Column : Imagining India to Imaging India

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Summary“A big source of heartburn for those running banks, managing elections and regulating the stock market in India is that the country is filled with people who are virtually invisible...

“A big source of heartburn for those running banks, managing elections and regulating the stock market in India is that the country is filled with people who are virtually invisible... Today Indians can have a multitude of numbers with which to identify ourselves, depending on when and where we interact with the state... This makes zeroing in on a definite identity for each citizen particularly difficult, since each government department works a different turf and with different groups of people. The lack of a unique number has given space to plenty of phantoms—in voter lists and in below the poverty line (BPL) schemes and holding bank accounts with multiple PANs... Creating a national register of citizens, assigning them a unique ID and linking them across a set of national databases, like the PAN and passport, can have far-reaching effects in delivering public services better and targeting services more accurately... Too often though, we see issuing smart cards as the main challenge of implementing such a system. But building these intelligent little stripes is the easy part. It is in making the back-end infrastructure secure and scalable, providing a single record keeper for the whole country and integrating the agents who issue these numbers that it gets tough... An IT-enabled, accessible national ID system would be nothing less than revolutionary in how we distribute state benefits and welfare handouts; I believe it would transform our politics.”

This is a long quote and I am reproducing it only because media hasn’t seen fit to quote this after Nandan Nilekani was appointed Chairman of National Unique Identification Authority of India (NUIAI). The quote is from his book “Imagining India”, suggesting that people (at least in media) don’t always read best-sellers. It helps if lateral inductees into government believe in the cause, something that cannot always be said for those who rise in the government system from within. Despite court castigation, multi-purpose national identity card (MNIC) idea has been stagnating, perhaps because UPA-I regarded it as a NDA initiative, driven by anti-terrorism (and anti-minority) motives. There were occasional murmurs it should also be used for targeting public services. But if deadline is post 2011-Census, with delivery by Registrar General and if only 3.1 million MNICs have been issued so far on pilot basis, we can’t be very serious about the intention. Sure, there is a technological issue. But that’s the easiest one to lick. Indian IT companies have been offering IT-enabled services to rest of the world and thereby increasing their competitive advantages. There is no great technology issue in using SCOSTA (Smart Card Operating System for Transport Applications). The Citizenship Act was also amended in 2003 to allow issue of these cards. So why has the MNIC website been under preparation for at least five years?

Nandan Nilekani is better off as Chairman NUIAI than as Member, Planning Commission. Here is another quote from the Nilekani book. “In the 1980s Rajiv Gandhi had remarked that for every rupee spent on the poor, only 15 paise finally reaches them; in 2007 his son, Rahul, offered his own estimate, saying that now a mere 5 paise of every rupee spent reaches the poor in some districts.” What the book does not quote is Rajiv Gandhi’s calling the Planning Commission “a bunch of jokers”. Nilekani would have been wasted in Planning Commission. In NUIAI, he may be able to energise it and bring about a transformation, the way Sam Pitroda did with STD and MS Swaminathan did with the Green Revolution. However, there are four caveats, since this is more than technology and back-end infrastructure. First, there is corruption in delivery. Once any government is able to clean up RTO (say Regional Transport Office in Delhi), I will believe that government is serious about clean governance. Without a bribe, nothing can be done in Delhi RTO and with a bribe, everything can be done.

Second, technology and expertise are required by those who use these MNICs, even if they have photographs and are biometric. Can any government agency detect counterfeit cards? Third, is government agreed that it won’t work in silos and there will be a single card? Not as far as I can see. In addition to BPL, AAY and NREGS and assorted other cards, government is now talking about health and education cards and another one for food. Fourth, are we agreed about identifying poor and targeting subsidies only to them? Certainly not, consider the wish-list floating around for Right to Food. Some of the euphoria thus needs to be discounted. The war is a long way from being over. At best, a battle stands better chance of success with Nilekani. And since he has nothing to gain from the system, he is likely to quit if the system sucks him in. That’s the best way to succeed, not to really want the job.

The author is a noted economist

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