Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Nandan Nilekani's battle for biometrics ends with compromise

The battle over biometrics between Nandan Nilkani's department and the Home Ministry has ended in a compromise. At a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister and attended by senior ministers, Mr Nilekani, and Home Minister P Chidambram, it was resolved that the fingerprints and iris scans of Indians will be collected by both teams, with as little duplication as possible.

Mr Nilekani, since he was head-hunted by the government in 2009 from Infosys, has been leading one of India's most ambitious projects - the Unique Identification Authority of India - that has been set up to issue to every Indian a card bearing a 12-digit ID, or aadhaar, which will be stored in a central database, and linked to the individual's fingerprints and other biometric data. This unique ID will help India's poor avail the welfare schemes and benefits they are entitled to, currently over-run by corrupt middlemen.

Mr Nilekani's department has so far spent Rs. 670 crores and enrolled 20 crore Indians with their biometrics including their finger prints and iris . The problem is that the Home Ministry is empowered to collect exactly the same data for the National Population Register or NPR. At the meting today, it was decided that Mr Nilekani would conduct his enrollment exercise in areas where his team has already collected information on more than 50% of the population. Remaining areas will be handled by the Home Ministry's officials. Mr Nilekani's exercise, the meeting agreed today, should be seen through the prism of development; the NPR's focus will remain on accumulating data vital for internal security.

Mr Nilekani's department was initially meant to use the NPR's data for its work. But because the NPR's collection of data was moving slowly, the UIDAI asked for and received permission to collect the biometrics for 20 crore Indians. The logic was that the two databases of the NPR and the UIADI would eventually be married. But the Home Ministry then said that the UIDAI's data was not upto its standard. Separately, concerns have been raised about whether the UIADI is legally empowered to collect personal information, and how the safety of its data would be guaranteed.

There have also been allegations that Mr Nilekani has been caught in the crossfire between the Finance and Home Ministries, whose rivalry is well-known. The UIADI is supervised by the Planning Commission, whose parent is the Finance Ministry.