

The programme replaced the paper-based Personal Identity System of Pakistan that had been in use since 1971.This year is also quite important.

To date over 96 million citizens in Pakistan and abroad have utilised the system and its allied services to receive tamper-resistant ISO-standard identification documents.

NADRA has developed solutions based on biometrics and RFID technology and has the largest IT infrastructure in Pakistan with highly qualified technical and managerial resources enabling NADRA to provide customized solutions to any country.

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Is there any development indicator that suggests that citizens or residents in Pakistan have benefited from the UID version (the Multi-Biometric National Identity Card project) there?

Senior officials of NADRA and UIDAI like Tariq Malik and Nandan Nilekani have been awarded by ID World International Congress, the Global Summit on Automatic Identification in Milan, Italy which is sponsored by agencies like American Bank Note Company and a French biometric technology company, Morpho, which is the Safran group's security unit. The Safran group has got contracts from UIDAI too.

While UIDAI has been informing the residents, citizens, concerned government departments and the media that the UID number scheme is voluntary, the 'Legal Framework for Mandatory Electronic Delivery of Services' of the ministry of telecommunications and information technology, refers to 'UIDAI UID-based authentication for services' as an enabler. Thus this makes it compulsory to have a UID number.

Although the National Identification Authority of India Bill (NIAI), 2010 has not yet been passed by Parliament, UIDAI has been functioning without legislative approval since January 2009.

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If the prime minister scrutinises the 'Strategic Vision on the UIDAI Project' that was prepared and submitted to the processes committee of the Planning Commission (set up in July 2006) by Wipro Ltd (consultant for the design phase and programme management phase of the pilot UIDAI project), he will get sufficient reason to dismantle the project. This vision document is missing.

Another 15-page document of Wipro, titled 'Does India need a Unique Identity Number?', cited the example of UK's Identity Cards Act, 2006 on page no. 6 to advance the argument on UID number in India.

Now UK's new government has abandoned its National Identity Cards Scheme and has announced it in the British Parliament. Is it the case that when UK implements national identity cards scheme, it should be cited as an example, but when it abandons the programme, it becomes irrelevant and illogical?

Why are Wipro, UIDAI, the Planning Commission and the prime minister silent about their UK example?

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Is it not conflict of interest that after submitting the 'Strategic Vision on the UIDAI Project' (which is missing), Wipro has been getting contracts from UIDAI for 'Deployment of 7 project managers, supply, installation, commissioning for hardware & software for data centre at Bengaluru & NCR, deployment of 32 resource personnel and monitoring tools and hiring of data centre space (2,000 sq ft) & facilities for UIDAI at Delhi/NCR.' From December 2010 till May 2011, it has got four contracts amidst reports of irregularities.

An industry document titled 'Homeland Security in India' underlines the connection between UID number and National Intelligence Grid (NAGRID). It is public knowledge that NATGRID chief Capt. Raghu Raman, wishes to hand over 'internal security' of the country to the 'commercial czars' and recommends 'private territorial armies' to safeguard 'corporate empires'.

It is now admitted that intelligence organisations are not accountable to Parliament. This has been reiterated by Intelligence Services (Powers and Regulation) Bill, 2011 that has been introduced as a private member Bill by Manish Tiwari, spokesperson of the Indian National Congress. Will UID database (CIDR) and NATGRID come under legislative scrutiny through a Private Member Bill?

Aren't we aware that UID number is a component of the World Bank's partnership with six multinational companies and two governments that was announced by the bank in Washington? Do we really believe that the World Bank works to promote our national interest?

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WikiLeaks cables reveal how the US State department is interested in knowing about India's unique identification program, a biometric database of the world's largest democracy.

The information sought by US authorities is available on the WikiLeaks website. It also appears that UNDP's 'Innovation Support for Social Protection: Institutionalizing Conditional Cash Transfers' as part of financial surveillance plan is also linked to it.

UIDAI, however, claims that UID number scheme is for residents of India.

