UIDAI: Chidambaram, Nikelani and the struggle over the master database

[The blog disappeared for a month as its author and editor was caught up in other tasks. Nonetheless, it was useful in shaping a talk I gave to a gracious and patient audience–given how new the material is–at Emory University. Some of the questions raised at that talk will organize the next several posts and their inquiries, once I finish edits on a final paper over the next few days.]

Contending databases make the nation

If Universal Identification as a project promises the end of corruption and therefore of poverty through the de-duplication of the Indian population envisioned as a database, then political contests may shape up as contests over the control and design of the nation cum database.

At stake in high level ministerial contests over Aadhaar [the new national identity card] and the Universal ID Authority of India [UIDAI] creating its administration is not only control of a single national database of population but a contest over different, contending databases of the nation.

Here is a brief article from January 2012 found on a website and web “magazine” named Asian Women. The site masthead shows a line of female forms in paper-cut silhouette–young, fashion-plated, leggy, promising their irresistible relation to the commodity form–and the article is direct political reportage. I have corrected confusing spelling errors.

You've come a long way, baby

Some context: Months of reports of struggles over UIDAI at the Cabinet level, particularly by the powerful Home Minister P. Chidambaram. A recent “truce.”

Nilekani’s biometrics battle: Details of the truce

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Nеw Delhi:  Thе Cabinet today has officially sanctioned thе terms οf a treaty between Nandan Nilekani and Home Minister P Chidambaram. Thе two departments had been battling over the issue of biometrics – the right to scan India’s eyes аnԁ fingerprints.

Thе compromise gives both the Home Ministry and Mr Nilekani’s UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority οf India) thе power tο collect biometrics. Mr Nilekani, whο hаѕ already collected the data fοr 20 crores [200 million persons] has bееn authorised tο gather biometric data fοr a further 40 crores [400 million]. Hе had questioned for the money and sanction tο enroll аƖƖ Indians. Thе problem so far was that the same data was also being collected bу the Home Ministry for the National Population Register or NPR, which when completed, will be the world’s largest biometric database.

Thе expenditure and effort іѕ massive. Sο both sides hаνе bееn told tο avoid duplication. Mr Nilekani’s team, whісh hаѕ made noteworthy movement іn states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka аnԁ Kerala wіƖƖ plough ahead there. And the Home Ministry wіƖƖ accept thіѕ data fοr thе NPR, whose main purpose іѕ tο ensure records οf all residents fοr internal security. Thе Home Ministry’s biometrics exercise wіƖƖ focus οn areas whеrе thе UIDAI has nοt begun work ѕο far. Anԁ whіƖе enrolling fοr thе UIDAI remains voluntary, signing up fοr thе NPR іѕ mandatory for all residents.

Earlier, thе Home Ministry hаԁ said thаt UIDAI’s data wаѕ nοt entirely sound; іt had аƖѕο articulated doubts аbουt hοw thе confidential data wουƖԁ bе protected. Now, thе ministry hаѕ bееn tοƖԁ thаt іf thеrе аrе аnу contradictions, іt’s biometric information wіƖƖ supercede thаt οf thе UIDAI. Thе National Population Register wіƖƖ serve аѕ thе master database.

Mr Nilkani’s request tο enroll more Indians hаԁ upset thе Home Ministry, allegedly bесаυѕе іt perceived a trespassing οf іtѕ turf. Bυt Mr Nilekani, whο wаѕ given Cabinet minister rank when he left Infosys tο head thе UIDAI, has also according tο insiders, bееn caught іn thе crossfire between thе Home аnԁ Finance Ministries, whose rivalry іѕ nο secret. Thе UIDAI іѕ a sub-set οf the PƖotting Fee whose parent is thе Finance Ministry.

Three points:

(1) MASTER DATABASE:The results of what is astonishingly framed as a treaty (between ministries, not nation-states, after all) is a “Master Database” to be controlled ultimately by the Home [Interior] Ministry, not UIDAI (or its apparent supporters in Finance).

The material of this database are “biometric” data.

