The key to UID lies with Microsoft

While Aadhar is being pitted as the biggest e-governance project taken up by the Indian Government, loopholes in the project have already started surfacing. Latest being the technology statement of Aadhar, which clearly states its commitment to use open technological standards. It has been found that the client enrolment software is only compatible with Windows, the operating system from the US software giant, Microsoft.

Problem in implementing Aadhar in KeralaUID - Aadhar the inclusive growth project

This came to light with Kerala’s first training session to implement the project in November. The state endorses free and open source software (FOSS) policy in governance, the only state to do so, with which the Aadhar applications fail to comply. The Virtual Device Managers that provide an interface for applications to devices such as biometric devices are not compatible with Linux, the open source operating system software.

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) mandates that all ‘middleware’ used in Aadhaar must be vendor neutral. But the latest discovery has ensured that the project will be largely dependent on Microsoft. This reflects poorly on the government, especially when the chairman of UIDAI is none other than Nandan Nilekani, former CEO of Infosys. Many circles see it as a shortcut to speed up the project for political gains.

Ashok Dalwai, Deputy Director-General, UIDAI, said this is a “Kerala-specific issue” and asserted that all enrolment software is based on windows platform. He said, “Our developers will work towards Linux compliance later.”

Cost and security concerns

This statement by the government gives little assurance, given the poor consensus of Aadhar amidst the people. Apart from the proprietary applications, implications on cost and security matters have been raised. Involvement of firms such as Ernst & Young and Accenture raises further questions about who will have access to the data. It increases the potential for surveillance. Thus Orwellian surveillance, a nightmare for many, is likely to assume shape in India.

Experts are apprehensive of Aadhar as they believe it to be intrusive of a person’s privacy while also violating constitutional laws. No privacy laws have been drafted yet for the project.

National IDs in US, Australia and UK have been abandoned in view of costs and privacy concerns. India which has an estimate population of 1.18 billion, the second largest in the world, has not deliberated on the expense and feasibility of the project. The project is estimated to cost the exchequer Rs. 45,000 crore in the next four years. Rs. 10 to 12 crore is the enrolment cost in a single district. And as every resident of India is eligible to enrol, it cannot be integrated with other citizen specific projects, which would have shared the cost burden.

Mounting scepticism

Though enrolling in Aadhar is stated as optional, people believe it won’t be long before methods are devised to make it mandatory. The most predictable being, to open bank accounts or get a phone connection service UID (Unique Identification Number) would suddenly become compulsory.

Experts are debating the effects of Aadhar on public distribution system. R. Ramakumar, Associate Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai opines, “The aim is to ensure a back-door entry of food stamps in the place of PDS, and later graduate it to a cash transfer scheme, thereby completing the state’s withdrawal from the sphere of food procurement and distribution.”

A mechanism for feedback from the people needs to be established by the government to fix the faulty process. With scepticism growing measures need to be taken to ensure that Aadhar, as in the words of Nandan Nilekani, ‘benefits residents across India.’

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Bt Brinjal shelved again

In September 2010, the report of six premier Indian science academies assigned to ascertain the safety of Bt brinjal was rejected by Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh. He said, ‘the report did not reflect the views of the larger scientific community.’

The six academies declared Bt brinjal safe while foregrounding concerns on genetically modified (GM) crops which are scientifically flawed. They recommended it in view of India’s critical food security but admitted GM products border a thin line between safe and unsafe. The report said: people can be allergic to Bt brinjal just as to common food; therefore, no food can be declared safe for all.

Coalition for GM Free India, a national advocacy group of more than 100 NGOs from 15 states stated that the report of the academies is plagiarised. It is taken from an article in Biotech News ‘Bt Brinjal – A Pioneering Push’, by Anand Kumar, published by the Department of Biotechnology. Ramesh opined, “My idea of referring the GM crops to academics was to get a view of the larger scientific community not the view of Anand Kumar which I knew even before the moratorium was put on Bt Brinjal.”

The Events

In 2000 MAHYCO (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company) created eight hybrids of brinjal by inserting the cry1Ac gene licensed by Monsanto (26% stake in MAHYCO).

In September 2007 the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the Indian biotechnology regulator, approved large field trials for Bt brinjal.