The C Rangarajan Committee on the Collection of Statistics Act reveals in para titled 'Centralised Database of Citizens (Population Register)' that 'A centralised database of the citizens of the country with a system of issuing a unique identification number/card has several potential benefits for its citizens and will improve the efficiency of administration. The project, if implemented, will have obvious benefits to the statistical system.'

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In the UK war-time documents for identification were abolished in 1952. But, in 2007, ID cards were re-introduced by James Hall who moved from the US-based biometric technology company, Accenture, to head UK's Identity & Passport Service in October 2006.

The UK government has since abandoned the project. Hall lost his job.

The UK report recommends:

  • The government should compel the provision or sharing of sensitive personal data only for clearly defined purposes that are proportionate and necessary in a democratic society. Where consent is sought for further sharing, the consent must be fully informed and freely given.
  • By default, sensitive personal information must be kept on local systems and shared only with the subject's consent or for a specific lawful purpose. Central systems must be simple and minimal, and should hold sensitive data only when both proportionate and necessary.
  • Citizens should have the right to access most public services anonymously.
  • There should never again be a government IT project -- merely projects for public-sector business process change, some of which will have an IT component.

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Nilekani moved from Infosys on July 9, 2009 to serve as the chairperson of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and awarded a contract to Accenture Services Pvt Ltd (Hall's former company for the implementation of a biometric solution for UIDAI) on July 30, 2010. Is it a coincidence?

The prime minister has rightly said that 'Parliamentary committee' and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India 'have a lot more facts which were not available to those who took the decision.'

In view of the new facts that have emerged, there is a compelling reason for him to re-visit the assumptions of UID number project along with related proposals like NATGRID and to abandon 'the culture of spying on its citizens' like UK's new government. 

Will the prime minister pay heed to what Nick Clegg, UK's deputy prime minister said in his speech in British Parliament? Clegg said, "It is outrageous that decent, law-abiding people are regularly treated as if they have something to hide. It has to stop. So there will be no ID card scheme."

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He added, "We won't hold your Internet and email records when there is just no reason to do so. Britain must not be a country where our children grow up so used to their liberty being infringed upon that they accept it without question. Schools will not take children's fingerprints without even asking their parent's consent. This will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state."

Will the Indian citizens stand against the uncivil and wanton advances of the State? If the powers that be read the writing on the wall and decode the emergence of a bitter opposition to the UID scheme, Nilekani might well lose the job -- like James Hall.

Will sovereign citizens of India permit the emergence of a 'database state', which intends to unfold a surveillance regime by converging government plans?

All the databases of the country -- be it of government, corporate or citizens or residents -- are being linked through UID number and Public Information, Infrastructure and Innovations.

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Unmindful of failures galore, as part of the World Bank eTransform Initiative for 'transformational government', it is moving towards a state where there will be ID interrogation centres, radio frequency identification of vehicles, centralised medical records without privacy, biometrics in schools for birth registration through fingerprinting of children, Census, National Population Register, a National DNA database, unique identification of every village and urban block in the country, Unique Corporate Index Number, role of the private sector in statistics collection, obligation on the part of individuals, or enterprises, or state and private agencies to provide the information sought for any survey under the aegis of the National Commission on Statistics, penal action for willful distortion or manipulation of data, centralised database of the citizens, creation of a citizen's database and issue of national identity cards, transfer of subsidy on kerosene, diesel and LPG, issue of NISHAN (National Identity System Home Affairs Network), etc.

The list of such governmental and corporate intervention based on information technology is growing all the time.

Late Roger Needham, a British computer scientist, aptly said, 'If you think IT is the solution to your problem, then you don't understand IT, and you don't understand your problem either.'

The UK experiment has shown that the 'transformational government' initiative has failed. Although a little late, if our political masters comprehend this, Nilekani's 5-year tenure might end prematurely.

Gopal Krishna, a human rights activist, is a member of the Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties.


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