DIVERSION AHEAD- Aadhar is being consumed by turf wars
The Indian bureaucracy and political class have repeatedly put roadblocks in the way of important changes because they impinge on their perceived turfs. A glaring example is the home ministry’s objections to the unique identification number project initiated by the Planning Commission. The rejection by the parliamentary standing committee, led by Yashwant Sinha, on superficial reasons is clearly political.
The public distribution system has always had economists, honest administrators and politicians clamour for avoiding physical procurement, handling, storage, transportation and distribution of rationed goods while identifying recipients for ration cards. The corruption in the Food Corporation of India and other procurement agencies, inadequate and sometimes poor storage, bogus ration cards, callous and thieving retailers and inspectors together ensure that at least half the intended grains do not reach the beneficiaries. The United Progressive Alliance government has introduced other entitlement schemes, including the rural employment guarantee scheme. These schemes have also benefited corrupt bureaucrats and politicians, who have stolen a substantial part of the allotted funds. What has reached the poor has made a big difference to millions of lives.
Alternatives to physical procurement and distribution include cash transfers. Another is to transfer the other subsidies (as that on fertilizers) to bank accounts. Cash transfers can be misused, and there are not enough bank branches and bank accounts. People who move in search of gainful employment, and many of the poor and illiterate, are unable to prove their identity. For them, getting a ration card, a job card, opening a bank account, and other such entitlements demand a way of proving identities.
The unique identification number was an innovative idea to deal with the problem. Every resident of India would have a UID number, backed by irrefutable biometric proof of unique identity — all ten fingerprints, eye scans, and other information. This information would be stored in a central processor and retrieved from anywhere to establish identity. Other documents like ration card, job card, bank account, driving licence, passport and so on would be linked to this unique identity, not retrievable from the UID. A UID number can in no way compromise privacy.
The complexity of India, poverty and illiteracy, especially of those who have no proof of their identity and so lose many benefits, have not stopped the Unique Identification Authority of India from enrolling residents, set to reach 400 million in two years. A UID number ensures that only an existing resident will get a ration card, can apply for a driving licence, open a bank account in his name, deposit payments under the employment guarantee scheme in his account, apply for a passport, and do many things which presently require him to give proof of identity, such as a telephone bill, certification by a gazetted officer of government and so on. With a UID number, he only has to give this number and a quick check will confirm whether it is indeed he who has come to apply. A UID number is not proof of citizenship. It might be the starting point to establish that the person is who he says he is. However, he will have to go through all the other usual checks before his citizenship is or is not confirmed. The UID number will help significantly to reduce bribery and corruption in getting these proofs.
The parliamentary standing committee on the bill to create a national identification authority has damned the project. The objections are superficial but have held up the legislation to create the authority. The objections are that there was no feasibility study of the project, that it was approved in haste, that despite its far-reaching consequences for national security, it has no security protection, that there is no clarity of purpose, that it uses unreliable and untested technology, and that there is no coordination between the different sections of the government.
These objections could have been dismissed had they not come from such an august body. The UIDAI has already enrolled millions and hence its feasibility cannot be in doubt. Indian politicians and bureaucrats have their own perceptions of speed in the government and the accusation of hasty approval should, in fact, be praised as an example of quick decision-making and speed in execution by the government. The implications that the listing of all residents will have for national security can only be positive since everyone can now be identified. The purpose of the UID project is clear enough from what has been said earlier. It has pioneered in technology use from many sources, getting them to work in a coordinated fashion, and provides a model for what good management and leadership can achieve even in the public sphere. Coordination between the government departments is an ongoing effort. The objections appear to be politically motivated.
The objections of the home ministry that the UID project duplicates the national population register and does not do it well are serious because they can stop the project. The NPR is a comprehensive identity database to be maintained by the registrar-general and census commissioner of India, ministry of home affairs. Its objectives are almost identical to those of the UID except that it is compulsory, and not voluntary, as in the case of the UID, and is intended to lead to a national register of Indian citizens.
The government of India has initiated the creation of this database by collecting specific information about all usual residents in the country during the house-listing and housing census phase of Census 2011. Information about the usual residents (aged five and above) of 17 states and two Union territories will now be digitized, and biometric data will be collected from these residents for further integration. It is compulsory for every citizen to register in the national register of Indian citizens. The creation of the NPR will lead to the preparation of the national register of Indian citizens.
The UID data can be used for the NPR. The major issue is that it is the ministry that will control the data collection. The UIDAI, under the Planning Commission, has been speedy, innovative and is led by result-oriented bureaucrats and specialists. The NPR is under the home ministry, and despite many years on the drawing board, is yet to make much progress. It is under non-specialist bureaucrats. The interests of the country, the aim of reaching social benefits to the maximum number and reducing bureaucratic theft of such benefits, demand that the UID complete its job in the time-frame it has set. Which ministry must control the effort is just a battle for turf. The data must be used by those who need it.