Last week, 30 residents of a village near New Delhi were given smart cards that, some newspaper reports said, left them foxed. They did not know what to do with these pieces of plastic. Despite their bafflement, the 30 villagers are the first Indian citizens to be part of a project that has the potential to radically transform the nature of interaction between Indian citizens and the government—for better or worse.
Such cards will give each of us a unique citizen number, will have 16 key bits of personal information, and will use biometric technology for identification. The information stored in the 16 MB of memory that is embedded in each card will be centralized in a national register of Indian citizens. The pilot projects were started in 2003. It is very likely that each of us will get a citizen card by 2012.
The initial debates that erupted on this issue in the early years of this decade focused on the valid issue of civil liberties. A central register containing personal information on citizens does have an Orwellian tinge to it. The parliamentary debates on the Citizens’ Smart Card Bill in 2006 focused on how these cards could be used to identify illegal immigrants. There is need for an effective system which ensures that national security concerns do not become a cover for surveillance.
It is not our case that these are minor issues, especially the fear that government agencies can have access to personal information and activities, which has been seen in most countries that have introduced such smart cards in recent years. The Indian Constitution does not explicitly recognize the right to privacy, though the courts have said this right is implicit in Article 21: “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”
While it is important to ensure that citizen cards, which are linked to a centralized database are not misused to suppress civil liberties, we must also recognize their potential to improve governance in India. A lot has been said and written about the potential for e-governance in India. The use of digitized information has already led to positive results in certain parts of the country, as when it was used to computerize land records across Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
Citizen smart cards can bring the benefits of e-governance to newer areas. It has already been reported that ration cards and election cards will become obsolete once the smart cards are rolled out across the country. The use of data warehousing and data mining could also help the government monitor its welfare schemes in a more effective manner.
Historically, social sector spending in India has rarely reached the very poor because of what are euphemistically called “leakages”. Subsidies are siphoned off by vested interests. Ideally, smart cards will enable the government to keep track of who is getting subsidies and weed out those who take advantage of schemes not meant for them.
A more interesting possibility is that smart cards can create the technological infrastructure to completely overhaul the welfare system in India. Many banks have already used biometric smart cards to launch basic ATM and credit card services in villages. What this means is that smart cards can easily be used to transfer funds directly to those who need income support. Rather than continue to depend on an ineffective and corrupt bureaucracy to help the poor, the government should use the smart cards to make direct cash transfers to those below the poverty line. The very nature of the welfare system can be changed with intelligent use of computing and data management.
So, while being watchful about the civil liberties issue, we could use smart card technology to change the nature of governance in India.
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