Unique Identity, Leakages and Development

Dec 16th 2010, Jayati Ghosh
For 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 earlier.

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 project.

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.

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