Inter-ministerial turf wars have erupted over a project that aims to provide India’s 1.2 billion citizens identification numbers that should eventually serve as a fence around legitimate economic and political activity. The Planning Commission and home ministry are at odds over how to go about it and this is turning into a media slugfest. Accusations that government agencies are out to scupper the initiative are outlandish. The reason to undermine a solution to India’s leaky welfare delivery mechanism will emerge after the database is in place, not while it is being built. Nandan Nilekani, boss of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), must heed the home ministry’s concerns over how he is setting up his registry if he intends it to deflect bigger political barrages in the future when it is actually put to use. And if the differences in approaches are irreconcilable, the government is justified in sanctioning multiple headcounts. It does not matter how many agencies are involved in collecting data as long as the end product is robust.
At Rs120 a pop for getting your retina and fingerprints lodged in a secure digital warehouse, the Rs15,000 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 Rs20,000 crore in social welfare payouts that end up in the wrong hands because of wanton exclusion and inclusion. 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. If flagship welfare schemes are co-built with the new database, as is the idea, the prospects of a demand-driven enumeration brighten measurably. Produ-ctivity gains in welfare delivery alone can sustain any scaling up needed in future.
The success of any census rests on what the data is used for. The government is on the right course when it seeks to monetise its 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 gives the exercise extra traction. 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.