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Studying the Foundation

The UIDAI project is arguably one of the biggest initiatives, in both scope and cost, undertaken in independent India, without any of the expected norms of prudence (oversight) and democratic consensus. Variously estimated to cost anywhere between Rs 40,000 and Rs 150,000 cr (INR), which is roughly equivalent to about USD 1 bn to USD 15bn, it has been kicked off with a Cabinet-sanctioned budget of Rs 1,900 cr (ie about USD 50mn) this fiscal (Apr10-Mar11). The budget is believed to be somewhat of a smokescreen, as it does not appear to include moneys taken from other agencies. However, the lack of clarity about money is not the only issue, as the project has been cleverly positioned within the Planning Commission, an arm’s-length agency charged with perspective planning for the country, which is independent of the usual line of command. As a result, the project has neither Parliamentary sanction nor even a (temporary) Ordinance.

The UID project is in many ways a global watershed, expecting to assign a unique number to every resident of the country, well over 1.2 bn people, a staggering concept, the scale of which has itself been used to justify taking on the project (by equating the immensity of the challenge to its worth). Considering my association with Privacy International, my concern is well-founded on grounds of potential destruction of personal privacy, but this is a very difficult viewpoint to defend in India, which does not have a specific privacy law, and for which the existing Constitutional protections (alluded to, not spelt out) have not always been strongly defended by Indian courts.

An international project, studying Privacy in Asia, seeks to ameliorate this situation, by getting to grips with comprehending Indian attitudes (ie, within the ambit of Asian attitudes). However, given that the UID project is gathering steam and proceeding willy-nilly, it is imperative to make every effort to bring it to a halt, at least a temporary halt, until sufficient information is available. Continue reading

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