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By The government's ambitious project to give a unique identification number to every Indian citizen is running woefully behind schedule. T.V. Jayan investigates the problems that beset the project
  • Published 3.07.11
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It was supposed to be a smooth, if mammoth, operation — one where a 12-digit unique identification (UID) or aadhaar number would be provided to every Indian citizen within a specified time frame. Yet less than a year after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi launched it with much fanfare in Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district, the ambitious project seems mired in problems.

In Nandurbar itself, the pace of implementation has been agonisingly slow. As against the enrolment target of 2.6 lakh people by June end, only 1.17 lakh people have been enrolled so far.

And Nandurbar is just one case in point. In most districts and states, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the body that is overseeing the project, is struggling to meet its target. Only three states have crossed the one million mark in providing aadhaar numbers to their citizens. Andhra Pradesh leads the pack with nearly 3.5 million UIDs, followed by Karnataka (1.82 million) and Maharashtra (1.6 million). The total enrolment, according to the UIDAI website, stands at 9.5 million as on June 27. The plan, though, is to provide aadhaar numbers to 600 million people by 2014 — a target that will surely remain way out of reach if the UIDAI continues with its current pace of work.

Forget the debate on whether or not the UID project will compromise a citizen’s right to privacy. Right now, the big issue facing it is that it’s beset with a host of operational problems. “There are issues at all levels — conceptual, technology, logistics and at the implementation stages. Unless we resolve them fast, there could be inordinate delays. The project could even be derailed,” says a senior manager at one of the biggest enrolment agencies empanelled with the UIDAI, on condition of anonymity.

The UID programme works something like this. The UIDAI has appointed a large number of registrars, which are either state or central government departments, or public sector banks and insurance companies. The registrars, in turn, have enlisted the services of private firms to enrol people and collect demographic and biometric data such as their finger prints, iris scans and so on. So far 209 firms have been enlisted as enrolment agencies (EAs). While most of them are information technology firms, stock broking companies, financial service companies and even printing presses have been commissioned to obtain the UID enrolment data.

Once the EAs collect the information, the data packets are sent to the respective registrar to be vetted and thence to the UIDAI’s Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR) in Bangalore. The CIDR checks the data packets for authenticity and makes sure that there has been no duplication of data — in case an individual has been enrolled more than once. When all the processes are cleared, a UID number is generated against the person’s name, which is delivered to him or her by post.

Incidentally, the government is yet to announce the cost of the entire project, although UIDAI director general Ram Sewak Sharma reveals that the cost of generating each aadhaar number would be about Rs 150.

What is also slowing down the project is the process of “de-duplication” of data. UIDAI technology head Srikanth Nadhamuni admits that the biometric service providers who help the CIDR check duplication in biometric records now take a couple of minutes to process a single data packet. As a result, right now the UIDAI can issue fewer than 50,000 aadhaar numbers a day. And yet, it plans to generate one million numbers daily by October this year. To achieve this target the UIDAI should be processing 11 data packets per second during a 24-hour cycle.

UIDAI director general Sharma feels that these are niggling problems that will soon be resolved. “Kindly understand that the world has not seen this scale of de-duplication thus far,” he exclaims. “The IT systems, both hardware and software, are continuously being tuned to scale up to these numbers.”

UIDAI’s chief technology architect Prashant Varma is also optimistic. “These things need not be done sequentially. If we have enough computing power it can be carried out in a parallel manner,” he says, adding that more hardware is on its way to streamline the de-duplication process.

But others hold out a much bleaker view. “The de-duplication algorithm will get slower and slower as the size of the database grows. The authority has also not been transparent about the de-duplication process,” says Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), Bangalore.

Enrolment agencies too say that the problem is far more serious than what the UIDAI admits. “Currently, they are processing data packets that we had sent in April,” says the state head of an EA working with the commissioner of civil supplies in Andhra Pradesh.

Again, the fact that the UIDAI is taking an inordinately long time to generate the aadhaar numbers — about three to four months from the time of data collection, in place of a month as originally planned — is creating its own complications. Thanks to the time lag, a citizen who is unsure of his UID status may go to another enrolment agency associated with yet another registrar. So his data is collected again and sent to the CIDR for registration once more. This leads to duplication of data and hence, further increases the de-duplication workload.

