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Ram Krishnaswamy foretold: Aadhaar not likely to provide benefits to poorest of poor

By Rosamma Thomas* 
Ram Krishnaswamy, who retired as an industrial noise control engineer in Sydney, after studies at IIT Madras, passed away in Australia on November 20, 2022 aged 75. He is mourned by a vast community of engineers who have passed through the IITs and now span the globe. He founded an organization called IIT Global. 
Deeply interested in developments in India despite living abroad, he followed the rolling out of the Aadhaar database from the outset and wrote a series of articles in collaboration with fellow-IITian Vicram Crishna.
Crishna says his “friend and inspiration” was equally if not more concerned about the enormous pressures on current students at IITs in India, and was appalled by the rising number of suicides on IIT campuses.
Krishnaswamy and Crishna had foretold several problems Aadhaar would cause. This list, from an article they co-authored published on news website Moneylife in August 2010, is worth recalling:
“Some of the potential flaws in the process are listed briefly.
(a) Digitally-stored fingerprints are not image scans of real fingerprints, they are digital maps, reduced to a finite number of ‘points’. This computerised system was designed decades ago to cut down the time and effort needed to manually match thousands of prints of previously convicted criminals with a criminal suspect, not to provide perfect identifiers;
"(b) Digital representations of biometrics invariably allow for both false positives and negatives, as the original purpose is either to facilitate security pass-through for a relatively small number of people (convenience), or to rapidly filter through large numbers of images by pre-matching each image to a reduced set of digital markers;
"(c) The value-addition of iris scanning is unknown for testing on such a scale. The immediate cost is stupendous: per-identity costs go up from about Rs 31 to about Rs 450, but the results are not known, since such testing has never been done. This is quite different from scaling up a relatively reliable known procedure; iris scanning may well be quick and reliable (even after optimising it with a digital shortcut and securing it from man-in-the-middle attacks during data transfers), but this is currently untested.”

The authors identified three kinds of database faults:
"Creational (deliberate or accidental falsification of identity, resulting in diversion of benefits from those entitled to them); design-based (incorrect verification due to compromise of the verification process, including man-in-the-middle attacks on data transfers); and procedural (for instance, when telecommunication faults or natural disasters create a need for rapid re-routing of verifications to alternate, or manual, methods)”.
There is no clarity on whether it will be possible to adequately safeguard the database, from its creation to its subsequent use
The article concludes: 
“To summarise, we have asked six simple questions here, to clear doubts about the deliverable merits of the Aadhaar scheme. We find it is not likely to provide benefits to the poorest of the poor in India; secondly, is not even designed to do so, definitely not in its first phase. on the contrary, it is likely to benefit the upwardly mobile part of the population.
"As far as solving the terrible problems that plague the delivery of benefits to the poor is concerned, a single reference point for verifications is neither the best-known solution, nor is the exceeding difficulty of building and operating a centralised database achievable at a reasonable cost and effort. There is no clarity, therefore, on whether making the effort is sensible at all.
"Also, there is no clarity on whether it will be possible to adequately safeguard the database, from its creation to its subsequent use as the ultimate reference. We found serious concerns with the methods being used to gather data in the pilot studies that point to the possibility of future abuse as well as manipulation of ill-informed people to make them cooperate.”

The Aadhaar project was initially estimated to cost Rs 45,000 crore; since its initiation in 2009, there has been no comprehensive audit of the project; in 2017, in response to a question raised in Parliament, then minister of state for electronics and IT PP Chaudhary said that Rs 9,055 crore had been spent on the Aadhaar project. 
Claims of massive savings from the project were later debunked, because the figure cited by the World Bank was shown to be the total value of cash transfers by the Centre to the poor. What could not be missed was that two engineers from the IIT could produce reports of greater depth and rigour on Aadhaar than World Bank.



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