Digital India on Steroids: How Aadhaar Infra Enables the NPR and the NRC

Protests have broken out across the country over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). While there is a more recent history to why the NRC was updated over the last four years in Assam, there is a complicated past of war and migration has fuelled the BJP’s call for it all over the country.

But to know the story of the National Population Register, how Aadhaar infrastructure underpins it, and how it relates to the National Register of Indian Citizens, we need to first start with Kargil.

The Pakistan Army’s intrusion into Indian territory took the government by surprise. Of particular concern was infiltration by Pakistanis who came dressed up in civilian clothes. A ‘Kargil review’ committee was appointed by the-then Vajpayee government to suggest possible solutions, one of which was to issue national ID cards to people who live in border areas and then scale that up to the whole country.

Eventually, there were proposals for a ‘Multi Purpose National Identity Cards’ (MNIC) project and a ‘National Population Register’ (NPR), both instituted under provisions of the Citizenship Act of 1955.

The MNIC proposal was presented to all the chief ministers in a conference on internal security on 17th November 2001 and was accepted.

A 2002 parliamentary question about the identity cards in Lok Sabha had the following answer from the then Minister of State for Home Affairs Shri Ch. Vidyasagar Rao:

“The issue of MNICs would involve creation of an identification system for more than one billion citizens, streamlining the existing machinery for the registration of birth and deaths at the grass root level and choices of institutional as well as technological options for the creation of an integrated data base of personal identities capable of being continuously updated. The Government would finalise its decision only after an in-depth examination of all relevant issues and after making necessary preparations, including the legal backing to the scheme.”

This was the birth of Aadhaar if you ask the current BJP, which stakes claim to it as their own project proposed under Vajpayee after the Kargil war.

Indeed, the Multi Purpose National Identity Card was not much different from Aadhaar. It was supposed to be a smart card which would store the fingerprints of individuals and other data in the card. The card was based on the ‘Smart Card Operating System for Transport Application’ (SCOSTA) standard developed by National Informatics Center for blocking illegal driver licences using a chip-card based on equivalent ISO standards.

Also read: Why the Aadhaar Act’s Future Isn’t Set in Stone Yet

While the technical standards where being formulated the Office of the Registrar General of India (RGI), under home ministry started working out the modalities to build this database. In 2003, much before Aadhaar was announced, the RGI decided to use fingerprints of individuals as part of the data collection required for MNIC and the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC).

Importantly, a RGI newsletter from 2003 does not distinguish between the MNIC and NRIC, referring to them as vital cogs of the same system.

The newsletter also notes the framing of ‘The Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003’. These rules call for the creation of a ‘population register’ that would feed into the national ID card system (MNIC) and the National Register of Indian Citizens.

Another RGI newsletter from that time the following also points out:

“The Government has decided to conduct a pilot for the MNIC Project in selected areas of 13 districts in thirteen states/union territories in the country. The pilot aims at providing the following benefits:

a) A credible individual identification system

b) Speedy and efficient transactions between the individual and the service provider (government and non-government)

c) User friendly interface between the citizen and the government

d) Improvement in services to the people in ‘Below Poverty Line’ (BPL) or ‘Above Poverty Line’ (APL) categories

e) Deterrent for future illegal immigration. ” [Emphasis added by The Wire]

While these pilot studies and exercises where being carried out, India was hit by another terrorist attack in Mumbai on November 26, 2008. The terrorists came to India posing as fishermen in a fishing trawler and attacked key places in Mumbai. The Mumbai attacks were a new kind of warfare for India, which opened up coastal waters as threat vector. The incident questioned India’s failures in surveillance & intelligence and the failure of coast guard in stopping illegal entry of people via fishing trawlers.

To respond to these challenges, the UPA government started creating new intelligence databases like NATGRID, started registration and licensing of fishing vessels and created a database for it called ReALCraft. We also increased the number of coastal police stations and the police were tasked to know everyone living in surroundings.

More importantly, that’s when MNIC cards started to be distributed to fishermen.

India eventually issued a gazette notification to start the ‘National Population Register’ (NPR) on March 15, 2010. The idea was to create a database of all ‘usual residents’ and use that to eventually feed into a National Register of Indian Citizens (NIRC).

Aadhaar versus NPR

While the MNIC project was ongoing, its progress was sluggish and after a decade, it became clear that it wasn’t progressing well. This is when, under the Planning Commission and Nandan Nilekani, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was formed and the operating procedures were completely changed. Under UIDAI, ‘smart cards’ became bad and central databases to de-duplicate people became the preferred choice of poison. UIDAI formulated rules for the capture of biometrics and iris scans, which went onto become national standards.

By the time UIDAI standards were formulated, the NPR was already being carried out by the Registrar General of India. The infrastructure for NPR at this stage was old and different from Aadhaar, as it was using smart cards. Electronics Corporation of India Limited, which manufactures our voting machines manufactured machine readers to read smart cards for coastal police stations. But NPR was not yet collecting iris scans and was not de-duplicating data — this data was later collected and added again.

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