Aadhaar is dead. Long live the National Population Register!

Or at least that’s how things seem to be developing, with noises from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government suggesting that the much-touted Congress project to give every Indian resident a unique number is about to be absorbed by an older scheme that dates back to the Atal Bihari Vajpayee years. Over the last few weeks it has even been suggested that the Unique Identification Authority of India will be shut altogether; yet it is more likely that the massive efforts already undertaken for the UID will be repurposed for a project that is not so closely associated with the Congress.

There has been little on-record noise about Aadhaar, but we have seen signs of the government’s intentions. The Cabinet Committee on UIDAI was among those that Modi dissolved as part of his “minimum government” exercise early on, bundling it into the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs. A few days later, in a clearer move, Home minister Rajnath Singh was given a presentation on the National Population Register – another scheme aimed at enumerating those who live in the country – and asked for it to be taken to its logical conclusion.

“The Home Minister directed that effective steps be taken to take the project to its logical conclusion, which is the creation of the National Register of Indian Citizens,” the ministry said, in a release. “He instructed that all necessary proposals including the updating of the database through linkages with the birth and death registration system and the issuance of National Identity Cards to citizens be brought for approval at the earliest.”

Now it appears this has gone even further. The Indian Express reported on Monday that Singh is planning to set a three-year deadline on the roll-out of the NPR, with the aim of using the scheme to establish Indian citizenship and potentially even link it to voting rights. Doing so with Aadhaar data would bring a tripartite victory: it will denote a fundamental shift from the service-delivery focus of the UIDAI project; it will resuscitate a plan that has its roots in the Kargil War; and it will settle an old Home Ministry versus Nandan Nilekani battle.

What is the National Population Register?

The Kargil Review Committee, set up in the aftermath of the war with Pakistan, suggested ensuring that Indians on international borders are given identity cards so that it is easy to identify them. This quickly expanded to include all Indians under the Multipurpose National Identity Card, which was tested out in a few villages through several pilot projects. The Citizenship Act was also amended to give legislative backing to the scheme, built on the Bharatiya Janata Party's general stance against illegal immigrants, particularly on the eastern border.

“They had tried making it a Local Register of Indian Citizens, but they very quickly gave up on it and turned it to a Local Register of Usual Residents,” said Sastry Tumuluri, an IT advisor to the government of Haryana who worked on the UIDAI project. “The criteria for identifying Indian citizens is very unreliable,” he said.

After 2003, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government was voted out of power, the scheme wasn't given prominence until half a decade later, when the Home Ministry began implementing it alongside the UIDAI at a time when then-Home minister P Chidambaram got into a turf war with UIDAI chief Nandan Nilekani.

What’s the difference between the NPR and Aadhaar?

Both schemes are aimed at identifying people who live in India, using their name, address and biometric data – fingerprints and iris scans.

The main thing that separates the two is intention, at least in official language. Rajnath Singh made it clear in his statement that the intention of the government is to carry out the “biggest security and e-Governance initiative in the world.” The Registrar General of Citizen Registration, Dr C Chandramouli, made a presentation regarding the programme that included him “outlining its importance for national security.” Its aim is to establish citizenship, rather than just residence, which means it will clearly exclude those who aren’t citizens or don’t have the documents to prove it.

Aadhaar, on the other hand, defines itself as a 12-digit identification number that will serve as proof of identity and address, meaning it applies to all residents whether they are citizens are not. The number is aimed at providing “access to services like banking, mobile phone connections and other government and non-government services.” The United Progressive Alliance managed to link it to its Direct Benefit Transfer system to give subsidies directly to the targeted groups.

Although the government used various incentives to get people to sign up to Aadhaar, it could not be made mandatory. The legal language that sets up the National Population Register makes it clear that the government is giving backing to make it “compulsory”, perhaps even penalising those who haven’t signed up.

There is also a substantial difference in the way data is collected for either. The Aadhaar programme involved visiting camps and signing up to receive the number. The NPR, however, is based on data collected during the 2011 census. If MHA is given access to the 60 crore people that UIDAI claims to have covered with the Aadhaar project, it will have to revisit those households to confirm that the data given is accurate.

Why are both problematic?

Civil society activists have been complaining about the UIDAI for years, arguing that it spends a lot of taxpayer money – Rs 5,500 crore at last count – for a project that will not cover everyone and, by the authority’s admission and a Supreme Court directive, cannot be mandatory. Arguments ranged from the relative usefulness of biometric data to concerns about the privacy of the data collected, leading to a significant Supreme Court order that prevents law enforcement agencies from using the data.

Even though the UIDAI did not necessarily need any proof of citizenship, the authority still found it difficult to cover everyone. “The issue of registering Aadhaar is simply not an easy task,” said Paramjit Kaur, director of the Ashraya Adhikar Abhiyan, a non-governmental organisation that works with homeless people. “This was not a very successful programme for the homeless, they are still excluded from all welfare schemes and though many of them were promised they would get Aadhaar, nothing happened.”

With the NPR requiring proof of citizenship, the problem becomes even greater. Again it would need universal coverage for it to be effective, and moreover, collects a lot more information about individuals than the basic biometrics built into Aadhaar. The government, if it does intend to work towards a National Register of Indian Citizens, has to also figure out what combination of current documents – from ration cards to land deeds – will figure in their formula of who qualifies as Indian.

Since that entails absorption into the Ministry of Home Affairs, the question of privacy, always a concern with Aadhaar, becomes even more pressing. “When information was collected for Aadhaar, they were told they would have complete privacy. If that is now given to the Home Ministry, that would be a betrayal of the promise,” Tumuluri said. “MHA wants access to everything. When the rest of the world is renouncing this kind of data, MHA wants access to all of it.”