Identity issues in India

BANGALORE — For the past several weeks, Parveen Taj, 34, has been running around in circles trying to get a bank loan to buy a scooter.

In order to get a loan Taj, who works as a household helper in Bangalore’s Bannerghatta Road neighborhood, must first open a bank account. For that, she must furnish proof of address and income.

“I’m busy lining up witnesses to sign on the forms,” said the illiterate Taj. The mountainous paperwork has depleted her patience and killed some of the sweet anticipation of owning a new scooter and climbing another rung on the social ladder.

For millions like Taj in populous, teeming India, the struggle of establishing one’s identity or proving a simple truth like work experience or residential address may be a thing of the past if the government’s ambitious Unique Identification project takes off.

The grand mission that might out-rival the United States’ Social Security Number in scale and sophistication is already off to a determined start. The Manmohan Singh government has drafted Nandan Nilekani, 54, the much-admired co-chairman of India’s second largest outsourcing firm Infosys Technologies to head the project.

Nilekani will get started on July 9 as chairman of the project after exiting Infosys. If all goes according to plan, in two years millions of India’s 1.2 billion population will start getting a Unique ID tagged to their pictures, and fingerprints and other biometric information in a nation-wide database.

The project spells a big move for India where ordinary citizens are befuddled by a jumble of government-provided identities such as the ration card, which facilitates access to subsidized supplies for the needy, a PAN card that identifies tax-paying citizens, and a Voter card that has recently become mandatory to participate in elections.

But beyond merely helping tether all individual information to one identity, the government wants its Unique ID program to help plug massive leaks in government-sponsored social welfare programs. In notoriously corrupt India, it is well-documented that only 5 percent of the subsidies trickle down to the people they are meant for.

The Unique ID may well be the government’s stealth weapon to weed out fraud and bribery. Nilekani admitted as much in an interview. “The ID project will help cut out corruption, which is the mother of all problems,” he said.

The Unique ID project will also allow companies to make health insurance and pension schemes portable, help the government check the influx of illegal immigrants across the border and help official agencies fight terrorism.

This is not the first time that India has attempted to use technology to solve the vast challenges it confronts. For instance, by opening up the mobile services to private operators, the country helped citizens leap-frog an archaic, capital-intensive fixed-wire telecommunications network. India now is now the world’s fastest growing mobile phone services market, with 400 million subscribers.

In what is viewed as a refreshing departure from well-worn practices, a leading corporate executive has been roped in by the government to head a critical project. As CEO and then co-chairman of Infosys Technologies, Nilekani has overseen billion-dollar projects for his customers which are some of the world’s largest companies. In the process, he and his co-founders have built up a company with annual revenues of $5 billion. His Infosys stock has made him a billionaire.

But even Nilekani concedes that India’s Unique ID program is complicated and challenging. The Unique Identification Authority of India, which Nilekani chairs, will have to coordinate with thousands of government agencies while battling political and bureaucratic vested interests.

Even as Nilekani gets ready to take over the project, with full autonomy and authority backed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, skeptics are questioning the wisdom of the taxpayer-funded project. “Hopefully, it will not end up like another free-for-all government scheme,” said Chintan Sharma, a worker in the non-profit sector.

Parveen Taj, meanwhile, is oblivious to the government’s grand plans as she goes about collecting documents and witnesses. Taj says she does not care about smart cards. All she wants is a smart system that will recognize that owning a color television set should not disqualify her from the government-sponsored widow’s pension scheme.

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