“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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Understanding UIDAI

This blog is my effort to begin to understand and assess the implications of UIDAI—the Indian program to create a universal national identity card, using “biometrics” to record and audit personal identity.

Many scholars, journalists, activists, bureaucrats, and interested others have written on UIDAI, and the first aim of the blog will be to sample these writings, both to learn from and think with them. The goal is the design of an informed research project and a variety of endeavors, including academic and popular publications, emerging from that.

Blogs engender conversation and debate: many anthropologists worldwide, and several of my students and colleagues, have pioneered their use in our discipline. Time is limited: my hope is to be able to engage at least three postings sent in response to each entry, building a series of conversations in support of critical understanding.

Self-publishing in this way carries its own hubris: I am as of yet no informed scholar of UIDAI or the sociology of identification. There are graduate students out there right now—some of whom I hope to work with—planning or doing terrific research on UIDAI or tangentially in relation to it.

The purpose of the blog is nonetheless an open process of inquiry. I will engage one short piece of information—culled from a news article, scholarly study, government report, web posting, and so forth—every few days, and slowly build up a fund of knowledge and a set of problematizations. That at least is the hope. My sense is that it may be helpful to trace a line of inquiry as it moves along, doubles back, discovers or loses its purpose, and generates other forms of work.