Nandan Nilekani’s cabinet rank appointment last week is beginning to draw attention to the national identification (ID) project he will head. The aim, to provide Indians with a multipurpose national identity card (MNIC), is worthy. Yet, it needs to be seen not as an elixir for all the nation’s troubles, but a better tool for the government to be answerable to citizens. The onus remains on the government to perform, starting with implementing this card itself.
The greatest benefit of such technology is that it cuts down transaction costs. Today, if the state wishes to provide, say, a food subsidy to the very poorest, an army of bureaucrats stands in between. MNIC can act as a smart card that identifies the right beneficiaries of aid. This is, then, part of a larger movement towards e-governance, one that strikes at corruption and leakages.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Such a card should be made compulsory. By quickening verification, it will help root out possible terrorists. But technology here is no substitute for political will. The problem of illegal immigration is a case in point.
In 1983, India passed the Illegal Migrants Act to determine illegal immigrants in Assam. In 2005, the Supreme Court struck this down, because the Act only made identifying illegal immigrants more difficult. Even with newer technology, how will the government know whom to give its MNIC to across India, when it failed in just one state?
Theoretically, a single MNIC can do away with the multiplicity of other IDs, reducing fraud. For instance, two-fifths of “below poverty line” (BPL) cards, a February piece in the Economic and Political Weekly argued, are with non-poor households.
However, MNIC could become yet another card in the average citizen’s wallet. The Election Commission introduced voter IDs earlier this decade to obviate electoral fraud. Yet, today it allows voters to show other forms of IDs too—an implicit acknowledgement that voter IDs haven’t reached every voter. What’s to say this won’t happen to MNICs?
There’s also a concern that MNIC’s centralized database will heighten abuses of privacy. That’s a possibility, but not one that undercuts MNIC’s rationale; it only means that this project has to come with the right legal safeguards. Nilekani himself has noted the influence of the US social security number for a national ID in India. Then, like the US, India too would need legislation to protect electronic data.
MNIC can go a long way in helping both the public and private sector reach more citizens. But for that, Nilekani will have to address such concerns.
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