If… when… maybe…

A WTF news story from recent times: Nandan Nilekani says the Unique Identification Number is not mandatory.

On the face of it, this seems contrary to what was originally announced — a UID number for every citizen.

The Unique Identity (UID) project seeks to assign a UID number to each individual in the country that would remain a permanent identifier right from birth to death of the individual.

The UID would obviate the need for a person to produce multiple documentary proofs of his identity for availing of any government service, or private services like opening of a bank account.

Closer examination reveals considerable ambiguity. For instance, this is what Montek Singh Ahluwalia actually says:

“By 2011, we should be able to develop a system through which anyone wanting a unique identity number could get it. This will help authorities in easily identifying the citizens of the country,” Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia said…

Nandan’s vision, as articulated in interviews like this one, is however inclusive:

Mr Nilekani, let me start with a simple question. It is said that 80 per cent of Indians have Election Commission identity cards, others have ration cards, some people have BPL cards, others have driving licence and passports, and there are even PAN cards. Why on top of this do we need a unique identification number?

Nandan Nilekani: We need one single, non-duplicate way of identifying a person and we need a mechanism by which we can authenticate that online anywhere because that can have huge benefits and impact on public services and also on making the poor more inclusive in what is happening in India today.

Karan Thapar: When you say one online way of identifying a person, am I right in assuming what makes the unique identification different to anything else is that in addition to name, age, sex, date of birth and address, you actually have the individuals biometrics which are unique to that individual?

Nandan Nilekani: Absolutely. It is a combination of most probably fingerprints and picture and a biometrics committee will finalise that but finally that makes it unique. And we will also make sure that there are no duplicates. That’s another important decision.

Curiosity prompted me to mail the man in the middle of the muddle, with one simple question: The Yahoo story suggests the UID number is not mandatory — is that correct? Nandan’s response:

It is correct. Cannot make it mandatory as that would exclude people who dont have it, from getting services. Can be made mandatory once it is ubiqutious.

I suspect that behind the ambiguity of that response lies the technocrat’s dilemma. He is used to a more structured system, where an idea is thought through in its entirety, from concept to implementation; the execution systems are put in place, and so on. As opposed to that, he now finds himself in government — where a grandiose vision is articulated without the nuts and bolts having been thought through, and the person responsible for implementation is then thrown into the deep end and forced to work things out, a process that within our bureaucracy is akin to doing the backstroke through molasses.

Nandan likely needs to work out, first, where his office will be and what resources he has before he can even begin planning the project and its implementation. Universal UID numbers by 2011? Don’t count on it.

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4 thoughts on “If… when… maybe…

  1. But isn’t that the whole point of getting Nandan Nilekani involved? You need a technocrat to point out the practical limitations of a grandiose vision. He needs to work through vague requirements and hand waving to actually define the problem. Still seems like the requirement gathering phase to me.

    • I’m totally with you on the theoretical part of that plan. What seems to be happening, from all I can gather, is that typically of the government, having appointed a technocrat to help translate vision into reality, the government is not prepared to take its hands off and let the man it hired get to work.

      Typically a technocrat would reduce such a vision into a time line of phased deliverables, gather the resources required to complete the job, assign responsibilities and so on… but none of that is possible if you work within the confines of a bureaucracy that is always reluctant to give up its hold on the levers of the machinery.

      Pity, but there it is.

  2. It all seems very up in the air just now — as you watch, a comprehensive, all-inclusive project based more or less on the Social Security Number concept appears to be getting scaled down with each passing day. I suspect in the first flush of victory, the government roped Nandan in, reckoning a project of that magnitude needed someone with his technocrat/organizational skills. Now, there seems to be some dithering at the government end, or at the least a lack of clarity on how to move ahead.

  3. I can’t recall the numbers but I’ve kind of felt that the project is very expensive for its promised deliverable.

    And you’re now suggesting that every citizen needn’t have a UID! Strikes me as another kind of austerity measure.

    An accompanying thought is: does the project need Nandan Nilekani? Why ask a smart man to do a job that a babu can do?

    I also hear that the UID has no encryption and isn’t expected to seamlessly link to your credit card or bank account or whatever. So where’s the beef?

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