Monday, September 14, 2009

Nandan Nilekani: On the backfoot

Karan Thapar of CNN-IBN interviews UIA Chairman Nandan Nilekani in Devil's Advocate.

Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil's Advocate. Why do we need a unique identification number and does the proposal itself make good sense. That's the key issue I shall explore today with the Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority, Nandan Nilekani.

Mr Nilekani, let me start with a simple question. It is said that 80 per cent of Indians have Election Commission identity cards, others have ration cards, some people have BPL cards, others have driving licence and passports, there are even PAN cards. Why on top of this do we need a unique identification number?

Nandan Nilekani: We need one single, non-duplicate way of identifying a person and we need a mechanism by which we can authenticate that online anywhere because that can have huge benefits and impact on public services and also on making the poor more inclusive in what is happening in India today.

Karan Thapar:When you say one online way of identifying a person, am I right in assuming what makes the unique identification different to anything else is that in addition to name, age, sex, date of birth and address, you actually have the individuals biometrics which are unique to that individual?

Nandan Nilekani: Absolutely. It is a combination of most probably fingerprints and picture and a biometrics committee will finalise that but finally that makes it unique. And we will also make sure that there are no duplicates. That's another important decision.

Karan Thapar:Let's come to the problems that are inherent in this task. First, the issue of technology. Quite simply, does the technology exist? I ask because the London School of Economics did an analysis and survey of a similar project that was being considered by the British Government and this is the conclusion that they have come to: “The technology envisioned for this scheme is to a large extent untested and unreliable. No scheme on this scale has been undertaken anywhere in the world. Smaller and less ambitious systems have encountered substantial technological and operational problems that are likely to be amplified in a large scale national system”. Now, if that is true of Britain it has to be true of India in spades?

Nandan Nilekani: There is no question that this is a project where we are going into uncharted territories, the technological challenges are immense and one of the risks of this project is the technology.

Karan Thapar: The technology is so essential to the project that I put it to you, this is not just uncharted territory, this could end up being a case of India's ambition outstripping its ability. After all, even today, we can't issue identity cards with a guarantee that the name is correct or that the address hasn't been misspelled. We could end up making a complete hash of biometric details.

Nandan Nilekani: There are certain risks in this project but I think given the enormous opportunity and developmental benefits that it can give, it's worth taking on the project and trying to mitigate the risks so that we get the outcomes that we want.

Karan Thapar: But you do accept that the technology is not just uncharted but at this moment not actually fully known?

Nandan Nilekani: There is no other country in the world where a billion peoples’ biometrics have been captured and stored in an online database. In that sense, it has not been done before.

Karan Thapar: We actually have to invent the technology for this size and scale of operation?

Nandan Nilekani: No, we don't have to invent the technology, we have to scale up the existing technology to work at this scale.

Karan Thapar: But it's such a fantastic scaling up that it's almost a reinvention.

Nandan Nilekani: It's not a reinvention but a scaling up.

Karan Thapar:The second problem inherent is the problem of cost. Once again, the London School of Economics (LSE) did an analysis of a similar project that the British government was thinking of, and that remember is a country which is one-twentieth the size of India and the LSE concluded that the probable cost for Britain would be between 10 to 20 billion pounds. Frontline magazine believes that the government in India has a guesstimate of somewhere around Rs 1.5 lakh crore. Is it worth it at that cost?

Nandan Nilekani: I don't agree with that estimate. I don't know what the exact figure is but it is much less than that by a factor of 10.

Karan Thapar: If you don't know the exact figure, how can you say it is lesser by a factor of 10?

Nandan Nilekani: The bulk part is certainly going to be lesser than that.

Karan Thapar: But it's a guess that you are giving me, isn't it?

Nandan Nilekani: It's a guess but it's an informed and educated guess.

Karan Thapar:So the truth is we don't know what the exact cost will be?

Nandan Nilekani: We don't know what the cost will be but I am very confident that whatever the cost is the social, economic and efficiency benefits of it would make it well worth it.

Karan Thapar:Let me question that. India is a poor country. I put it to you that this order of money could be better spent if you expand education, health and sanitation or if you use it to feed the 40 per cent of Indian children who are chronically malnourished.

Nandan Nilekani: We certainly don't want to take away money from important social programmes but remember that as we expand our social programmes, the efficiency of the social programme depends on the fact that they reach the right people and that there are no duplicates who are taking away the benefits which are meant for the poor. We need to make them more efficient. So you need the infrastructure at the bottom to make that happen.

Karan Thapar:There is no doubt that the unique identification number could play some role in targeting benefits better at people who deserve it, but when in India the prime need is education, health and particularly health for women and children, sanitation (700 million Indians do not have proper sanitation facilities), surely this money could be better used.

