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BW Businessworld

KYC, UID And All That

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Nandan Nilekani is an exceptional man. He is brilliant, and a tycoon.The two things do not generally go together. Making money requires domain knowledge like how to buy and sell, whom totrust and whom not to, how to please superiorsand so on. Bright people are not interestedin such nitty-gritty.  Intelligence is askill, just like batsmanship or flying. Its owners enjoy exercising it. If that makes them money, fine; but they are not obsessed with money. But just when Nandan grew up, a market emerged for software, writing which required intelligence. So a lot of intelligent people prospered, Nandan amongst them.

Then, as rich people often do, Nandan ran into the Prime Minister. He tried his usual spiel on Nandan: "You have served yourself long enough; it is time for you to serve the country." Maybe Nandan felt proud that the PM had taken him seriously; may be he felt guilty that he had done so little for the country. Anyway, he told the Prime Minister togive him any public service. And to his credit, the Prime Minister thought of something Nandan was well qualified for. He asked himto make a complete, accurate list of every inhabitant of India, and give each a single, distinct number. Thus, for instance, the Prime Minister would be 001, and Lal Kishenchand Advani would be 007.

However, the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIADI), which Nandan was asked to head, was not his baby; it was already three years old when it adopted him. After the Congress came to power in 2004, it decided to give freebies to the poor and make them a captive constituency. But many poor people have the same name, like Ramsevak or Khoka. How was the government to distinguish between them? The Planning Commission appointed a committee under Arvind Virmani. It asked the Department of Information Technology to work out an answer in March 2006. Its secretary called the chief of National Informatics Centre and told him to finishthe job within a year. It was not even started in a year.

But there was a list, namely the census list of 2001 population prepared by the Registrar. The home ministry asked the Registrar to update it starting from the 2001 records. So by then, both the Registrar and the NIC were supposed to do the same job; neither did it.

By this time, the Prime Minister was getting impatient. The task was stuck because of rivalry between the home ministry and ministry of information technology. He did not want to be seen favouring either. So he appointed an Empowered Group of Ministers in November 2007. The Planning Commission gave it a proposal saying how it would like to go about the job. But other ministries had to agree. So the EGOM delegated the task to a committee of secretaries. Finally, the EGOM gave the ownership of UIDAI to the Planning Commission in January 2009.

Sometime after that, the Prime Minister, who is the Commission's chairman, tried the patriotism trick on Nandan, and made him chief of UIDAI in 2009.The problem in creating a unique list lies in distinguishing between the similar and the identical — in creating a unique identity that no one can change, falsify or duplicate. The earliest solution was fingerprinting, which the British used almost from the beginning of their rule. But they did not want to make masses into criminals or beneficiaries of state largesse; so they only used fingerprints in policing. Since then, four other methods of recognition have come into use: face, iris, signature and voice.  Of the five, iris is the most accurate, and has the lowest type 1 and type 2 error rates — 0.001and 0.6 per cent, respectively. Next comes fingerprint, with 0.01 and 2.5 per cent. Then comes online signature, with 2.9 and 2.9 per cent. Then comes the face, with 1 and 10 per cent. The last is the voice, with 6 per cent each.

UIDAI has created teams, and equipped them with machines which can simultaneously read irises and fingerprints. They can transmit and receive data; as long as radio transmission is working, they can tell immediately whether a person is in UIDAI's database or not. It came to my house and scanned everyone in my neighbourhood. I have not received my card, but otherwise I think it is doing a great job. But it will be wasted. For at least two empires, namely the banks under the finance ministry and the Registrar under the home ministry, are creating their own databases. They will make all sorts of accusations against UIDAI, and refuse to cooperate with it. I think it is just the imperial instinct. So be ready to submit yourself to many machine readings.

The author is Consultant Editor of Businessworld.
ashok(dot)desai(at)gmail(dot)com


(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 28-05-2012)