Rajeeva Ratna Shah IAS
This is the story of an acorn which held in its shell seeds of great potential. Initially when sown it refused to germinate. But with tender care and persistent and prolonged nurture it threw up green shoots. As its roots gained ground the green shoots proliferated till the acorn became a mighty oak. The oak bore more acorns to let its tribe increase till oaks became omnipresent. This parable aptly illustrates the story of evolution of our Unique Identity (UID) programme.
In the late 1980s the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi lamented that only seventeen paise, out of every rupee of government spending, reaches the rural poor. I was at that time posted as Commissioner Varanasi (1987-90). Stung by the painful truth embedded in this observation, I started a rudimentary Unique Identifier Programme, creating a database of people living below the poverty line giving them an alpha-numeric ID, so that the actual delivery of all benefits flowing from different departments could be properly logged and monitored. The database for approximately 80 lakh rural population of Varanasi Division involved creation of 15-20 lakh records. Though the data entry was a stupendous task, it was nearly accomplished within the assigned timeline. Nevertheless, limitation of computing resources available at the divisional level became a bottleneck. The programme got mired in glitches due to limitation of contemporary state of available technology. The personnel trained were disbanded and the project abandoned after I was transferred.
The basic concept had aimed at creating an IT enabled Universal Identifier platform for Programme Delivery of all beneficiary oriented for rural employment generation and for asset creation (IRD). The concept was sound and too alluring to resist the temptation to revive it. In 2001 as Secretary Information Technology, GOI I took the opportunity to resurrect the programme. Between 1989 and 2001 technology had made tremendous progress. Data storage and processing speeds had undergone total transformation. (Moore’s law stipulates that processing speeds & memory capacities on microchips and density of pixels on monitors increase in geometric progression, doubling every 18 months).
By 2001 many identification systems had come into existence. Income Tax authorities had Pan Cards for tax assesses since 1976 and the Election Commission had Voter’s ID card since 1993. These were addressing limited target groups. For direct delivery of government benefits to the poorest of the poor a universal identification system with ubiquitous application covering the entire resident population of India was required.
A workshop was organised in Department of IT in which the exact challenge of the need for creating a schematic for the proposed Universal Identifier platform was delineated by me, before IT industry bigwigs like Infosys, TCS, Wipro, HCL, etc., to name a few. In this meeting, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Ministry of Finance (MOF) insisted on registering their reservations. MHA had given up a similar idea because the creation of chip-based ID cards would involve creation of evidence of citizenship, which could be misused by illegal immigrants. Finance Ministry also found the idea of micro-chip-based ID cards too expensive and not financially feasible (estimated cost was several thousand crores of Rupees).
Undeterred by the spanner in the wheel thrown in by MHA and MOF we decided to proceed with the Universal Identifier Programme, reconfiguring it in the light of the reservations expressed. The Programme initiated by DIT aimed at providing every resident a unique ID on a common platform. The nomenclature suggested was Common Unique ID. I felt that this nomenclature was anomalous as an oxymoron, since what is unique cannot be common and what is common cannot be unique. I decided to keep it simple.
Just call it Unique ID or UID.
The principal features of UID were:
- The UID was to be configured as a Core Database (CDB) for all residents, each having a unique identification number. The CDB was to be regularly updated by concerned departments to be used as the basis for identifying a person and enabling cross-linkage of major databases in the country. It was envisaged that UID could significantly reduce identity related frauds, reduce leakages and allow for better targeting of government schemes. Since eligibility was to be linked to residence (an ascertainable fact) and not citizenship (which is legally determined), it was felt that MHA concerns were adequately addressed.
- The UID schematic stipulated that each resident Indian be assigned a permanent alpha-numeric number. The Schema was to have information stored in two parts, the static and the dynamic. The Static to include information about the resident Indian, something like the KYC system currently used by banks. The dynamic information part aimed at providing a platform for programme benefits availed, as well as services received by the resident/beneficiary from government. The records received and updated by the departments were to ride in secured verticals. Access to information was to be restricted to authorized personnel, on need to know basis.
iii. The UID chip-based card as it was later called, was not to be mandatory. In all anti-poverty or beneficiary based programmes, the cards were to be provided to the beneficiary and cost debited to administrative expenses under the scheme. Thus, funding issues were also overcome to address the concerns of MOF.
- Other than beneficiaries of govt schemes if any other resident seeks the UID Card, it was to be provided on full cost recovery basis
I made a presentation of the basic concept of UID, its overarching architecture, and potential for targeted delivery of government programmes and services before the PM, Sri Atal Behari Vajpayee and obtained his nod. This small triumph proved to be ephemeral. Shortly thereafter, the elections were announced by BJP, riding on a wave of euphoria of the ever elusive “India Shining” resulting in a change of government. The consensus reached before PM proved to be fragile. Even the reconfigured UID proposal could not pass through MHA and MOF. After I left DIT in July 2003, the proposal got tangled once again in inter-ministerial wrangles.
