“So When Should We Set Up Our Camps?”: The UID – NPR Entente Has Trouble

This is the final post for now engaging the January 2012 agreement between promoters of the parallel and competing biometric programs in India, the Security focused NPR and the Financial Liberalization focused UID.

The other biometrics: National Population Register Camp

A recent article posted August 7, 2012, by Sahil Makkar on the website livemint.com [prominently featuring the Wall Street Journal on its masthead], argues that NPR is not doing well and suggests that the terms of the agreement are in question.

If you have been following the career of UID, the news is quite extraordinary. I give the article in full and follow with my usual 3 comments.

NPR likely to be delayed
Decision runs counter to the compromise reached in January that Aadhaar and the NPR weren’t in conflict with each other

New Delhi: The National Population Register (NPR), an identity database being put together by the home ministry, will likely be delayed by at least a year beyond its June 2013 deadline after facing another reversal in its running conflict with the Aadhaar project of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), officials familiar with the development said.

The cabinet headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has directed the home secretary to take steps to avoid duplication of work with UIDAI and to set up NPR camps in states only after the former completes most of its work of collecting biometric data on an additional 400 million people.

The decision effectively runs counter to the compromise reached on 27 January that Aadhaar and the NPR weren’t in conflict with each other and both projects would run simultaneously.

Minutes of the 7 June cabinet meeting, which were released last month, have been reviewed by Mint.

“With this decision, NPR work has been delayed indefinitely,” said a home ministry official who asked not to be identified given the sensitive nature of the issue. “We had earlier targeted to complete NPR by June 2013 but it will be at least delayed by a year or more.”

The cabinet decision could revive the fight between the two identity projects. The core dispute is over which one of the two will collect biometric data. The home ministry’s position before the January compromise was that UIDAI data could not be trusted for security purposes.

Under the truce reached in January, each project was to use the biometric data collected by the other. In case of discrepancies between UIDAI and NPR data, NPR was to prevail. On 7 June, the cabinet directed Nandan Nilekani to accept NPR data, but asked the home ministry to set up NPR camps in states only after UIDAI finishes a majority of its work.

Home ministry officials said that there was no clarity on the word “majority”. UIDAI’s mandate has already been increased from enrolling 200 million people to 600 million, against the wishes of the home ministry and other departments in the Union government, they noted.

UIDAI and the Planning Commission had sought an extension of the former’s mandate after it enrolled 200 million people, its initial target. That resulted in a turf war between NPR and UIDAI.

“The cabinet decision means we cannot set up NPR camps in the states till the time UIDAI completes majority of the work. So when should we set up our camps—when they complete 51% or 60% or 80% of their biometric enrolment work? There is no clarity. State registrars are writing (to) us for directions,” said a second home ministry official who too asked not to be identified.

The 12-digit Aadhaar number was conceived as a unique identity that would be accepted nationally by banks, telcos, oil companies and other government agencies to serve as a tool to better target social spending by making sure that benefits such as subsidies reach the poor for whom they are meant. NPR’s prime mandate is to satisfy security concerns.

Friction between proponents of the two projects persisted despite the January compromise. Then home minister and current finance minister P. Chidambaram wrote in a 1 June letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that UIDAI was not honouring the truce.

“Despite these directions from the government of India, UIDAI is objecting to the conduct of the NPR camps in certain states and is also refusing to accept the biometric data of NPR for de-duplication and generation of (the) Aadhaar numbers,” Chidambaram said in his letter, which has been reviewed by Mint.

Chidambaram said in the letter that the NPR project was almost at a standstill because of the stance taken by UIDAI.

NPR creation is a statutory requirement and it is backed by legislation. We have to reach every resident in the country as per law even if they have already been covered by the UIDAI. The only difference is that we will not collect the biometrics of the people who have already given the same to UIDAI, but we have to record their other information. People are mandated to visit NPR camps,” the second home ministry official said.

