Nandan Nilekani is steadily moving ahead on the assignment that he has accepted. There is a lot to be said about co-opting these highly successful corporate types into politics – they have been there, done that, and are now probably driven by a genuine desire to do some lasting good to the people. An astute politician can use this to his advantage while providing the political air cover.
The initial teething problems seem to have been overcome, and issuance of cards is in process. The aim is to cover about half the population in another four years time, which is a huge task. The way it's been progressing, they should be able to achieve at least half this target if the other arms of the government cooperate. That cooperation is being won with difficulty. There are too many vested interests to watch out for among the politicians and bureaucracy who would not want this project to see the light of day. Anything that increases transparency, increases exchange of data, and facilitates sorting and classifying, is horrifying to contemplate!
There is a huge parallel economy operating in India. Most of trading is done in cash. A lot of real estate deals are either benami or facilitated by unaccounted money. Traders and professionals are not used to paying income tax – the tax law is just one more of those laws which are to be overcome. The number of people who vote in any election is always buttressed by thousands of bogus votes. The multiple identity cards issued till date – PAN, KYC, Voter ID Card, Ration Card, etc. – have all been rendered ineffective through the ingenuity of the people who do not want them to succeed. GST and a uniform indirect tax code are being opposed for, I suspect, much the same reason – no one wants greater transparency and clarity of information.
Most welfare schemes of the government do not reach the people at all. Most of the money is either paid as salaries to the administrators, or siphoned off on the way. Of the money that manages to reach the point of distribution, a large proportion is diverted to duplicate or fake identities. There is no way of identifying whether the money reaches the people it is intended to reach. Some estimates put the amount of "leakage" to be as high as 85%. Unless there is a foolproof mechanism to identify the ultimate beneficiary this leakage cannot be stopped. There are several vested interests in the system who would want such a mechanism to be never implemented.
Nilekani stepped in with a mandate from Manmohan Singh to issue an identity card that proves identity based on biometric factors – fingerprints and iris scans are the two chosen identifiers – which might prove impossible to forge or derail. The vested interests will not be liking it – and they are likely to be spread everywhere including in the ruling coalition. They will try to derail the initiative at the slightest chance. Right now, doubts are being raised in the media about the UID which is sought to be portrayed as some kind of demon being introduced by the government to control the lives of the citizens.
The biggest argument against a single identifier seems to be the Orwellian scare of big brother ending up exercising supervision over us and controlling all aspects of our lives. If there is one national number it could end up compromising our privacy and enable the government to keep tabs on us more effectively. The fear is justified and needs to be addressed, but the solution is not to stop the advance of technology. Privacy is already being compromised by our cell phones being tagged for our location and taped for our conversations, satellites taking pictures of the changing face of earth every second, closed circuit cameras at public places, increasing electronic commerce, the data from which is backed up on powerful servers – the list could go on. All this is being aided by rapid advances in storage technologies and speed of networks. Machines are already capable of identifying us in a crowd based on our facial features or the way we walk. In a few years from now, it is possible that computers may be able to generate a unique number for every individual just by scanning them as they walk past on a busy road – in this case, instead of fingerprints and iris scans being biomarkers, the whole body will serve as one! Technology on a lab scale is already available to do much of this – it could become scalable very soon at the rate at which storage technologies and communication speeds are increasing. So we are right in being scared of being tracked by some omnipresent computer, but how long can we postpone the inevitable? All we will succeed in doing by denying Aadhaar is to postpone that day for some time. The Luddites who protested the advent of technology have never been able to stop its inexorable march – they manage to halt things for a while, but have to give in to the inevitability of change.
The better thing to do would be to recognize these concerns and bring laws in place to protect privacy, along with a focus on implementing those laws. It could start by inculcating a respect in our institutions and public investigative agencies for the privacy of the individual, which is lacking today. Agreed, a lot needs to be done in this area, but the solution lies in embracing the technological advances and putting safeguards around them, not in rejecting them outright.
Another argument is that other countries (US, UK) thought about introducing a unique national identifier, and then dropped the plan. There are a few reasons cited like cost and security concerns, but the ground reality in those countries is different. Effective databases already exist with linked data; there are numbers like Social Security Number or its equivalent in operation; and there is no major problem when it comes to a person proving their identity.
In our country the picture is very different. Even the highly educated few like us shudder at the thought of having to apply for a gas connection or a ration card. In spite of having a PAN card, driving license, and home telephone, the process is not easy. The bureaucratic wall that has to be surmounted to get anything done is intimidating to say the least. The villager who does not have an identity proof finds it difficult to prove his identity and get one; the picture is worse for the 100 million or so migrants. Can you imagine how difficult it will be for a migrant laborer from Bihar to open a bank account, transfer cash, or claim some government benefit when he is working in Bangalore? In fact, the biggest argument advanced by Nilekani in favor of the scheme is the fact of "inclusion" – it will enable a large mass of people to become eligible for benefits and services they could not have availed of before.
The skeptics counter this by saying that the schemes could still be mismanaged – NREGS money may still not reach the beneficiary or the rice might be diverted from the PDS system. Is the UID to blame for this? It is for the administrators of each scheme to ensure that they use UID effectively if they want to. In any case, UID is not going to result in the existing setup becoming worse.
What about the fact that people may develop some eye disease making the iris scan ineffective? What about the fingerprints of manual laborers changing due to abrasion, given the nature of jobs some of them do? There are no answers to this kind of question – on the one hand you oppose the introduction of technology; on the other hand, quibble about the one percent issues that are bound to exist. I am sure our system will find a way to solve these problems – experience will show us how.
The critics point to the cost – current estimates suggest that it will cost at least Rs.45,000 crores. What's wrong with that? It could be classified as "infrastructure" spending by the government and the money that goes to fund the scheme finds its way back into the economy. The same people who are crying themselves hoarse about the cost will support the argument that the government needs to indulge in spending, especially on the infrastructure side, to keep the economy growing. It is also a fact that any number relating to a project of this size in our country is likely to seem big – that is due to the population of our country!
A UID is just a tool. It is for us to implement it correctly and prevent its misuse. I can't think of one good reason why the project should not go ahead – in fact, it's quite the other way round. There are complaints now but they are merely quibbles; there has been nothing big so far that threatens to derail the scheme. Singh and his government need to be complimented for this initiative – what's the probability that in case for some reason the ruling dispensation changes, this project could also meander its way out of reckoning like Seshan's voter ID card?
Let us hope this project goes through to its conclusion and does not die somewhere along the way.