Waking up late: UIDAI has dumped CSCs, but it must plan the transition well

In the recent past, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has come in for some sharp criticism as more and more instances of Aadhaar-related data leaks have come to the fore. For instance, there have been several reports of Aadhaar details being available for measly sums of money and fictional characters being assigned Aadhaar numbers. These instances not only raised doubts about the security of Aadhaar-related data but also undermined public trust in the system. In that context, the UIDAI announcement last week that it would not renew its contract with the information technology ministry for the use of common service centres, or CSCs, in Aadhaar enrolment and data updating services is in the right direction. The UIDAI has said that there have been an “enormous number of complaints of corruption and enrolment process violations against Aadhaar enrolment/update centres” and it does not want to extend its memorandum of understanding with the CSCs.

The CSCs became central to the UIDAI’s scheme of things in the initial days when the authority wanted to quickly ramp up enrolment, especially in remote areas. Today, however, the situation has changed with close to 1.19 billion Indians already having being issued Aadhaar numbers. Moreover, there were many who have complained about the CSCs and the associated village-level entrepreneurs. In particular, they have been accused of often overcharging for their services and seeking bribes. Add to that the element of data theft and it would appear that the UIDAI had little choice in the matter but to quickly plug this gap.

However, the UIDAI’s apparent cure is unlikely to help matters as merely shutting out the CSCs may not be a solution in the absence of an alternative mechanism. For one, while it is true that a lot of people have already been issued their Aadhaar numbers, there is a substantial, and almost constant, demand to update personal details, such as a change of address or phone number, or the need to correct them. According to one estimate, the CSCs have conducted 56 million updates over the last five years. If Aadhaar is to be the vehicle that sets people free to migrate from one part of the country to another, this demand is only going to rise. But with the CSCs not being around and people being asked to come to municipal or state offices for these services, it is unclear if they will be serviced in a timely fashion. There are over 11,000 CSCs (permanent enrolment centres) and it is an open question whether, say, a post office will have the wherewithal to address the demand. 

Under the circumstances, it is evident that millions of Indians, especially the most vulnerable ones, will end up suffering for no fault of theirs. Also, the UIDAI suggestion that data leakages have more to do with the “misuse of the grievance redressal search facility” can be interpreted as a tacit admission that the authority was wrong in trusting the Aadhar-enrolment programme with the CSC network. The timing is also puzzling. The UIDAI had last August announced a pact with the nodal agency for CSCs to start mobile vans for enrolment, and many of the CSCs have invested a lot of money in acquiring them. The minister concerned also praised them for their role in providing employment. That the UIDAI has dumped the CSCs within a year does not reflect well on its ability to either spot a problem in time or plan its transition.