What’s more, it also hits the margins of enrolment agencies as the UIDAI pays only once for someone’s data. So any EA that unwittingly collects the personal data of a citizen the second time will not be paid for its pains.

In fact, the EAs are beginning to realise that the work is barely financially viable for them. Having procured the enrolment job through competitive bidding, they are now finding out that the rates are abysmally low. “If one EA quotes a low price, others are asked to match it if they want to work with the same registrar,” says an executive with an EA, who does not wish to reveal his or his agency’s name.

“For instance, a Noida-based firm, which bagged the tender for 200 enrolment stations to be set up in Hyderabad from the commissioner of civil supplies in Andhra Pradesh, had quoted a figure of Rs 23 per enrolment. We all knew this was a ridiculously low amount as an ideal per capita enrolment cost should be between Rs 30 and 35. But others working in the Hyderabad area had no choice but to quote a figure very close to it,” he says.

Then again, because enrolment agencies are paid only after their enrollees have received the UID numbers, and because these numbers are taking months to be generated, the EAs are not getting paid on time. “We are already working on tiny margins. So if the cash flow is tight, we find it difficult to pay salaries to people who work on the ground,” says an enrolment agency official.

Admittedly, while the profitability of an EA need not be the UIDAI’s concern, it certainly needs to check if enrolment is being affected because the EAs are cutting corners to stay within their budgets.

The EAs are also witnessing high attrition rates among enrolment operators. These operators, who have to clear a certification exam before they can enrol people, work for three or four months and leave if some other agency offers them more money, reveals Sudhanva Kimmane of Comat Technologies, a Bangalore-based EA. Since getting a new operator certified takes about 20 to 25 days, the deadline goes for a toss.

Sometimes, the unreasonable demands of state governments also lead to delays. Karnataka, for instance, has asked registrars working in the state to gather information on as many as 19 counts. “Filling out so many additional fields reduces the number of enrolments that an operator can complete in a day and thus makes our targets go awry,” says an EA working in Karnataka.

Experts feel that one of the biggest flaws of the UID project is that it was launched all across the country without trial runs in small areas. “Whether in the private sector or the public sector, if a new project is being undertaken, it is usually tested in a small area before being launched on a large scale,” says an IT expert who has been involved with launching e-governance programmes in Kerala. “This way you suss out the feasibility of the project. Also, it helps to resolve all possible problems that may be encountered during the full roll-out. Why didn’t they first test the UID programme in a district, and then in a state before taking it pan India,” he asks.

With so many problems bedevilling the project, many people are sceptical of its success. Asks R. Ramakumar, associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, “Will the benefits accruing from the project justify the huge expenses involved?” He points out that a similar project in the UK — that aimed to create a National Identity Register — was scrapped by the government in December. The London School of Economics, which analysed the proposal, found that the cost could end up being 10 times more than what was envisaged. “If the technologies involved are so infallible, why did a few developed countries which tried to use them drop them eventually,” he asks.

Clearly, there are too many uncomfortable questions facing the UIDAI right now. It remains to be seen if it is merely experiencing teething troubles or if India’s zillion-rupee aadhaar number scheme will tie itself into knots even before it gets to the halfway mark.

Glitches Galore

Slipping targets: Only three states have crossed the one million mark in providing aadhaar numbers to their citizens. Total enrolment stands at 9.5 million as on June 27. The goal is to provide aadhaar numbers to 600 million people by 2014.

Slow data crunching: Processing each data packet now takes a couple of minutes. To achieve the target of generating one million UID numbers daily by October this year, the UIDAI should be processing 11 data packets a second during a 24-hour cycle.

Devil is in duplication: Since the UIDAI is taking about three to four months to generate an aadhaar number, a citizen who is unsure of his UID status may go to another enrolment agency. So his data are collected again and sent to the CIDR for registration once more. This increases the de-duplication workload and slows down the entire process even more.

High attrition rates: Enrolment operators, who have to clear a certification exam before they can enrol people, work for three or four months and leave if some other agency offers them more money. Since getting a new operator certified takes about 20 to 25 days, the enrolment agency’s target goes for a toss.