The 27 January compromise hasn’t prevented duplication of biometric data collection, which the government had hoped to avoid. The government will have to spend an additional Rs. 6,000 crore if both NPR and UIDAI insist on collecting biometric data. The second home ministry official admitted it was all but impossible to avoid duplication costs.

The 27 January cabinet decision said the Registrar General of India (RGI), which runs NPR would be free to collect data “as per a schedule of its convenience” in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Andhra Pradesh, Chandigarh, Daman and Diu, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Puducherry, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim and Tripura.

“Now we are only setting up NPR camps in those states like Delhi where UIDAI has almost completed its work. As per the new decision, we are not entering in the state where they are yet to take up work or collecting biometric data,” the first home ministry official said.

The home ministry officials say they are now dependent on state governments for their permission to set up camps because the latter will need to decide whether UIDAI has completed a majority of its work.

A UIDAI spokesperson refused to comment on the issue. “Both UIDAI and RGI are working in accordance with the decision of the government taken from time to time. We are not aware of any difficulty in this regard. We, therefore, have no comments to offer,” R.S. Sharma, UIDAI director general, said in an email response.

UIDAI says it has partnered with state-level registrars for conducting enrolments in the states and that it hopes to enrol another 400 million people in the next 18 months.

Incidentally, the Expenditure Finance Committee (EFC) is yet to clear the UIDAI’s request for an additional sum of Rs. 5,000 crore for enrolment of the additional 400 million people.

“The proposal is expected to be considered by the EFC shortly,” Sharma said.

UIDAI’s second round of enrolment started on 4 August.

UIDAI claims to have enrolled 200 million people and issued 180 million Aadhaar numbers. It has dispatched 175 million Aadhaar letters. NPR has collected data on 710.25 million and recorded the biometrics of 30.95 million.

3 Points:

1) Duplicates upon duplicates! The painstaking effort of Nandan Nilekani and his team to avoid duplication, their liberal dream of de-duplication, is here explicitly threatened by NPR as a duplicate in multiple senses: two parallel databases, two modes of data collection, two parallel staffs, two norms of contract (see last post) etc. The presumption of Nilekani’s UIDAI is that heretofore the State has failed to realize India’s historical potential (cf. Hegel‘s lectures on the philosophy of history): the social contract has failed, as the condition of livability that the sovereign is to ensure for the citizen-subject is inevitably diverted to an inauthentic “duplicate.” The lessons of rationalized, non-familial corporate governance [i.e., bureaucracy proper to its and the nation’s historical potential] and the power of biometrics and big data are brought together to create a database with the power once and for all to de-duplicate the nation.

Bringing India to the end of history: Nilekani as dialectician

But the NPR, from the perspective of the promise of UID, is most likely government as usual, riven with localized “vested interests” forming a nexus with the state and its information-gathering. To allow NPR data to be commensurate with UID data is to ensure the failure of de-duplication, for the NPR data again from this perspective is thought to be always already duplicated: that is, to be formed in the crucible of [corrupt] everyday interest politics.

In this sense, Nilekani and others’ diagnosis of the state as always already corrupt and requiring an uncontaminated intervention is similar to that of the Gandhians and of Nehru, according to Thomas Hansen in his important argument in The Saffron Wave.

[Against the usual opposition of Gandhian work on the body/self/relation [satyagraha] and Nehruvian statist expertise, Hansen as I read him (brutally abstracting a complex argument) suggests their continuity in terms of a form of anti-politics in which everyday political process is inevitably contaminated by the scrum of vested interests. What is needed to rise above the near-Hobbsean state of nature produced by the play of interests is some sublime form of necessarily anti-democratic governance, and both Gandhi and Nehru if in quite distinctive ways turn to Indian civilization as its reason and justification.]

Big data and biometrics and corporate governance, if one draws on Hansen’s language, are the conditions of the contemporary sublime.

Biometrics in particular seem to matter. The sticking point according to the article in the earlier entente between UID and NPR was whether NPR would include biometric data or be more of a conventional census.

