The power of identity

The power of identity

On Wednesday, Ranjana Kadashiv Sonawane, 29, became the first individual in the country to be given a 12-digit unique number. In itself, the moment is not significant. It will be, three years from now, if the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) delivers on its promise of rolling out one billion IDs. By any metric, this is a daunting task, though Nandan Nilekani, who heads UIDAI, has been a great salesman of the programme so far, generating support for it from most quarters.

Therefore, the presence of both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi at the event means Aadhaar has managed to secure political support, which is crucial if it is to go the full distance on the promise of providing everyone residing in India a unique identity.

It is the big idea of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in its second tenure in office, something similar to the marquee Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). There is reason to believe that like the latter, Aadhaar too may return rich political dividends to the Congress, which has been on the back foot for most of its second stint in office, unable to either explain or fight persistent double-digit food inflation.

The significance of Aadhaar lies in the power of identity to all, especially the poor. By being allotted a unique number that is stored in a central database and is verifiable using an individual’s biometric information such as fingerprints and iris scans, Sonawane now has an identity that is portable. So when she migrates to another town or city, she can retain her new-found identity—and continue to access benefits under the government’s social programmes, obtaining admission for her children in schools or operating the banking system to repatriate earnings to her family in the village. This is indeed an invaluable gift to the estimated 100-odd million migrants in the country.

It is not a coincidence, therefore, that both Singh and Gandhi signalled that the biggest beneficiary of Aadhaar will be the aam aadmi (common man). Herein lies the challenge for Aadhaar. It is one thing to be given a unique number and entirely another to ensure that the rest of the system delivers on its promises. It is within the realm of the possible that everyone has a unique identity and yet the Public Distribution System continues to be misused. While Aadhaar can only guarantee everyone an identity, the ability to use this fantastic tool for delivering public good is a function of overall governance reform.

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