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Empire strikes back

It could cut waste and give the poor more money. So why is the world's largest identity programme being stymied by the home minister? Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Jan 27, 2012 23:45 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

As you read this, the Unique Identity (UID) programme is likely to have enrolled 200 million Indians. The UID, if it is allowed to, will eventually become the world's largest database of human biometric markers - fingerprints, photo and iris scans. It could go on to 400 million by the end of the year and 600 million by next year.

What good is this?

If you talk to opponents concerned with civil liberties, you will hear that the government will use the UID to play big brother. This is entirely plausible, but various Indian agencies, state and central, already can and do spy on you, often with no legal sanction.

But this isn't about you, me or any part of emerging India's formal, privileged society.

To understand what the UID could really do, you must talk to anyone who is poor, disadvantaged and otherwise left out of the Indian dream. You must understand their desperation to have a ration card or any other kind of identification, so they can partake of the nation's sprawling social-security network - including the rural jobs programme, midday meals, child care, old-age pensions and subsidies on fuel, fertiliser and food - however corrupt and inefficient.

Since 2003, India's subsidies have risen 400%, from Rs 43,500 crore to Rs 1.60 lakh crore. Roughly, half these subsidies leak away and reach many millions who do not need them. At the present rate of growth, India can, perhaps, afford these subsidies, but not if this monumental waste continues in a country where 800 million people continue to live on less than $2 a day.

Many economists make a strong argument to abandon subsidies and spend the money instead on infrastructure, such as roads, electricity and better health-care. Do this and watch what happens, they say.

There is little point to this particular debate. We live in an era of ever-rising voter expectations. With the Congress and the BJP now unable to form governments without support from other parties, subsidies will always remain on the table. So it makes strong political and economic sense if these subsidies are delivered directly into the bank accounts of those who need them.

You would imagine, then, that the government would back its own novel, ambitious move to let some of India's best brains - many of those working on the complex, electronic back end of the UID are on sabbatical from big technology companies - reform its crumbling public services.

Instead, UID chief Nandan Nilekani finds his world slowly coming apart. By March, the UID's enrolment will stop because home minister P Chidambaram now insists government officials take over the job. Nilekani has knocked on the doors of the Gandhis to get Chidambaram to back off, but thus far, the UID's future is in limbo.

This is more than unfortunate. It is nonsense to expect the government machinery of old India, unfamiliar with efficiency and speed, to take over what is a path-breaking, hard-to-implement initiative. Chidambaram's argument against the UID is that non-citizens are getting the UID number and its data is not secure enough. He wants the National Population Registry (NPR), run by the same folks who do the census, to take over enrolments.

If you were interviewed by a census representative (usually a school teacher or clerk) in 2009, you may recall a few questions, 17 actually, on a separate form. This is the NPR data, presently in the form of millions of pieces of paper. Sometime this year, nearly two years after collection, the NPR will attempt to vet this data. How? By pasting personal details of every Indian on the walls of local municipal ward offices in cities and council offices in villages. You will then be required to visit these offices and confirm your identity.

Apart from this decidedly low-tech (no-tech, really) method, other absurdities reveal why Chidambaram's arguments appear to be more turf-grab than anything else.

One, what, if like me, you were counted in Delhi and now live in Bangalore? Well, I would have to travel to Delhi and go to my old ward office (not that I know where it is). I probably will not do this because I do not need government benefits. But what of a poor, homeless migrant who was counted on a Mumbai street and is now back home in Jharkhand? The UID uses more than 60 enrolment agencies (from leprosy homes to private clubs), called registrars, to reach as many people as possible. This allows groups like destitutes - estimated at more than 60 million - a chance at an identity. The irony is that the NPR is one of these registrars.

Two, the NPR's primitive exercise, apart from being a stark violation of privacy, will not guarantee that only citizens are enrolled. Aliens with ration cards or any other identification will be enrolled anyway.

Since 2010, the NPR, which uses UID standards and procedures, has enrolled no more than 8 million people (The UID now averages 20 million a month). The NPR says it will enrol 50 million a month and reach 570 million by December 2012. This is more than a little hard to believe.

Chidambaram's plan to entrust the NPR with enrolment monopoly is the strongest opposition Nilekani - a sharp, affable networker from India's technorati - has faced from within the government. Many bureaucrats and politicians, courtiers at the cosy empire that runs India, oppose Nilekani because if the UID delivers all that it promises, the empire stands to lose its power and patronage networks.

The battle for the UID is no longer Nilekani's responsibility. The government must decide if it will allow India's new managers a free hand or hand everything back to its old, discredited empire.

First Published: Jan 18, 2012 21:55 IST