2) The irrelevance of cabinet position, the impotence of law: Chidambaram by all accounts is a powerful and canny politician and administrator. And yet his own lament at the deferral and exclusion of NPR and presumptively of India’s security interests [cf. “so when should we set up our camps,” a statement extraordinary in so many ways] suggests he is no match for the Congress government’s commitment to Nilekani and the UIDAI, whether we are to read that commitment as the financial liberalization and technocratic bias of the Prime Minister or as the populism of the Nehru-Gandhi family and their sense that the rationalized entitlement UIDAI/Aadhaar promises is the effective update on the Garibi Hatao [Eliminate Poverty] tradition of their party.

Chidambaram was recently moved from Home to Finance: from the official home that is of NPR to the home of UID. But if that move was in part to force him to back down from his commitment to the security database it has failed. Here he to speak as if he was more responsible for the Home Ministry’s NPR than his current post’s baby.

Once a Home Minister, always a Home Minister

And note his point that NPR is mandated under law. Implicitly he is pointing out, like many critics of UIDAI across the political spectrum, that the latter’s grounding in law is shaky at best. At stake in one sense is arguably a shifting terrain of the formal and legal. Here at least the NPR/UID distinction marks a differential claim on law, a differential logic of law. In part, UID like some other forms of sublime governance operates through the logic of emergency or exception: Nilekani has a cabinet-level rank without the formal limits and protocols of a ministry. UIDAI may be a section of a section of a section of the Finance Ministry, but it is in many situations treated as all but independent. Or so its critics allege.

To bring in the logic of exception, a concept with a familial relation to Hansen’s use of the sublime, may invoke for some the work of Giorgio Agamben and in particular Partha Chatterjee’s use of an Agamben-ish distinction between “civil society” [“bios,” life under law] and “political society” [“zoe,” bare life under exception]. Here the Security apparatus, in the post-millennial United States the sine qua non of the zone of exception as opposed to formal law, becomes on the contrary the embodiment of statute and law and territory. The financial liberalization apparatus is set apart as the troubling extra-legal state of exception.

3) Scale and speed, the mastery of time and the Masses: NPR’s lament is not being able to start. But if UIDAI is responsible for freezing the time of its rival, in doing so it secures the familiar neoliberal claim that the state is inefficient and corrupts time itself. UID here appears phenomenal in capturing millions and millions of persons for their de-duplication, despite reports of old people being illegible to biometric recording and entire states (the Northeast) being zoned for NPR alone. It masters time, or if you like it masters India as the Masses through its use of time. NPR is denied time: or is its lament just the familiar plaint of the development state justifying its failures by blaming others? Such are the stakes of debate produced in this moment.

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Violence at the limits of liberal governance: on claims about Aadhaar as a “vote bank” nexus

The last posts suggested some concerns around Aadhaar and Universal ID in Assam circulate around a second figure of the duplicate—not the cheater whose proliferating instances of identity must be de-duplicated, but the presumptively illegal Bangladeshi migrant whose passing as an Indian citizen may be legitimated if s/he gains access to an Aadhaar card and identity.

Assamese-Bangladesh border

Much of both popular and expert literature on the effects of migration across the Assamese-Bangladeshi border is neither dispassionate nor particularly empirical. A problem is proposed—large scale illegal migration and “land grabbing”—but few local studies helping to specify the stakes either in border districts or large towns and cities are cited. Such studies may exist—these questions are new for me—but an unscientific survey of several dozen policy or news reports through the medium of the Internet has not yet revealed them. What does clearly exist is a language that moves quickly into the specter of a national struggle between the Assamese and the Bangladeshis, a struggle framed both in a language of demographic invasion and cultural genocide and, iteratively, as a struggle over Islamicization and de-Hinduization. Hindutva groups like the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad, see the classic article by Jaffrelot in Dalmia et al] are not surprisingly perhaps well-represented in debates over the disappearance of Assam; but the range of commentary is far broader.

