The fanfare with which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi launched a service delivery scheme in Rajasthan based on the Aadhaar (foundation) unique identity scheme, and celebrated the issue of the first Aadhaar number topping the 200-million mark, should make the Indian National Congress a very worried party indeed -- assuming it has a good survival instinct and basic grasp of practical politics.
To put it starkly, the Congress, and with it, the United Progressive Alliance, is sleepwalking into a minefield with plans to roll out Aadhaar-enabled service delivery schemes in 51 districts in India, and later extend them to the entire country.
The Aadhaar-UID system is fraught with serious flaws and uncertainties, which will affect poor people the most. To make the provision or entitlement to the public distribution system (for food), payment of wages under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and delivery of old-age pensions and scholarships dependent on Aadhaar is to expose them to unacceptable risk.
Yet, the Rajasthan government has linked 10 schemes to Aadhaar, including those listed above, and entitlements to subsidised medical treatment, the Mukhyamantri BPL Gramin Awas Yojana (rural housing for those officially recognised as BPL, or living below-poverty-line), and the Asha Sahayogini scheme for women who raise public awareness about health, nutrition and sanitation and mobilise people for health facilities.
What is wrong with Aadhaar? First of all, the 12-digit Aadhaar identity number generated by the Unique Identity Authority of India for each citizen is neither unique nor reliable. The biometric techniques it uses, involving a photograph, fingerprints and an iris scan, is untested and riven with uncertainty. Experts point to many technical errors, including indistinct fingerprints due to calluses, and poor iris scans due to cataracts. The UIDAI mission director has himself admitted that fingerprints are not likely to work reliably for authentication. These errors could end up excluding up to 15 percent of the population.
Second, Aadhaar is susceptible to some of the same factors -- eg, bureaucratic lethargy, callousness towards the poor, and influence of the powerful -- that result in inaccurate compilation of BPL lists, leading in many cases to the exclusion of 40 percent of poor people. Technology provides no assurance of authenticity for Aadhaar. Every exclusion of the genuinely poor from Aadhaar will heap yet more injustice upon them, besides costing the United Progressive Alliance heavy erosion of political support.
Third, last year Parliament's standing committee on finance rejected the National Identification Authority of India Bill 2010 (to give legal backing for the whole exercise), and termed the project "directionless" and "conceptualised with no clarity of purpose". It also called the technology used "untested, unproven, unreliable and unsafe". It raised concerns about privacy, identity theft, misuse, security of data and its duplication and also noted serious differences of opinion within the government, including objections by the Planning Commission.
These are matters of great gravity. No computer is foolproof against hacking; and data loss or theft has serious consequences. The committee strongly disapproved of the hasty manner in which the UID scheme was approved and said that going ahead with it would be "unethical and violative of Parliament's prerogatives".
Faced with these objections, UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani promised that the Aadhaar number would not be used as mandatory proof of identity for the provision of public services. But the opposite is happening. It's even proposed to make Aadhaar compulsory even for opening a bank account.
India is moving towards converting public-service provision into Aadhaar-based cash transfers so the State can wash its hands of its obligations to the people. Dr Singh has just up a high-level committee on cash transfers. But cash is no substitute for creating services/facilities, which don't exist.
Even more politically disastrous is the UPA's deception on the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill. Land is probably the most important site of people's struggles in defence of their livelihoods and survival rights.
The Bill was meant to be a generous improvement over the colonial Land Acquisition Act 1894 and was touted as a major gain for farmers, and a great legacy of UPA-2, comparable to UPA-1's NREGA. Originally, it was to exclude tribal lands and limit the acquisition of irrigated multi-cropped land to five percent of the total, to require the consent of 80 percent of both land losers and those whose livelihoods depend on land (eg, agricultural workers, rural artisans, etc), to apply to ongoing land acquisition where possession hasn't been taken, and to provide compensation at four to six times the market value of land.
All this was diluted under pressure from the industry, commerce and urban development ministries, and Big Business lobbies, to make the Bill "investor-friendly". In the Group of Ministers headed by none other than Sharad Pawar, the 80 percent consent norm was downgraded to "approval" by two-thirds of land losers -- never mind the livelihood losers. Tribal land can still be acquired, but as the "last resort". Contrary to earlier promises, even double displacement would be permitted, albeit in "exceptional" cases. But permitted it will be.
The proposed National Manufacturing and Investment Zones have been exempted from the Bill. It will only apply to future, not ongoing, land acquisitions. And the states have been asked to follow a "sliding scale" of compensation, of between two and four times the market value. Besides, "linear projects" like railways, highways and power lines have been exempted altogether.
Relief and rehabilitation obligations on private buyers, earlier mandatory for acquisitions above 100 acres, have been left to the discretion of the states. Instead of taking rehabilitation responsibility till the project is completed, promoters will only make a one-off payment into an escrow account and won't have to build infrastructure or amenities for the affected people. The account will be managed by a special agency. How responsive it will be to people remains to be seen.
Since then, Sonia Gandhi has intervened to restore the 80 percent consent norm for land losers, but that's a relatively minor change which only partially undoes the harm. The truth is, even in its modified form, the LARR Bill would at best be a cosmetic improvement over the 1894 Act. No wonder the National Alliance of People's Movements has called it retrograde because it will transfer "precious natural resources to private corporations and fuel corruption and land conflict".
The main positive feature of the Bill is that it mandates a Social Impact Assessment, including of whether a project serves a public purpose, and evaluate its presumed benefits and social costs for the project-affected families, with public hearings to be held at the site. The SIA report would be examined by an expert group, with some non-governmental representatives, including two social scientists, which can recommend the scrapping of a project.
Another positive feature is that the loss of a house would be made up through the grant of another house, and families affected by irrigation projects would get one acre of land in the command area -- although they might lose much more.
However, as past experience with the corrupted Environmental Impact Assessment process vividly shows, the SIA is no guarantee that the project would be properly assessed. Besides, the Bill has accepted the industry lobby's demand that the SIA be completed within six months -- a virtually impossible task if an in-depth assessment is to be made and critically scrutinised.
As for compensation, it took many years even to estimate the social and environmental damage from the Narmada dam projects, leave alone compensate people for it. Thousands of displaced families, who were promised "land for land", still remain un-rehabilitated, as the recent moving jal satyagraha in Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh showed.
India has displaced 60 million people from land since Independence -- equalling the entire population of Britain. Land is now the hottest subject of contestation between the people, on the one hand, and corporate interests and the State, on the other. Not only is land crucial to people's right to live with dignity. It's also tied up with the central question of control over the natural resources which it holds, including water, forests and minerals.
Under the present neoliberal model of capitalism, corporations invade nature in ways they have never done before to take over land, water and air, and forcibly turn them into commodities. All Third World countries, and especially fast-growing ones, are witnessing a modified repetition of what England saw in the 18th century -- Enclosures of the Commons, or common property resources, including farmland and pastures -- only at a faster pace, and with greater ruthlessness.The UPA is facilitating this to feed corporate greed. Clearly, Gandhi has decided to abdicate her responsibility to exercise a moderating influence on the UPA and push pro-people measures. She has probably convinced herself, perhaps against her own instincts, that GDP growth is all-important; to engineer it, India needs investment, whatever the cost. The UPA will end up paying heavily for this Himalayan misjudgement.