Nandan Nilekani: The investment of money in this project will actually make all those other monies be spent more efficiently. Think of it as an infrastructure for enabling you to spend money more effectively.

Karan Thapar:All of that depends on the assumption that technology can tackle these problems. Despite all the positive potential benefits of the project, the assumption that technology can actually tackle the ills of social inefficiency and social problems -- that's a huge assumption.

Nandan Nilekani: Certainly it's a huge assumption.

Karan Thapar:Maybe an unjustified one?

Nandan Nilekani: Look at it simply. You talked about maternal care, we have 10 million women who get health benefits under the JSY programme but we have to make sure that the right women get it before their pregnancy so their health will improve, the quality of the delivery will improve. These are all real social problems that this information can help you to solve.

Karan Thapar:Let me tell you why that is an inadequate example. You can only target better those women who are actually availing of the benefits but not receiving them fully. Take the example of BPL, it is a much better quoted example. The real problem in India is not that people who should receive BPL assistance do not get it properly and that there is leakage. The real problem is that there is a vast number of people who qualify and are not included in the BPL threshold at all. How will you be addressing the second problem?

Nandan Nilekani: What happens today in a particular state is that there may be more BPL cards than the population of the state because there are multiple cards issued to an individual. With the UID, you will be able to actually trim that down to one card per individual and therefore we will actually know who is not getting this now.

Karan Thapar:But what you can't do is to identify the people who should have BPL cards and do not have them because they are outside the system, they have been ignored. Technology won't improve that?

Nandan Nilekani: This (UID) is not a panacea for all the problems. This is an enabler which will allow more effective public delivery.

Karan Thapar:Which is why I say to you that the order of sum of money involved could be better spent in targeting education, sanitation and health not to mention child malnutrition because you would actually then get real benefits rather than what I am describing as 'notional benefits.'

Nandan Nilekani: Suppose in a country we are spending 100 to 200 thousand crores a year on different kinds of subsidies and social benefits, to make investment which is a part of that one time, to make those investments more efficient is definitely well worth it.

Karan Thapar:Is it a one-time investment? In fact, the Frontline magazine says that the government's estimate of Rs 1.5 lakh crore does not include recurring cost. The recurring cost could add to that and we don't know by how much?

Nandan Nilekani: On the scale of money that we spend on public programmes and the ability of the project to deliver better public programmes it will be well worth it.

Karan Thapar:That is the debate. We are leaping in the dark in the belief that technology would help us deliver our programmes better. But as you say the technology is not known, it has to be upgraded in such an enormous scale that I call it a reinvention although you dispute that. The cost itself is unknown, you agreed to that. And therefore I put it to you again, there are so many imponderables about technology, size and cost that is it wise for a poor country like ours, where there are huge levels of poverty (Arjun Sen Gupta Committee report says that 80 per cent of India live under Rs 20 a day), should we therefore be spending this sort of money on this project?

Nandan Nilekani: The Government has come to the conclusion that this project is stragetic and worth it. I have been invited to lead this project. I believe that it is viable and I will do my best to make it viable.

Karan Thapar:Let me come to the third inherent problem in the unique identification number project. How can you ensure that the database that you are creating will be secure and that it won't be misused and it won't, worst of all, result in an invasion of privacy?

Nandan Nilekani: That is a very legitimate concern. We are looking at the design as to how to make it secure. We are saying that nobody can read this database. All they can do is verify the authenticity of an identity. You can ask a question like -- is x x? and the only answer we will give is yes or no. So there is no data coming down from the pipe. But there is no question that once the UID is implemented and the UID becomes ubiquitous in many applications, then there are challenges of privacy and I think along with this project, we have to put in other checks and balances, including laws.

Karan Thapar:Can you ever put in sufficient checks and balances? You said that people can only verify against this database. They won't actually be able to read it, but professor Ian Angle of the LSE, a world renowned authority on precisely the creation of such database, says with relevance to England, and it will apply even more to India, that what you are going to end up with is the "Olympic games of hacking." You are going to provide people the biggest challenge to hack through. No one believes in the perfectability of computers, so hackers will hack and succeed.

Nandan Nilekani: This again is a legitimate concern but we will have to design it as good as possible.

Karan Thapar:Can you design it to prevent hacking?

Nandan Nilekani: We can certainly create checks and balances.

Karan Thapar:The risk of hacking can never be removed hundred per cent?

Nandan Nilekani: In every system, there will be people who will try to hack on it. Some are impenetrable, some are not. The important thing is -- is the risk of hacking and privacy large enough not to do this project? And the view is that the project has so many significant benefits for the poor in making it inclusive and in giving them a chance to participate in the country's progress, that it is worth it and we have to mitigate those risks.

