the bandhan experiment

early in april, the rbi surprised most financial sector watchers by granting a banking license to bandhan, a microlender with most of its operations in eastern india. in a story out today, my colleague atmadip and i take a closer look at this decision. and say that this is a high stakes experiment — for the rbi, which is looking for fresh ideas on how to deepen financial inclusion; for the mfis, which, given rising competition from banks, mobile companies and banking correspondents, are looking for new ways to survive and grow; and for bandhan itself, which has to pupate into a bank without losing its quick response times, but while guarding against mis-selling of financial products to its vulnerable client-base.

Yet more stand behind tiny counters and sell nimbu paani or bhelBSE -0.80 %. The nature of enterprise is local, small and on the edge of subsistence.

should aadhaar be junked?

The last 60 days have not been good to India’s much-feted Aadhaar project.

On the 30th of January, the UPA pressed the pause button on direct benefits transfer for cooking gas. On 26 February, the Mumbai High Court directed Aadhaar to share its biometrics database with the CBI. A year earlier, a seven year old had been raped in Goa. And the investigating agency, struggling to make headway, had asked the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) for biometrics it had collected in Goa. UIDAI refused to share information saying such a move would violate privacy of its number-holders and that its biometric database and deduplication systems were not designed for forensic inquiries. In response, the CBI went to the Mumbai High Court which directed UIDAI to share its database.

The third blow fell on 24 March when investigative journalism portal Cobrapost aired videos that allegedly showed UIDAI’s enrolment agencies agreeing to enrol people from neighbouring countries in return for a bribe. Between them, these three events underlined long-standing questions about the Aadhaar project.

Between them, these three developments highlighted large worries about the ambitious Aadhaar project. Read more here.

the greens step in

Even as the ministry of environment met its March 31 deadline to submit a plan to the Supreme Court for a new environment regulator, a set of academics, activists and environmental lawyers have weighed in with their own design. Concerned that the ministry version “would not meet the minimum standards of an independent regulatory authority”, this set, called Watchdog and Action Group for the Environment, have proposed an authority that has greater powers and independence than the design proposed by the environment ministry.

this latest development is a good one. some of the suggestions this group makes are very good. more than that, this is one step towards broadening and deepening the debate on the sort of environment authority india should have.

the environment ministry tries to weaken the proposed environment authority…

Tasked by the Supreme Court with creating a new and independent environment authority, the Ministry of Environment & Forests wants to retain its say in choosing the panel of experts to vet projects, a Cabinet note on the matter shows. This is a change from its earlier position, where the ministry said it would relinquish its powers in such appointments to avoid conflict of interest, and defeats the objective of having a truly independent regulator, says a senior government official…

i have been almost fully out of action for two weeks now. fell ill. still limping back to bloody full normalcy. anyway, here, one of the first stories i filed after getting back. an update on the proposed environment authority — i have been incorrectly calling it regulator till now.

ps – also see these stories on the env authority. one, a larger story on what the moef (ministry of environment and forests, india) proposes to create. and two, an indepth interview with utah university law prof william lockhart re the moef blueprint. this, incidentally, is an idea that has been doing the rounds for a while. the last time india tried to create one was in 2010. see these two stories on the proposed national environment protection authority (nepa) — one, and two. later, this became the national environment assessment and monitoring agency. and then, it went on the backburner before the SC dragged it out of oblivion. see this epw piece on neama by environment lawyer shibani ghosh.

 

the follies of rushing in…

yesterday was profoundly anomalous. i filed two stories. both, as it were, on aadhaar. one on a sting by cobraport which flagged faulty enrolments. and the other where the supreme court said aadhaar cannot share its database with anyone without consent from the number holders.

this is a significant development. over the last five years, a clutch of government departments and private companies have been collecting biometrics with gusto. however, with the privacy bill still on the drawing board, India has seen biometric data get collected, by multiple agencies, without any laws governing their collection, use or retention.

see these links for more substantiation of the preceding sentence. one. two. three. in the process, the country has entered a world of new risks. without, sigh, getting the safeguards in place. which brings us to the dispute between the cbi and the uidai which culminated in this SC judgement. it is one kind of an outcome.

The SC ruling was in response to a 26 February, 2014 ruling by the Mumbai High Court directing the UIDAI to provide the CBI with biometrics of all residents of Goa. The High Court’s ruling was related to the rape of a seven year old in Vasco last January. The case was handed to the CBI which, as the Aadhaar appeal to the SC says, initially asked it for biometric information of “all the persons in the state. That request was modified and only the fingerprints of 3 specified persons were asked for.”

Later, the CBI dropped that request. Says the Aadhaar affidavit, “The CBI has now found a chance fingerprint and asked Aadhaar to compare its data and the biometric data provided by the CBI.” Aadhaar refused to share information citing two reasons. One, that such a move would violate privacy of the number-holders. And two, that its biometric database and deduplication systems are not designed for forensic inquiries. When its appeal was rejected by the HC, UIDAI appealed to the SC.

what are the protocols for the use of such data? as legal researcher usha ramanathan says in the article: “the idea that databases can be used by anyone makes people vulnerable, especially in a state where there is neither law nor much respect for law.”

the good news is that the SC verdict clarifies matters to some extent. but the country still needs a regime on privacy and data (including biometrics) protection.

old enrolment concerns resurface re aadhaar

Investigative journalism portal Cobrapost has aired videos of sting operations that allegedly show the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) conducting a flawed enrolment process that allows people from even neighbouring countries to get an Aadhaar number after paying bribes.

it is hard to escape a sense of deja vu. these complaints — about poor scrutiny, corruption in enrolment, lax overview — have doing the rounds for a long time. but, see them another way, in the light of the assurances given by uidai in 2012 about having fixed deficiencies in its enrolment system, and it is clear that not much has really changed.

on nandan nilekani’s stint with the upa…

out today, this quick and dirty story on nandan nilekani’s stint in upa2. it was a part of a larger package profiling some of the technocrats leaving office along with the upa — c rangarajan, montek singh ahluwalia, the member of the national advisory council, and nilekani.

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