It would be unfortunate if my point was taken as a dismissal of the effects of large-scale migrations. If the tenor of the debate tends toward the inflammatory, framing the migrant through a presumptive psychology of a rapacious “land hunger,” part of the challenge is to understand the conditions of this slippage.

In this context, UID is debated as a means either to establish security and identify the false claims of the migrant, or as a failed enterprise in being conceived not as a register of citizenship but rather residency. Some articles focus on the technical and historical conditions of UID’s database and its complex relation to census instruments, but most focus on the politics of the ruling Congress-Party led alliance as it gears up for elections and courts “vote banks”: here the presumption is that Congress needs the “minority [Muslim] vote” and that its attitude toward UIDAI reflects the contingencies of not seeming too harsh on Muslim migrants.

What emerge are a set of challenges to UIDAI, presumed by articles, reports, and blog posts either to be responses by parties in power to electoral considerations by weakening or attacking UIDAI, or to be responses by parties out of power and especially the Hindu nationalist parties to UID’s claimed role in weakening proof of citizenship and thus weakening state security.

I have elsewhere termed such a political imaginary “the nexus”—in that any position toward an institution, here the UIDAI, is taken to reveal a prior set of “vested interests” benefiting the powers behind a political formation. What is interesting is that rival visions of the impact of migration and of state response may both be organized around a critique of UID /Aadhaar.

Rather than detailed commentary, let me just throw out a brief discussion of and citation from 2 citations that exemplify this range of problematization and the shared critique of UID.

(1) from Shantanu Bhagwat’s blog, Satyameva Jayate: Dedicated to “Bharat” and “Dharma” in a post entitled “This weekend, worrying about Assam”:

Mr. Bhagwat cites another blogger, Nitin, who argues for regularized work-permits as part of “the solution” to the security problem of Bangladeshi migration and who suggests that UID can also be used to keep track of who is a citizen. Nitin frames the program in the longue durée:

“Probably the most important event in (Assam) during the last 25 years — an event, moreover, which seems likely to alter permanently the whole future of Assam and the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilization — has been the invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry Bengali immigrants, mostly Muslims, from the districts of (Bangladesh).”

You might think I am quoting a contemporary BJP leader. These are, in fact, words of C S Mullan, census commissioner under the British Raj. He made these comments in 1931. If you thought that the issue of “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh” is a recent one, then think again.

Demographic change in the erstwhile Assam province in the first half of the twentieth century was at the heart of the Muslim League’s demand, in the 1940s, that the territory be given to Pakistan. So those who argue that large-scale immigration from Bangladesh is one of the biggest long-term threats to India’s national security are right.

Nitin’s move is interesting: he differentiates himself from the Hindu nationalist BJP and grounds his concern rather in the colonial era census. In other words: reason, not passion, should guide a planned response: thus work permits and UID as the solution as opposed to the violent means advocated by some.

His response is dual: use the Bangladeshi project of Universal ID, cross-nationally in collaboration with Bangladesh, to survey and control numbers of migrants. This is the “negative” part of the solution (“You might be surprised to know that as many as 85 million Bangladeshis have biometric National ID Cards (NIDs) which were issued ahead of the 2008 elections. These cards are now required for opening bank accounts, applying for passports and accessing public services”)

And, the positive: use the Indian UID to assess who is really a citizen. Vote-bank politics, by which Nitin like many commentators suggests the Congress Party soft-pedals control of Bangladeshis to garner the needed Muslim vote in its coalition building, have garnered the dividends of Congress (neoliberal, non-Hindu nationalist) Rule. Here Nitin identifies with these dividends, but marks a limit in the figure of the migrant. The security threat of Bangladeshis flooding in must be tackled. But the solution extends the liberal promise of Congress through the rationalized distribution of cross-national labor through cross-national biometrics.

In contrast, Mr. Bhagwat notes that UID is not organized around citizenship rolls and therefore cannot function to address any security issue here.