In February 2008, Supreme Court revoked its earlier ban on the approval of large scale field trials of transgenic crops.

MAHYCO conducted tests for nine years on 25 hectares spread over 59 locations. On 14th October 2009, GEAC deemed Bt brinjal safe but left the decision to the Environment Ministry.

On 9th February 2010, in view of large opposition by environmentalists, scientists, NGOs and the public, the commercial release of Bt brinjal was put on hold. A known critic of GM crops, Ramesh held public consultations in seven cities and assigned independent academies to study its safety.

Professor P M Bhargava, a molecular biologist and former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, had said that many necessary biosafety tests were not conducted before giving clearance for commercial release. He is GEAC’s only independent expert, appointed by the Supreme Court. Some members of GEAC’s Expert committee are directly involved in developing Bt crops.

Bt cotton

Such large scale opposition to Bt brinjal is triggered by the effect of Bt cotton on farmlands, cattle and health. On 26th March 2002, three varieties of Bt cotton by Monsanto-Mahyco were approved for commercial release by GEAC, despite concerns raised about its safety. Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) had challenged the 1998 field trials in the Supreme Court stating numerous irregularities.

After several years of farming Bt cotton, farmers are in economic crisis and many have committed suicide. Bt cotton is ineffective against bollworms, the pest it was formulated to destroy. Madhya Pradesh the largest cotton growing state in India has declared a crop failure.

Workers exposed to Bt cotton have showed adverse affects like allergies, itching, eruptions on the body, swollen faces etc. There have been cattle deaths from grazing on Bt cotton leaves in Andhra Pradesh, and Haryana. Farmers are demanding compensation from the company.

Monsanto charged an exorbitant royalty of Rs. 1,200 per 450gm packet of Bt cotton and sold it at Rs. 1,800 to Rs. 2,000 per packet in India.

India is presently the sixth largest GM crop growing country – half a million hectares with an output of 8.4 million tonne. Bt cotton accounts for 85% of cotton crops grown here.

The Government of Tamil Nadu has banned Bt cotton after failures in Dharmapuri district. West Bengal, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh have stated that they will not cultivate Bt Brinjal.

Difference of opinions

The body of ministers differ on the safety of Bt brinjal. The Ministries of Agriculture and Science & Technology are for the commercial release of Bt brinjal, while Jairam Ramesh has strongly opposed it. Ramesh said, “GEAC may well be a statutory body but when crucial issues of human safety are concerned, the government has every right . . . to take the final decision.”

A Ramadoss, Union Health Minister during 2004-2009, had also opposed the introduction of GM brinjal in India.

The two arguments

Bt Brinjal is a GM crop created by inserting a gene [Cry 1Ac] from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into Brinjal. The insertion of the gene makes it resistant to the pests Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer (BFSB).

Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech argues that pesticide is sprayed minimum 50 to 80 times in the life cycle of a brinjal which gets consumed by humans, whereas Bt brinjal affects only pests. It is pest-resistant and promises to offer a higher yield reducing the cost of production. Experts who support it say it will help meet growing food demands and shorten growth time of the crop.

Contrary to the claims by Bt seed producing companies, in a study conducted by Cornell University it was reported that Bt cotton farmers in China were spraying 8% more pesticides. Insects have developed resistance to Bt cotton and there is occurrence of secondary pests.

Those opposed to Bt Brinjal say for a seedless variety of GM crop, the farmer has to procure seed from Agro

Protests against Bt Brinjal

Corporations for the next crop cycle. This makes them dependent on Agro Corporations who can regulate it by manipulating the cost.

“We are not against the use of genetically modified technology to improve crop yields. But we definitely oppose the introduction of Bt brinjal,” said Sunita Narain, Director of the NGO Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

People are also concerned about cross pollination between a Bt brinjal and ordinary brinjal, as it can wipe out thousands of indigenous varieties of brinjal. Its performance, impact on the environment, biodiversity and health of cattle and human has been widely debated.