Karan Thapar:In India, you are creating a system which in the wrong hands would be a powerful tool for either religious or caste profiling. How can you ensure that unscruplous politicians won't misuse it for their benefit and against your intentions and the best interest of the Indian people?

Nandan Nilekani: We are not keeping any profiling attributes in our database.

Karan Thapar:You mean you won't have any details of people's caste?

Nandan Nilekani: No.

Karan Thapar:In which case, how can you say to me that you will better target benefits at BPL and other categories because if you don't know someone is SC or ST, if you don't know that they are OBC, how can you ensure better targetting?

Nandan Nilekani: That is the responsibility of the applicant that provides those services.

Karan Thapar:So then they will add in that feature into your detail?

Nandan Nilekani: That is outside our system. Our system has only basic attributes like the name, address, date of birth.

Karan Thapar:When you say that it's outside your system, you are providing the fundamentals for someone else to misuse? But misuse, if not at your end, will happen later on.

Nandan Nilekani: There are databases today which are accessible and therefore along with this we have to create the necessary laws, checks and balances, the citizen oversight to guard against these things.

Karan Thapar:The first thing that you conceded or accepted is that even if there is no misuse at your end, there is a huge potential of misuse at the end of other people who have access and use it and add to it. What you are doing therefore is that you are creating a weapon which you may not misuse but others could?

Nandan Nilekani: Today itself we have electronic databases in the country which potentially can be used the way you are suggesting. We are not doing something different from what already exists.

Karan Thapar:You said a moment ago that you would create checks and balances. I put it to you that you can never create sufficient and the reason say is this -- In the UK, in the US and in Australia, because the authorities couldn't respond to public concerns about misuse, they have effectively put on the backburner consideration of similar schemes for those countries. Now if developed countries cannot tackle the problem of misuse, then how can India, where 35 per cent of the people are illiterate and 22 per cent live below the poverty line? How can India claim that we can tackle these problems?

Nandan Nilekani:What these developed countries have put on hold is giving national ID cards to people. But both the countries, US and UK have a number. For example in the US, you have the social security number, in the UK there is the national insurance number. They already have a numbering system, which is what we are going to propose.

Karan Thapar:Except for the fact that it is nowhere near as extensive or as complete in terms of the biometeric details as what you are proposing in India. The national insurance in Britain has been around and developing slowly but it doesn't have any details that could lead to an invasion of privacy. It doesn't have any details that can be misused for profiling. Yours could have both?

Nandan Nilekani: As I said, these are legitimate concerns and I think we have to address them in the public as well as in the laws and so on. But notwithstanding these concerns, the social benefit, the inclusivity that this project will provide for the 700 million people in this country who are outside the system is immense enough to justify doing this project.

Karan Thapar:Can I challenge that justification? You are making it as an assertion, you are making it perhaps as a system of belief but what's the proof that the benefit will actually justify the risk?

Nandan Nilekani: The benefit is a profound benefit because the poor who don't have identity in this country will be able to get an identity, it will empower them, it will help to meet their aspirations, they are the people for whom this is being done and I do believe they will benefit greatly from this number.

Karan Thapar:you talk of giving people an identity but the problem is you are not a demographer, you are a technocrat. How are you going to handle the inevitable problems of internal migration or illegal immigration which are going to bedevil your scheme. How are you going to ensure that the wrong people aren't captured in your system and given an identity and made Indian?

Nandan Nilekani: Having this number does not confer any rights, benefits or any entitlements. All it does is confirm that X is X.

Karan Thapar:There are hundred ways of doing that. Why are we spending close to Rs 1.5 lakh crore on this project just to be able to claim X is X?

Nandan Nilekani: To have a system which uses a unique identifier like biometrics, having a system which ensures there are no duplicates and having a system that provides online authentication is, we believe, something that can have a lot of social benefits for the poor.

Karan Thapar:I won't question that belief although I call it a catechism of faith. One either accepts it on faith or one doesn't

Nandan Nilekani: I am not a high priest of technology.

Karan Thapar:I will end by quoting the conclusion the LSE came to when they reviewed a potential British concept along the lines of what you are doing in India: "The success of a national identity system depends on a sensitive cautious and cooperative approach involving all key stakeholders, including an independent and rolling assessment and regular review of management practices," and the LSE concluded that did not exist in the UK. If it does not exist in the UK, that environment certainly doesn't exist in India?

Nandan Nilekani: We are trying to make sure that all the checks and balances are there. We will have a very wide consultative process. We will involve everybody. We will make it public. All these are legitimate concerns and we have an obligation to meet these concerns.

Karan Thapar:I Hope you succeed. A pleasure talking to you.

Nandan Nilekani:Thank you.

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