India plans ID cards for its 1.1bn citizens

India’s government has launched one of the biggest bureaucratic exercises in the country’s history – the issue of a single identity card for each of its 1.1bn citizens.

Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the planning commission, said the scheme was part of the government’s “inclusive growth” programme aimed at penetrating India’s notorious red tape to deliver social services more directly to citizens, particularly those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

“Clearly such a platform, once it’s established, would be useful in a variety of ways for all kinds of agencies that deal with the public, for example, tax identification, drivers’ licences, beneficiaries of public services and beneficiaries of below-the-poverty-line services,” Mr Singh told the FT.

India is notorious for a cumbersome bureaucratic system inherited from British colonial rule that has become more internecine over the decades, making life difficult for the average citizen, particularly the poor and illiterate.

Different government agencies issue their own forms of ID and do not recognise those of other agencies or other states. It can be difficult for a person moving from one state to another to open bank accounts or have their driving licences recognised.

This has led to the kind of corruption and wastage that once compelled Rajiv Gandhi, prime minister until 1989, to complain that only 15 cents of every dollar spent by the government reached the poor.

The scheme will be run by a new agency, the Unique Identification Authority of India, and headed by Nandan Nilekani (pictured right), co-founder of Infosys Technologies, India’s second-largest computer services outsourcing group, who will have the rank of cabinet minister.

The appointment of Mr Nilekani, one of India’s leading authors and thinkers, marks the first time one of the country’s new generation of technologists has been promoted to the top ranks of government.

The project envisages assigning an identity card with a unique number to every citizen by 2011 and aims at doing away with multiple identification cards.

“I see this as an instrument of empowerment,” Mr Nilekani told the FT. “At the moment everyone’s reinventing the wheel in terms of identifying people. Especially for the poor, they have the most difficulty getting themselves identified.”

India’s opposition National Democratic Alliance had mooted a proposal when it was in power in 2002 to introduce multi-purpose identity cards to check infiltration from neighbouring countries into India and to tackle terrorism. However, the country’s leftist parties, which have benefited from the support of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, objected. .

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, said that although there were security and privacy issues involved, a single identity card was an “overwhelming necessity”. (Financial Times, 6.25.2009,  Joe Leahy in Mumbai, Additional reporting by Varun Sood)

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