Friday, January 27, 2012

Nilekani's biometrics battle: Details of the truce

The Cabinet today has officially sanctioned the terms of a truce between Nandan Nilekani and Home Minister P Chidambaram. The two departments had been battling over the issue of biometrics - the right to scan India's eyes and fingerprints.

The compromise gives both the Home Ministry and Mr Nilekani's UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) the power to collect biometrics. Mr Nilekani, who has already collected the data for 20 crores has been authorised to gather biometric data for another 40 crores. He had asked for the money and sanction to enroll all Indians. The problem so far was that the same data was also being collected by the Home Ministry for the National Population Register or NPR, which when completed, will be the world's largest biometric database.

The expenditure and effort is massive. So both sides have been told to avoid duplication. Mr Nilekani's team has been working in states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala will plough ahead there and has been able to enumerate about 17 crore people so far. The Home Ministry will accept this data for the NPR, whose main purpose is to ensure records of all residents for internal security. The Home Ministry's biometrics exercise will focus on areas where the UIDAI has not begun work so far. And while enrolling for the UIDAI remains voluntary, signing up for the NPR is mandatory for all residents. As a result every individual will have to attend NPR data collection camps even he or she has already acquired an Adhaar card.

Earlier, the Home Ministry had said that UIDAI's data was not entirely sound; it had also expressed doubts about how the confidential data would be protected. Now, the ministry has been told that if there are any contradictions, it's biometric information will supercede that of the UIDAI. The National Population Register will serve as the master database.

Mr Nilekani's request to enroll more Indians had upset the Home Ministry, for several reasons. The primary being lack of verification of the data being collected.

Today when allowing Mr Nilekani to enumerate an additional 40 crore people, the Cabinet also extracted a promise from UIDAI to re-look at the processes and address the security concerns of the Government.

Despite the compromise, several questions remain unresolved. To start with UIDAI collects data individually where as all government scheme - MNREGA, BPL Rations etc - takes the house hold as the base unit. The process to reconcile the data i.e. how to tag the data of an individual with a particular family from a data set of over one billion - is not only complicated but hasn't yet been worked out.

On the other hand, there is huge a cost differential in the cost of biometric enumeration between UIDAI and the Registrar General of India. UIDAI is more costly. According to some estimates, the UIDAI will incur at least Rs. 600 crore more than NPR in enumerating 60 crore people. Mr Nilekani, however, ducked this question when taking to reporters after the Cabinet meeting.

The UIDAI is a sub-set of the Planning Commission whose parent is the Finance Ministry.