UIDAI is, let's face it, not a zippy acronym. But the Unique Identification Authority of India - again, not a catchy title for a project - owes its very high-profile to its leader Nandan Nilekani, the alleged rivalry the scheme has stirred up in the Cabinet, and its mission statement - to provide to every Indian a card bearing a 12-digit ID or aadhaar
which will be stored in a central database and linked to the individual's fingerprints and other biometric data. This unique ID will help India's poor avail the welfare schemes and benefits they are entitled to, which are currently over-run by corrupt middlemen.
Home Minister P Chidambaram has written to the Prime Minister, requesting him to urgently help sort out the dispute that has, in recent months, spawned several headlines, many of them focused on whether Mr Nilekani, former co-chairman of Infosys, can survive the rivalries and red tape that come attached to a government project of this scale. As chief of the UIDAI, Mr Nilekani has the rank of a Cabinet minister.
Mr Nilekani told NDTV's Sreenivasan Jain today that he cannot comment on whether his UIDAI project has become collateral damage in the alleged proxy war between the Home and Finance Ministry.
Mr Nilekani's department has so far enrolled 20 crore Indians with their biometrics - his data has allegedly been described as not sound by the Home Ministry. When asked about that, Mr Nilekani diplomatically replied, "We believe that we follow due process...we have very high standards of security, we believe that it serves the purpose it does." Mr Nilekani also said that it is upto the Cabinet to decide whether his department should continue to collect biometric data, or if that exercise remains the prerogative of Mr Chidambaram's Home Ministry.
Mr Nilekani wants to extend the enrollment to all Indians - a move backed by the Planning Commission and its parent body, the Finance Ministry. But Mr Chidambaram says his ministry is already collecting biometrics for all Indian residents to set up the National Population Register or NPR, which will be the country's biggest biometric database with scans of each resident's fingerprints and irises. In addition to the duplication of work at considerable expense, Mr Chidambaram has reportedly suggested that the security of the UIDAI's database could be problematic. Others in the government have suggested it could be misused.
Mr Nilekani's department was initially meant to use the NPR's data for its work. But because the NPR's collection of data was moving slowly, the UIDAI asked for and received permission to collect the biometrics for 20 crore Indians. The logic was that the two databases of the NPR and the UIADI would eventually be married. But the Home Ministry has said that the UIDAI's data is not upto its standard.
A parliamentary committee that recently studied the UIDAI described the scheme in its current avatar as "directionless." Among the committee's concerns were whether the UIDAI is legally empowered to collect biometrics.