Aadhaar loses its unique identity, chairman Nandan Nilekani to quit

Written by fe Bureau | New Delhi | Updated: Feb 22 2014, 13:27pm hrs
Nandan NilekaniUIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani said he would resign from his job by March end to join mainstream politics. PTI
Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) chairman Nandan Nilekani on Friday said he would resign from his job by March end to join mainstream politics and contest the Lok Sabha election on a Congress ticket, causing many to wonder if his absence at the helm would derail the Aadhaar project, vital for slashing Indias subsidy expenditure and increasing the efficacy of welfare programmes.

Helped by Nilekani's model of third-party collection of biometric data, UIDAI has so far issued Aadhaar numbers to 58.7 crore people and targets to take the tally to 90 crore in another year.

Nilekani is expected to contest elections from the Bangalore South constituency, standing against the BJPs Ananth Kumar, who has won five Lok Sabha polls consecutively from there. Though a political novice, Nilekani has an impressive track record of a corporate career followed by several years of public service.

I will be there for a few more weeks. I will be stepping down by end of March, Nilekani, who also co-founded one of the country's leading software services firm Infosys, told reporters here.

The government relies on Aadhaar-enabled better targeting of oil and fertiliser subsidies to realise the aim of reducing subsidy spending to 1.6% of GDP in three years from 2.2% this fiscal. Also, the outcome of the Centre's welfare spending through flagship schemes on employment, education and health is expected to be enhanced thanks to Aadhaar.

There are issues like how to improve water supply. Education is a big challenge for children, and jobs also, Nilekani said of the prospects ahead. Nilekani, 58, has already been running an Idea for Bangalore on his official Facebook page, talking about issues such as transportation, infrastructure and environment in the city. He added that the UIDAI is now in a position where anybody can take it forward from this point.

Nilekani's stint in the government has not been without trouble. The Aadhaar project faced stiff resistance not just from the opposition parties but also from senior Congress leaders who resented the growing stature of the IITian in the party. Besides the ministries of food and home, which had a turf war with the role of the UID authority (Census of India had wanted sole rights to issue biometrics), the finance ministry, which had backed most UIDAI decisions, too rejected its demand to increase its biometric capture mandate from 200 million to all 1.2 billion.

Despite these odds, Aadhaar-based direct benefit transfers have touched close to Rs 2,600 crore in 292 districts of the country.

In fact, Nilekani was also unable to pass the National Identification Authority of India Bill to provide statutory status to the UIDAI, which issues Aadhaar numbers to residents. Since 2009, the UIDAI has been functioning under an executive order issued by the government.

In another setback to the Nilakani-led authority, the government has delinked Aadhaar from disbursal of subsidised LPG cylinders, which can now be purchased without an Aadhaar account. The direct benefits transfer on liquefied petroleum gas (DBTL) was put on hold citing ground-level implementation issues last week.

Under DBT, about 4.86 crore accounts have been made and around 2.06 crore households have received subsidised cylinders.

While the DBT related to ministries of justice and empowerment, human resource development, minority affairs, women and child development, health and family and labour and employment began from January last year, the subsidy on food, fertilisers and petroleum products to the poor by directly transferring cash to their bank accounts using Aadhaar got delayed due to the massive scale and complexity of these major subsidy schemes.

The home ministry questioned the accuracy of the UIDAI data, effectively sending out the message that its own entity that does the census will collect biometrics and its overlap with the National Population Register which has a similar task of collecting data. However, the biggest setback for the UIDAI programme was dealt by the Supreme Court interim ruling saying that Aadhaar was voluntary and its use could not be mandated by any government agency in order to provide services to citizens.

On a question whether he is taking a big risk by contesting elections, Nilekani, in a lighter vein, said: In any case, I do not plan to lose. In the worst case, I might lose but risk taking is part of life. The reason I chose the political path was because a lot of changes are required in the system.

The UIDAI was formed in 2009 and aimed at generating 60 crore Aadhaar accounts by 2014. Nilekani was appointed as chairman in July 2009 with the rank and status of a Cabinet minister for an initial tenure of five years.

Recently, the government also gave us mandate to go to four more states Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand, which have a total population of 33 crore. So we will build a system now which can do 30 crore a year. So I think with the momentum continuing, we are looking at enrolments of up to 90 crore by sometime in 2015, Nilekani added.. He said use of Aadhaar cards for voting purpose will be decided by the Election Commission.