I am pretty certain he [Nitin] realises that UID is not about citizenship – it is more about establishing an “identity” – and to the best of my knowledge, it is going to be based on the National Population Register. The population register is not the same as a record of citizens (or citizenship) and it would therefore be wrong and misleading to use that as  the basis for establishing citizenship (the fact that this is exactly what is very likely to happen is  a topic for a separate discussion).

Mr. Bhagwat then cites a series of article excerpts by the Assamese journalist Wasbir Hussain, including the following:

As a result of population movement from Bangladesh, the spectre looms large of the indigenous people of Assam being reduced to a minority in their home state… This silent and invidious demographic invasion of Assam may result in the loss of the geo-strategically vital districts of Lower Assam [on the border with Bangladesh]. The influx of these illegal migrants is turning these districts into a Muslim majority region. It will then only be a matter of time when a demand for their merger with Bangladesh may be made…

This concern [staged in Husain’s signifiably Muslim but Indian and Assamese voice, again not in a Hindutva voice] makes Bhagwat wonder if the regularization of work permits is enough. He leaves the alternatives unvoiced.

His lone respondent voices an alternative, a figure of counter-violence. “Seadog” cites the positive example of the Maharashtra based Shiv Sena party and writes:

Watch and hit hard. Don’t slacken off, ever. Boycott them. Track them relentlessly. Recently, with the threat of imminent violence in Assam, a lot of infiltrators fled back to Bangladesh.

They [those who threatened this imminent violence] could take lessons from the Sena, maybe even some help.
Liberty does not come cheap.

Here, a rational-liberal discourse of formalizing illegal/informal migration marks its own limit in the difficulty of keeping population based and citizenship based form of surveillance separate. At that limit, if Seadog can be taken to mark the effects Mr. Bhagwat’s silence both potentiates and elides, calls for extreme violence may proliferate.

(2) In a response to a web post on the 24/7 News channel NDTV’s website, the posting being about growing opposition to UIDAI, one commentator writes:

There are lots of illegal immegrants from pakistan and bangladesh. This comes to many millions, with UID, everyone is going to get legal ID for them. which is very dangeros for the countries security. Question is how to identify them, Indians borders were opened all these years. It is unfortunate. In Assam there were only 2% minorites, today some analysts are mentioning this figure is about 35%, how did this happen?. UPA government is playing Vote bank politics , compromising on counrties security.

Here the presumptive nexus is between the Congress-led UPA government and the [unnameable, within the norms of contemporary Indian political discourse] Muslim “vote bank.” UID becomes the instrument of such pro-Muslim “vote bank politics.”

Behind this claim, however, one might need to ask what other kind of politics exist. There seem to be two kinds of political theory that haunt such a claim and resistance to it.

More recently, there is the much discussed argument of Partha Chatterjee that “most of the world” in its ever burgeoning squatter-settlement global cities inhabits a form of “political society” in which relations with state agencies and other powerful formations must be negotiated by informal, brokered, aggressively collective, often criminalized means (the squatters and illegals need the means to live and thrive and entertain self-respect; what I am calling the powerful formations need to govern the population and its milieu), as opposed to “civil society” with its formals and legal relations to land (ownership and tenancy and taxation) and labor (taxation and regulation) and electoral, individualized politics. Surely the blogs cited above are haunted by the potential collapse of local civil society (but here linked to the racialized imaginary of the nation) and the need either to through the identity card create some intermediate position between the fully formalized and the dangerously proliferating informal migrant, or, through threats of imagined counter-violence, to descend to the presumed level of political society.

But there may be another trajectory, through the sociologist M. N. Srinivas from his 1955 concept of the vote bank and a series of debates on the “demand polity” that emerge in conversation with him. This trajectory may offer other ways to think through UID as it gets pitched as the failed (duplicate?) protector of civil society. This trajectory may not exercise in the same way the presumptive and for me deeply flawed sociology of “India” as a persistently split entity, here between the dualism of political and civil society.