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Show Me Your I.D., Please!

Johanna Martinsson's picture

If someone were to ask you to identify yourself, you would probably reach into your purse, or pocket, and pull out some form of identification.  Without it, one loses some of the basic benefits of living in a society. You cannot open a bank account, purchase a home, or vote, and so on.  Many countries, however, don’t have a functional identification system.  In India, for example, millions of citizens are unable to benefit from social and financial services because they don’t have proper identification.  Also, current welfare databases are plagued with fake names and duplications, entered by corrupt officials. Thus, the country has embarked on a massive identification project that will be one of the largest citizens’ databases of its kind.

The Indian Government is currently in the process of administering some 1.2 billion Unique Identification (UID) cards, supported by biometric data, for its citizens. The new system is meant to eliminate, or decrease, corruption, which currently draws 80% of the funds intended for the poor. The aim of the new UID system is to tackle identity theft and verify that services are being delivered to the poor, as well as hold government officials accountable. The expected savings by preventing corrupt practices are estimated to $4 billion dollars a year.

The government also hopes that the new UID system will bring financial inclusion and strengthen national security.  For example, more citizens will be able to open bank accounts and contribute to the economy.  Also, the government hopes that more people, than the current 5%, will start paying income taxes.

The main issue is not just a uniform means of identification, but also a functioning government system that benefits as well as protects its citizens.  However, one of the biggest arguments against the UID system is the fear of giving the government too much control, or access to people’s personal lives. Usha Ramanathan, a lawyer and lobbyist against the UID system, says “information about people will be shared with intelligence agencies, banks and companies, and we will have no idea how our information is interpreted and used.” 

Thus far, implementing the project has proved challenging in terms of reaching people, as there is no standardized structure for names and addresses, and many people lack electricity. The project is also facing political challenges, as the new system is running against vested interests. Moreover, the bill granting an authority to issue the identification numbers was only filed with the Parliament in December, 2010, and has yet to be debated by the standing committee.  Nonetheless, the issuing of new cards has already begun, but it’s facing legal questions. Could these cards be valid even though it has not passed through the Parliament?

Also, in the last couple of months there has been a growing resistance against the UID system, led by prominent academics and social activists, who point to a number of concerns. First of all, there’s a lack of dialogue between the government and citizens about the new system and its implications. A major concern entails that there are no laws in place to protect citizens against violation of personal information. They also claim that the government is misleading citizens to believe that the UID is “voluntary”, as at some point an UID will be necessary to benefit from any social and financial services.  People are also suspicious of biometric technology, and whether duplication and errors can be prevented. Moreover, there’s a lack of political support when it comes to direct cash transfers to the poor, an issue that has been debated for some time.

Regardless, the first phase of the project, which will cover some 600 million citizens, is expected to be implemented by 2014, and full completion of the project some four years later.  There is not a doubt that there are challenges ahead. While the UIDs are crucial for access to basic services, the project needs to address privacy concerns and engage in public dialogue. The debate about this new system and its safety from abuse is the same debate that many people have been having about the idea of a national identification card in the U.S and in the U.K. Some officials see a new identification system as a better form of law enforcement, while others see it as a violation of privacy.

It will be interesting to see how the implementation of the project in India unfolds, and if the new system will actually diminish corruption and benefit the poor in the long run.

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Photo Credit: © Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

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