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Smarter cards, a must!

india Updated: Jun 13, 2009 21:14 IST
Prasanto K Roy
Prasanto K Roy
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

How many cards do you have in your wallet? I count 14: driving licence, company ID, four credit cards, two ATM and debit cards, memberships... And each month, more pour in through the mail. (I have 18 cards in drawers at home.)

Cards are a necessary evil. I need them, but I am frustrated by the number I have to carry (and lose, if I lose my wallet).
And the loyalty programmes keep sending them. They know I won’t carry them: good, so I won’t go back and claim rewards. (A quick poll among eight colleagues and friends: all have i-mint rewards cards, and just one of them carries it. Good deal for “India’s largest loyalty program”.

We need fewer, smarter cards. But replacing a cheap card with a chip doesn’t make a smart card. It needs a huge back-end system. The world’s top example of the problem: India’s citizen identity – or the lack of it.

Dumb data
It would be the biggest database on the planet: a citizen ID, a single, unique identity for every Indian. Mr Chidambaram promises these smart cards in the hands of every Indian by 2011. I don’t believe him, but if it does happen within this government’s tenure, it would be a biggie.

So my wallet will hold a smart card, my identity for voting, secure access to facilities, everything. And this would give our megalith government “one view” of me.

Why’s this such a big deal?
Just look at the mega-databases being built with crores of our money. None “talks to” any other database.
The election ID card covers 700 million voters – but not younger ones, nor foreign residents, so this isn’t a common ID. Could it be extended? No, the EC has its hands full.

The PAN card spans 300 million IT (tax) assessees – anyone who files a return: foreigners, and companies, too. (And with so much isolated data, the ITO can’t easily scan transactions to verify income. With all its computers, it’s running two years late in scanning tax returns.)

The Census Board could’ve been the master database of all in India, but it’s more demographics than personal detail. And its database is not available to other government agencies. The ration card, which supports the public distribution system... this data is accessible on the web, but it’s just 4 million people. And so it is with every database: each a silo that doesn’t talk to any other.

The greater common view


A master database would give you a single-ID smart card, and give the government a common view of you. It would help identify immigrants, and give a fillip to national security and tax collection. Take the US social security number (SSN) issued to US citizens and residents (even temporary ones). SSNs were first issued in 1936 for tax tracking, and 50 years later, given to minors too.

Today, the SSN goes out with birth certificates, and is a key tool for Homeland Security. Taxation is also easier, as the USA’s IRS can correlate transactions such as investments, property and vehicle purchase on the fly – just as India would like to do, but can’t.

So why are we two decades behind the other big democracy? There is no driver. No department has the interest, inclination or resources to set up a national ID database. This has to be driven from the top: from the PMO or the president, or by an empowered group (now planned).

And then there’s the huge challenge of collating a database and issuing ID cards across India’s billion-plus people. The EC knows. After decades, it now says that four-fifths of 714 million voters have ID cards, and that all will be covered by the next elections... nonsense.

The EC data is flawed. In my neighbourhood, every card has an error. Other cardholders find their names missing from the voter list: L K Advani, M S Dhoni, Priyanka Chopra... oh, did I mention CEC Navin Chawla?
But the die is cast. Pratibha Patil and P Chidambaram have said that every Indian will carry a smart card in the next three years. There are pilots on.

The secure, chip-based smart card is in place. If these cards reach half of India’s citizens by 2011, my hat’s off to the UPA. Even if they don’t, the first steps are taken. And the Congress party will address a bit of its yawning gap in tech vision with the BJP, for whom Citizen ID was a key part of its election manifesto. And this could become the UPA’s top achievement in tech and homeland security.

Prasanto K Roy ( pkr@cybermedia.co.in ) is chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of 15 specialty titles such as Dataquest and Living Digital