Health and Environment impacts when tests were conducted

  • Bt includes genes for antibiotic resistance and genes for viral promoters
  • It appears to have 15 percent less calories
  • Adverse effects on animals – blood clotting and alkaline phosphate in goats and rabbits
  • Increased weight gain and intake of more dry matter in cows, with 10-14% increase in milk production
  • Increased water consumption and decrease in liver weight and diarrhoea reported in rats
  • Feed intake modified in broiler chicken

The world-wide scene

In view of such disquieting reports, Europe and Japan have banned GM food crops. While India one of the world’s largest brinjal producers after China, is yet to come to a consensus.

The moratorium Ramesh said is to the Bt brinjal developed by Mahyco; Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, the University of Agriculture in Dharwad (Karnataka) and two laboratories of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research are also developing GM brinjal.

Monsanto alone sells 90 per cent of the world’s genetically engineered seeds. DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow are the other corporations engaged in GM seeds market globally.

Biosafety study for other GM crops like ladyfinger, rice and tomatoes has been cleared by GEAC. Many are apprehensive of these seeds which are awaiting approval.

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What the UID proposes

On 29th September 2010, the Unique Identification (UID) Project of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was launched at Tembhali village in Nandurbar, Maharashtra. It is targeted to benefit people and in the process, achieve inclusive growth by preventing leakages in the welfare system.

Aadhar launched at Tembhali, Maharashtra

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), a part of the Planning Commission, is the body responsible for implementing the UID project.

The UID is being marketed under the name Aadhar. According to Nandan Nilekani, the chairman of UIDAI, Aadhar communicates “a foundation over which public and private agencies can build services and applications that benefit residents across India.”

To empower the poor

UID is designed to facilitate public services for every individual in the country. It is a single entity under which the government proposes to identify the bulk of the population, without any discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, language or religion.

The UID is expected to specially empower the poor and marginalized sections of society in accessing the government services anywhere in the country. The government believes its universal application is the uniqueness of the programme as it provides mobility to identity proof. Many people, specially the underprivileged, migrate to different parts of the country, in search of work; UID will affirm their rights to public services.

The state managed epic, systematic and self-evident corruption in the public distribution system has failed to deliver miserably. UID will ensure people’s rights to food, education, employment etc. Transactions like opening bank accounts, passports, obtaining driving licenses will become hassle free with the possession of a single ID.

UID is aimed also at identifying people who do not possess any proper identification proof. Individuals who have an Aadhar can introduce them to establish their identity.

The design

The technology on which the UID is formulated is the biometric device which identifies the fingerprint and iris of an individual. The government has assured the data will not be accessible by any agency, private or public, and is retained only for identification. For any identification query the system is facilitated to only respond in ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

Most of the public services have been marred by pilferage and the needy are denied of the subsidies entitled to them. To eliminate duplicates and prevent scams the UID does away with the system of cards. It reduces paper work so also the cost of technology.

As UIDAI is focused on the identity of the person and not the identity of the document the best match is the individual’s biometric. The UID can only establish unique identity if authentication is done against the central database. Further, cards can be forged, stolen, faked and identity process diluted. While the UID authority only guarantees online authentication, the service providers are free to issue cards to people if it serves their purpose.

To achieve inclusive growth is what the UID aspires to achieve. A number of government schemes such as MGNREGS, PDS, health insurance etc are a part of the scheme which will enable greater financial inclusion.

Important points about Aadhar

1. Aadhaar (the UID number) is voluntary. People can opt to not register themselves.

2. Aadhaar is meant for all the residents of India; it does not establish citizenship of India.

3. Any individual can avail the UID, including an infant.

4. Aadhar will not replace other identification documents such as ration card or passport.

5. Date of Birth is optional (for people who don’t remember/know their date of birth) an approximate age will suffice.

6. Transgenders have been included in the options under gender and they need not classify themselves as male or female.

7. To get an UID number, residents will have to go to the nearest Aadhaar enrollment camp, details of which will be published in the local media. Residents are to carry with them documents, mentioned in the advertisement. They will be photographed and their fingerprints and iris scanned. The Aadhaar numbers will be issued within 20-30 days.

8. The draft National Identification Authority of India bill has provisions against impersonation, providing false information and for protection of personal information collected by the UIDAI. Violations can attract penalties in the form of fines of up to Rs 1 crore and imprisonment extending up to a life term.

9. For queries and grievances UIDAI can be contacted on the toll-free number 1800-180-1947

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A detailed critical analysis of the UID will follow in a later post

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