What is at stake here is pretty incredible. UIDAI and Aadhaar, as this blog has been at pains to think through, comprise a promissary entity offering nothing less than the end of corruption and thus the end of poverty through the presumption that corruption is caused by the duplication of persons within the form of a database. Such corruption works through the misdirection or capture of rights and entitlements toward ‘duplicate’ [false, made-up] populations and persons. Such rights and entitlements, offered as a sovereign gift by the development state and its successor forms , become a gift given instead to all the false “duplicate” persons that the powerful [corruption from above] and the pauperized informal sector [corruption from below] presumptively produce through the creation of duplicate identities in the databases of the nation. UID promises a radically deduplicated nation-as-database by combining new technical database design and the political will of a neo-liberalized corporate efficiency model.

But if UID itself as this article suggests is but one of two “duplicate” projects projected as a Master Database, the very locus of deduplication is itself always already duplicated.

One of the two projects is UID. UID at some sites depends on the other project, the census, in its current form the NPR [National Population Registry, also based on biometrics], controlled by the Home Ministry.

We have already seen how “communal” debates in Assam are organized around the threat that a “residency” based database [the census] will be used to create a “citizenship” based database [UID, which is to regulate the rights and entitlements of citizens], of concern in a situation where media conditions of what I have elsewhere termed ethical publicity renders the illegal migrant a site of affective intensity as a threat diverting the sovereign gift by the state to its proper citizenry. In other words, concerns over illegal migration want to keep the database of Residency [needed for Security] and the database of Citizenship [needed for the just distribution of state goods] separate.

But the Home Ministry, given its formulation of Security concerns, wants to unite these under a Master Database. And, despite the concerns of many at the center and on the [Hindu] right, this formulation of security seems to collapse citizenship [UID] into security [census].

Let’s take a step back. All this has some presumptions we might want to specify. Here is a start.

(i) The population is a database

(ii) Government is government of a database

(iii) Two contenting visions of data government are at stake in this struggle between UIDAI and the Home Minister. The home ministry’s concern is Security. The master database enables the State to have exclusive knowledge of the population as a database: the State creates the knowledge, possesses the knowledge, uses the knowledge, and secures the knowledge. The UID Director’s concern is efficient distribution of rights and entitlements through the De-Duplication of identity: this involves Universality [everyone must be covered], Comparability and Open Access to databases [enabling registrant agencies to compare biometric and biographical data with all known databases to de-duplicate false persons].

In this “treaty,” Security apparently trumps Universality and De-Duplication. But the details are not clear, at least here.

(2) COLLABORATIVE GOVERNANCE?: The treaty presumes sharing is possible. It divides the national geobody into 2 zones, of high UID coverage-to-date, and low coverage. In high coverage zones, UID is to be the source of biometric authority comprising the Master Database for those regions [but controlled, now, by the Home Ministry and its National Population Registry [NPR] census].In low coverage zones, NPR will remain the source of authoritative biometric data.

A classic high coverage zone has become the “developed” southern state of Andhra Pradesh [but see also the claim of Tripura, in the Northeast]. A classic low coverage zone is India’s most populous and politically central state, Uttar Pradesh. The latter is identified through multiple media as the locus classicus of “corruption.” Holding onto the idea that corruption is a matter of de-duplication, what we have in the new biometric sharing treaty is a sharing of low-duplication data with high-duplication data. This duality is worth thinking with.

(3) BIOMETRICS AS THE NEW DATA, AND THE BIOMETRIC TREATY FORM: The treaty is literally over competing biometrics. That of UID has become well known: newspapers and TV for several years have been saturated by images of people having their biometric data taken. The NPR’s commitment to biometrics is perhaps more obscure: this blog needs to understand it.

[next post will be, I think, KARGIL 1: THE BIRTH OF NPR]

NPR, the master duplicate

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One thought on “UIDAI: Chidambaram, Nikelani and the struggle over the master database

  1. Pingback: Bodo-Muslim Violence and the Question of Identity Cards for Assam: Security as a Negative Condition | followuidai

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