some reason, governments - as well as the development
''industry'' as a whole - have always had a tendency to
look for universal panaceas, particular silver bullets
that will solve all or most of their implementation
problems and somehow achieve the development project
for them. The latest such initiative bullet that seems
to have been accepted as a silver bullet is the Unique
Identification Project, which is now seen as the easy
means to ensure no corruption and no leakages, and to
ensure efficient access to what are going to be targeted
systems of public delivery.
On the face of it, the UID project appears to have many
advantages for ordinary citizens, especially the poor.
After all, the requirement of having multiple cards
for particular kinds of access to public or other services,
each of which is typically difficult to acquire, places
disproportionate burdens on the poor. Anyone who has
tried to get a ration card without some preferential
access to lower level bureaucracy knows how prolonged
and nightmarish the process can be. Even something like
opening a bank account used to be a horrendously difficult
and complicated process for those without masses of
supporting documents. One of the great indirect benefits
of the NREGA has been the system of payments through
bank accounts, which has enabled many rural workers
to access banks in a way that was simply denied to them
All too often, acquiring any of these cards that provide
access to some service requires not just lots of time
and energy, but also the payment of bribes. So a system
whereby the large transaction costs of acquiring different
cards for different purposes are reduced and the entire
process is simplified for the ordinary citizen is something
that should be welcomed. In addition, it could be argued
that having a single card for many different purposes
would enable public service delivery to shift from its
present form which is based entirely on residence, to
a more flexible system that recognises the internal
movement of people.
But such attempts at simplifying life for those whose
various socio-economic rights need to be met is rather
different from creating and then enforcing a system
that can lead not only to an invasion of basic privacy
but also to possibly excessive and undesirable monitoring
by the state.
The UID project has already been devastatingly critiqued
for its implications for privacy and civil liberties,
by scholars such as R. Ramakumar and Jean Dreze. It
is worth noting that in most developed countries, similar
projects of governments have not been implemented after
strong public pressure. Even where they have been, they
have generally avoided putting in personal and professional
details such as religion, ethnic identity, profession
and socio-economic status. Yet such data are all explicitly
part of the information gathering exercise for the UID
The incorporation of biometric data raises a further
hornet's nest, since it is now widely recognised that
biometric information is subject to significant errors
in large populations. This is among the factors that
led the government of China to shelve their own plan
for such information to be stored in identity cards.
The current evidence on the technological possibilities
of biometric data use suggests that it is not a foolproof
system for preventing identity theft. It is also increasingly
accepted that, since fingerprints of a person (especially
those engaged in manual labour) can change over time,
they may be unreliable guides to identity. Ramakumar
points out that ''according to some estimates, in developing
countries like India, the share of persons with noisy
or bad data could go up to 15 per cent'', or more than
150 million people!
What is even more troubling is how the government plans
to use the UID data. There are attempts to coerce wage
workers in rural India to ''voluntarily'' enter the scheme
by making it mandatory for the issue of job cards of
NREGA. There are reports that UID can be used to ''solve''
the problem of leakages and misappropriation from what
is likely to be an immensely convoluted targeted Public
Distribution Scheme (TPDS) for food grain. Next UID
may be introduced in health programmes and other forms
of basic delivery, on the false presumption that this
will do away with corruption.
This is a very fundamental mistake, which misses out
the basic elements of the power relations that enable
and assist the pattern of corruption in India, or even
the possible errors in targeting. How will a UID system
ensure that complicated systems of defining the poor
actually do capture the right group and do not have
well-known errors of unfair exclusion and unwarranted
inclusion? How will it prevent those who systematically
engage in siphoning off either NREGA wages or TPDS food
grains from the rightful targets from continuing to
do so? It is a simple matter to ensure that the recipient
of wages or grain or any other good or service puts
her or his fingerprints in the required spot, even if
they receive only a fraction of what is their right.
Introducing such a requirement is likely to undermine
the very functioning of such schemes, especially the
flagship programmes like NREGS.
Technology cannot be a substitute for social transformation.
If it is introduced in social and economic contexts
of greatly unequal and oppressive power relations, the
outcomes are likely to be the opposite of those intended
by the most well-meaning of planners and implementers.
The important lesson is that purely technological fixes
will not work: it is not possible to avoid the crucial
political economy challenge of the need to change and
overthrow existing power structures that prevent and
constrain genuine development.