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The devil is in the detail

Zafar Anjum | Sept. 16, 2009
The Indian governments quest for a unique identification number programme for its billion-plus population is extremely challenging, and even wasteful

A few months ago, when the Congress Party returned to power in India, the Manmohan Singh-led government announced a new, ambitious project: Issue a unique non-duplicable ID card to every Indian citizen, starting with the target population of some flagship schemes.

For this purpose, the government appointed Infosys co-chairman Nandan Nilekani as the chairperson of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), under the aegis of the Planning Commission.

Now, in India and abroad, Nilekani is a media darling. He was the inspiration behind Tom Friedmans bestseller, The World is Flat. As a veteran Indian journalist put it, Indian media would criticise neither Nilekani nor the ID project. Sure enough, after the project was announced, the Indian media lapped it up as expected, glorified the already feted Nilekani with sweet write-ups. No doubt that Nilekani is a thoughtful corporate leader but it was the projects scant details that worried people like me. Not only the media came out confusing details, I was disappointed to see not a single report that could challenge the assumptions behind the ID project.

It took the veteran interviewer Karan Thapar to do this unpleasant job: In his programme, Devils Advocate for CNN-IBN, he thoroughly grilled Nilekani. During the interview, many facets about the project came out that need debate, discussion, and clarification. I am surprised that the Indian government has announced the establishment of an Authority without gauging the budget and implications of such an ambitious programme.

Ambition outstripping ability?

The main issues, as raised during the TV interview, are as follows:

-    Why do we need a unique identification number for all Indians? About 80 per cent of Indians have Election Commission (Voter ID) cards, others have some other identification documents, such as ration cards, driving licences, PAN cards, BPL cards and passports.

-    Does a suitable technology exist to undertake such a mammoth exercise? According to a London School of Economics study, a similar project in the UK was scrapped because of unreliable technology.

-    Cost of the project is another issue. According to an Indian weekly, Frontline, the project could cost hundreds of billions of rupees. That kind of money could be better spent on health, sanitation, nutrition and education of the poor. Nilekani himself, who is heading the project, is not aware of the cost involved in this project but he insists that the cost is a fraction of the figure quoted by the magazine.

-    Security of the database, containing the record of a billion-plus people, is another major issue. There is a major risk of hacking. Nilekani also accepts that there is the risk of hacking.


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