Falling Between the Barcodes


Will the National ID card really recognise and help India’s unknown citizens? Tusha Mittal reports

Empowered? Pooth Khurd villagers are the first in India to get the national ID card
Empowered? Pooth Khurd villagers are the first in India to get the
national ID card

AN INCONSPICUOUS village on the Delhi-Haryana border, Pooth Khurd has just been told it matters. On a hot afternoon in 2003, the entire village is cramped inside a local government school filling forms with 16 pieces of personal information. The Registrar General of India himself as come to inaugurate the pilot test of India’s first national identity project. If this project — estimated to cost of 1.5 lakh crore — goes through successfully, it could mean every faceless Indian will have some sort of recognition, some claim to existence. But if the ID falls into the cracks in our delivery apparatus, this project could further isolate the faceless millions. If the new order is imperfect, it could bar access to even those resources the poor manage to grab because of the chaos.

The pilot project was introduced in 12 states covering about 30 lakh people in 2003. In July 2009, the project received fresh impetus after Nandan Nilekani, former Infosys CEO, was appointed chairman of the National Authority for Unique Identity (NAUID) and given the task of implementing it for 1.2 billion Indians. So will the project rely on existing demographic data or conduct original surveys? “The strategy is evolving, but we plan to partner with agencies working with the Public Distribution System and NREGA,” says RL Sharma, Director of NAUID. Some reports suggest the NAUID surveys may even override the census in the future.

By 2007, all 6,600 families of Pooth Khurd had received India’s first Multipurpose National Identity Card (MNIC). All except 100-year-old Mukhtiar Singh. His legs couldn’t carry him far enough to be part of the National Population Register. “We were chosen because the government had no complaints from our village, we are an adarsh (ideal) village,” says Raghubhir Singh, 65, a retired army subedar. In the two years since they received it, honour is perhaps the only thing the card has bought the village. Most of the cards lie tucked away in dusty suitcases, inside unopened “tear-proof, tamper proof, water proof” specially designed envelopes.

When Raghubhir tried to use the ID card to claim his old age pension, it wasn’t accepted. “We were excited at first, but the card seems useless now,” he says. “No one accepts it. They always ask for the ration card, voter card and electricity bills.”

The MNIC is a secure smart card with a 16 KB microprocessor chip containing personal information and biometric details like finger prints. It comes with a unique National Identification Number (NIN). The back-end management has been outsourced to Bharat Electronics Limited. When it begins to function — the first batch is expected by 2011 — the government says it can be used for banking, agricultural credit, property registration, medical help, and school admission.

“The government believes identity is an important thing, the lack of which leads to the harassment of the poor. With this unique number, a poor man can get a bank loan without worrying about the birth certificate and proof of residence he may not have. A villager can migrate to Delhi without being a lost face. It will make life easy for the poor,” says Sharma. The ID is also being projected as a way to help welfare programmes reach intended beneficiaries and as a basis for e-governance and easy verification. Sharma adds that the card will contain very basic information — no sensitive information like income — and that stringent measures will be taken to ensure privacy of data.

But it is not yet clear who will have access to this information at the local levels. How will it be updated? Who will be able to alter it? And without data on income levels, how will the welfare programmes target the poor? In the absence of a concrete game plan — there is not even an official figure on the cost — many anxieties have mushroomed on the ground. “This could help identify Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, and lead to communal violence,” says social activist Aruna Roy. “We will not have 1 billion accurate cards and cards with disinformation will make things more difficult. Villagers will not be able to get the changes made. If this becomes the primary form of identity, it will be impossible for them to access anything. If the idea is to deliver better public services better, we don’t need this card for it.”

THE PROBLEM is that beyond official statements, there is no way of gauging what the real purpose of the project is. Much depends on what the government intends to do with the data.

Securing our borders was certainly the initial raison d’être. A Group of Ministers report on “Reforming National Security” in 2001 after the Kargil War recommended the need for a systemic overhaul of the country’s security and intelligence apparatus. It said: “Illegal migration has assumed serious proportions. There should be compulsory registration of citizens and non-citizens living in India. This will facilitate the preparation of a national register of citizens. All citizens should be given a MNIC and non-citizens should be issued identity cards of a different colour and design.” This was how the National Identity Project was born. The Citizenship Act of 1955 was amended to introduce these ID cards. Sources say that in the future, anyone who provides incorrect information to the NAUID could be prosecuted. “It was intended to wash out the aliens and unauthorized people. But the focus appears to be shifting,” says AK Doval, former Intelligence Bureau Chief. “Now, it is being projected as more development oriented, lest it ruffle any feathers. People would be unwilling to give up their right to privacy.” Despite the shift, he believes the project will eventually make our country more secure. “With this system, people can be located anywhere because all databases will be connected. The chances of a fake ID being caught are much higher.”

If the pilot projects are any indication, the odds are leaning against the UID project. In Jammu, after almost three years of implementing the ID scheme, the Registrar General of India asked the local administration to ensure that IDs have not been issued to dead people. Reports from Murshidabad in West Bengal suggest that 90 percent of the rural population have been left out of the government survey. Among them are families of Iranian descent living in India for the last 70 years — even before Independence.

If the MNIC is used to determine citizenship and “wash out aliens,” it would be based on a flawed assumption — that a smart card can accurately identify who is an Indian and solve the problem of citizenship, that a microprocessor chip can make our country terror free. “I doubt it will make much difference. The roots of insecurity, including state repression, are much deeper,” says economist Jean Drèze. “The danger is that the system will be used as a means of social control and state repression. People without the card will be harassed and the social divide between them and the rest of society will widen, instead of narrowing.” For Sispal Singh in Pooth Khurd, the card is, “like a passport, a license to travel around.” Others in Pooth Khurd seem to derive a similar sense of freedom from this card, as if it can magically open closed spaces. Ironically, it may do the opposite, restricting their access to their own information. Unlike ration cards and voter ID’S, the locals will not be able to read what’s on their MNIC.

Spirited public debate on the card may address many of these concerns, but for now, questions remain. Tilling his fields in Pooth Khurd, Parvinder Singh has concerns of his own. “Why can’t the government spend this money better,” he says, “by reducing the the price of dal?”

[email protected]