India today embarks on a counting exercise ten times larger than anything attempted before by man. Over the next decade, it hopes to provide its 1.2 billion citizens identification numbers that should eventually serve as a fence around legitimate economic and political activity. At Rs 120 a pop for getting your iris and fingerprints lodged in a secure digital warehouse, the Rs 15,000 crore it will cost to roll out the unique identification number project could pay for itself, its managers reckon, in a year by saving the government Rs 20,000 crore in social welfare payouts that end up in the wrong hands because of duplication. For a big government like India’s, which spends every fourth rupee of the national income, biometric identification is the first step in moving away from functional anarchy.
The case, of course, is not as strong for the intermediaries in the governance delivery pipeline who stand to lose their discretion. The severely compromised voter and ration rolls speak for themselves. Opposition to a new enumeration argues that a new roll does not eliminate corruption while it opens up the scope for religious and caste profiling. Fortunately, the latest iteration of a national ID
sidesteps both issues by offering to tie in economic benefits to purely a demographic count without getting into ethnicity issues. If flagship welfare schemes are co-built with the new database, as is the idea, the prospects of a demand-driven enumeration brighten measurably. Productivity gains in welfare delivery alone can sustain any scaling up needed in future.
The success of any census rests on the purpose the data is put use to. The information Nandan Nilekani and his team are gathering hold out immense possibilities for private business as well. The government is on the right course when it seeks to monetise its Herculean effort within the bounds imposed by individual freedom. The larger role for private agents in building and maintaining a central database and the value proposition it offers to a host of user industries like banks put the exercise on a firmer footing. The government has shown wisdom in seeking an outsider like Mr Nilekani to get the show on the road. Unconventional thinking was needed to undertake what most countries consider an irksome chore. There is a lot riding on Mr Nilekani. If India succeeds, his identification project could become the prototype for quite a few nations.