My posting as Member Secretary Planning Commission gave me yet another opportunity to revive the idea and pursue it relentlessly, since I could, now, backup the proposal as an interested party. Planning Commission had been under fire for poor delivery of anti-poverty programmes and had reasons to be deeply committed to better delivery of government schemes and services. It made sense for Planning Commission to make a pitch for creating an IT enabled platform on which the beneficiary-oriented schemes/services of all departments could be delivered through secured conduits to the target beneficiary. I persuaded the IT Secretary, Chandrashekhar to get the subject of UID transferred to Planning Commission. The Commission would then follow up the UID idea and break the inter-ministerial logjam. Principal Advisor Arvind Virmani was assigned the task of chairing an inter-ministerial committee whose remit would consist of taking the UID proposal forward.
The merits of the UID programme and their relevance to Planning Commission objectives were instantly grasped by the Vice chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Ahluwalia. We were able to get both the Vice-chairman and PM/Chairman of the Planning Commission on board as champions of the UID program. UID became the cornerstone of Planning Commission’s strategy for improved & targeted delivery of the plan programmes. The full concept of UID was delineated by me in Chapter X on Governance in XIth Plan document. At this stage my contribution to the creation of UID ended, since I retired from the Planning Commission.
However, the commitment of the Planning Commission to UID continued in UPA-II. UIDAI or Unique Identification Authority of India was created and reputed IT professional, Nandan Nilekani was appointed as its Chairman. This was the best thing that could have happened to the programme, since at this stage it required a strong technical person to steer and build a robust platform that could take the rough-and-tumble of the 1.2 billion records.
UID was rechristened as “Aadhaar” which means substratum. A name aptly chosen since it aimed at putting all government programme delivery on terra firma. The UID programme design was slightly altered. The reconfigured Aadhaar has several unique features:
Aadhaar for identity authentication: The Aadhaar UID Card is a randomly generated 12-digit unique number which UIDAI has to make available to all residents of India. It is a number with no linkage to caste, creed, religion or geography. The number can be used as proof of identity and address by every individual resident, including infants and children, any time anywhere.
Aadhaar as biometric identifier: The UID card number stores the basic demographics, biometric information, photograph, fingerprints, and unique identification by the iris of each individual in a central database.
Aadhaar and its universality and mobility provide a universal identity infrastructure which can be used by any identity-based application (e.g., ration card, passport, etc.). Aadhaar will eventually replace all other IDs.
Aadhaar as platform for direct delivery of all beneficiary oriented programmes, schemes and services: UIDAI started working actively with states/central ministries to designate Aadhaar enabled accounts for disbursal of all social security benefits.
Under the stewardship of Nandan Nilekani the issuance of Aadhaar cards gained momentum. By May 2014, when UPA-II was voted out of power, as many as 63.22 crore Aadhaar cards (50% of the population) had been issued, but only 10% of these (i.e., 6.7 crores) were linked to bank accounts. Despite the good work done by Nandan Nilekani, the UPA II had squandered their opportunity. They were unable to accelerate the pace of financial inclusion and the pace of reconfiguration of Aadhar based programme delivery of various flagship anti-poverty programmes. By May 2014 only the LPG scheme was being delivered through Aadhaar, to barely 2.82 crore beneficiaries.
With the change in regime in 2014, a brief phase of uncertainty arose about the future of Aadhaar, since BJP had taken an adversarial position all along. Much of this was based on political posturing and some opposition came due to misinformation. Eventually, such was the power of the concept of UID/Aadhaar and such was its irresistible promise as a game changer in direct benefit transfer that BJP’s resistance wilted away. PM Modi was quick to grasp its potential as well as the factors impeding its implementation. He pressed the paddle on registration of Aadhaar and within two years nearly 99% of adult resident population (above the age of 18) was covered. On 11th March 2016, Aadhaar Act 2016 was passed by Lok Sabha, giving Aadhaar statutory backing. UIDAI an attached office of Planning Commission was transferred back to Department of Electronics and IT since Planning Commission had ceased to exist.
By now, Aadhaar had found its most powerful promoter and champion in the PM. Rising above the stated party position, PM Modi steam-rolled the resistance to Aadhaar within BJP and made it the cornerstone of his development policy. He was quick to discern that UPA had floundered in the implementation of financial inclusion. They had also failed in reengineering the processes of its flagship programmes, reconfiguring them using Aadhaar as the bedrock. Realizing that financial inclusion was a sine qua non for achieving Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT), in his very first Independence Day address, PM Modi launched the National Mission on Financial Inclusion, popularly known as Jan Dhan Yojana. For the first time since Bank Nationalization, Public Sector Banks were firmly harnessed to reach out to underserved areas and unserved rural populations. Banks were forced to take note of the “wealth at the bottom of the Pyramid”.
My UID and Nandan Nilekani’s Aadhaar were both conceptualized to facilitate Government-Citizen (G2C) and Citizen-Government (C2G) transactions. It was not our intention to expand its application to other transactions, viz., Business to Business (B2B), Business to Citizen (B2C) and Citizen to Citizen (C2C). PAN cards are now mandated to be linked with Aadhaar. PM’s ambitious Digital India Programme and the post demonetization emphasis on replacing paper currency with ‘digital money’ are opening up possibilities of enlarging the ambit of Aadhaar to include B2C and C2C transactions, e-Wallets and mobile payment applications like Bhim aim at using Aadhaar for biometric authentication of transactions in B2C and C2C domains.
Today, AADHAAR has 1.23 billion enrolled members and it is the world’s largest biometric ID system and also the world’s most sophisticated ID programme.