Millennium Post

A singular solution

We are probably among those few developing countries that are pegged to be the next superpowers but which still do not have any idea of their unemployment rates, birth rates, income disparities and actual poverty counts. This is quite clear from our government data. Imagine this; various commissions of the same government come out with separate reports on poverty, unemployment and other social growth parameters, with each report having a different count for each parameter – the figures sometimes vary so widely that they seem to be of different nations rather than of one. Our National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) surveys go steps ahead. Firstly, the data takes inordinately long to compile, assemble and analyse; secondly, the credibility and accuracy is still always under doubt. And finally, our census count, which takes place once in a decade, while other countries conduct this every year.

The importance of such data in this age of information needs no mention. No nation today can come out with holistic and feasible developmental policies without taking into consideration the real picture of the economy and the society. Imagine the consequence of these policies that our policy-makers draft based on dated reports or even non-existent data. Our reservation policy [based on the six year old Sachar Committee report] is one crying example; National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and several other poverty alleviation programmes are also framed on reports based on census data that are decades old and quite obsolete.

Against this gloomy state of social indices and their non-scientific projections, the incumbent government in 2009 announced its plans to implement the Unique Identification Number (UID) project across India under the Unique Identification Authority of India (or UIDAI). The government named this project Aadhaar, a project with an objective of providing a unique identification number to all its citizens, which will further allow the agency to maintain all data and biometric information at a single centralised server.

Contrastingly, America’s social security number (SSN) project is a universal scheme that comes under Section 205(c)(2) of the Social Security Act. The SSN is used for almost everything from identification to data assimilation to providing social support. Similarly in UK, the National Insurance number is used for providing social services like employment and insurance besides being used for identification, tax filing and other related activities. Chilean citizens use their national identification number [called RUN] for almost all purposes. Today, even a newborn Chilean is assigned a RUN. Similarly, Denmark has its own personal identification system called CPR; and China too issues its own unique ID cards for all citizens aged above 18 years. In all these countries, a singular number is used in almost all spheres of life – unlike in India, where one has to keep collecting and preserving numerous identification certificates as one grows old, ranging from one’s birth certificate to voter card to driving licence to PAN card to marriage certificate to ration card to finally a death certificate.

The underlined objective behind these cards was to monitor the implementation and effectiveness of various welfare programmes ranging from health to employment. Undoubtedly, such biometric cards are imperative for a nation with a billion plus population [and for a nation with 80 per cent plus corrupt officials at every level]. Unlike the current census and documentation system that is confined to a definite age group [voter ID card, for example] or income group (PAN card), the UID Aadhaar card is distributed to all! The cards and the likes that have existed till date in India [PAN et al] have no capability to track internal migration and duplication, which is important for data integrity and verity.

On the other hand, the UID card can not only plug these loopholes but to a large extent reduce disproportionate allocation of funds. The data collated from the UID exercise can be further used in statistical modelling for estimating and projecting critical numbers like birth rates, death rates, fertility, employment and education, which eventually would help in drafting feasible long-term policies, and above all, would make the entire system highly transparent.

The UID project has been under constant attack since its inception. Just last year, in December 2011, the Parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance raised its objection about the UID project, commenting, ‘...The Committee categorically convey their unacceptability of the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010... The Committee would, thus, urge the government to reconsider and review the UID scheme...’ Moreover, in its current form, the project is more of a political initiative of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, like their other developmental projects – which simply means that in the near future, it can be abandoned or can be stopped by any other political party in power. In such a scenario, where the future of this brilliant project is under stake, the Supreme Court should immediately take it under its purview and set an independent body to examine the project’s feasibility, post which the UID should be listed among essential documents, in the same league as a PAN card or voter identification card. In simple words, the UID card should be made every citizen’s constitutional right! So that it becomes a real-time and transparent report card for every government.

Arindam Chaudhuri is a management guru and honorary director of IIPM think tank.
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