Sunday, March 6, 2011

169 - Uphill task to number Indians - SocioPolitics Buzz-Malaysia

Uphill task to number Indians

With massive leakages in the myriad subsidies to the poor, it is little wonder that the project to provide each Indian with an individual identification number is frustrated at every turn. PROVIDING an individual identification number to every Indian might be a good idea but the task is not as easy as it might appear at first. Despite the appointment of Nandan Nilekani, the billionaire co-founder of IT giant Infosys Technology, as the head of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the project has made little headway. Hitherto unforeseen roadblocks dog its progress while vested interests in the federal and state governments do not appear too keen for all resident Indians to acquire unique ID numbers. The UIDAI recently made the headlines when it was revealed that the Union Finance Ministry proposed to slash its budget. While it was originally sanctioned well over US$1bil, the ministry proposed to cut it down by nearly half. Barring criticism by a section of the media, the entire political class maintained a stiff upper lip on the breach of commitment. Nilekani had left his high perch in Infosys to take up his pet UID project to do his bit for the nation. He believed that assigning individual numbers to all resident Indians could make governing this large and diverse country of over 1.2 billion people a little less difficult. 

Also, given the porous borders with Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc, the law and order authorities could not only check illegal immigration but track down suspects involved in various acts of crimes. Above all else, the myriad subsidies, from food, fertilisers, power, old age pensions, fuel, cooking gas, etc., could reach the targeted sections without leakages. 

Indeed, the huge money spent on implementing the rural employment guarantee scheme, which assures 100 days of work in a year to at least one able-bodied adult in each family, could become more transparent if every Indian had a unique ID (UID) number. A recent survey revealed that a substantial chunk of fun! ds earma rked for the employment guarantee scheme was stolen by middlemen among the lower bureaucracy and village-level councils. More than US$13bil (RM49.91bil) of taxpayers funds are earmarked annually for the scheme, and even if the UID numbers could prevent 50% leakage, it would result in massive improvement in realising the objective behind the scheme. 

However, one can do no better than to recall the words of the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to have an idea of the extent of leakage from various central and state welfare schemes. Gandhi said that of every one rupee spent on such schemes, only 15 paise reached its intended target, with 85 paise finding its way into the pockets of middlemen. Notably, there are more below-the-poverty-line ration cards in some states than the actual population. Such ration cards entitle their holders to cheap food grains, sugar, kerosene, etc. 

Indeed, even a good percentage of the upper income groups in big metros continue to draw cheap rations on the basis of these ration cards. Or consider how the UID project could help the government save a lot of money. Currently, oil companies lose over US$6 (RM19) on each cylinder of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) used in household cooking. A good part of this LPG subsidy is misused by commercial establishments, but there is no way of checking the diversion of such cylinders. Precisely because the UID numbers would help cut leakages, vested interests both within the government and outside are not too enthusiastic about implementing the project. For, without the active collusion of the politicians, such large-scale theft of funds from various social welfare schemes cannot take place. Nilekani faced red tape in setting up his office and in getting an adequate number of personnel. Small wonder, then, the project has not made much progress. So much is expected from numbering Indians that a few days ago, the Supreme Court suggested that the government consider computerisation of the public distribution system (PDS) in consultation with the UI! D author ity. The court was considering a report by a former judge who had found evidence of huge corruption and pilferage in the PDS system all over the country. 

Significantly, the National Advisory Council (NAC), headed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, was keen for the UID authority to be actively involved in the proposed provision of highly subsidised wheat and/or rice to poor households. Both the government and the NAC are keen on the UID assistance in preventing the leakage of cheap grain, but there are differences between the NAC and the government over the price of such food grains Rs3 or Rs5 a kg as also over the quantity, 25kg or 35kg a month. Admittedly, after the public controversy over the proposed slashing of funds, the Finance Minister was obliged to restore the original outlay. Had the allocation been halved, the authority could only have issued 100 million unique identification numbers in the first phase as against 600 million originally planned. Of course, despite good intentions, and Nilekanis proven track record as an IT expert, the task of providing each and every resident Indian a unique biometric identity would prove an uphill task. In the case of the UID project, Nilekani is relying on several existing sources to issue 100 million ID numbers by February next year. He has tapped, for instance, into the state-owned oil and gas marketing companies to share the data about their customers. By offering a monetary incentive of Rs50 per consumer ID, he has sought to make the oil companies a stakeholder in his project. A questionable suggestion by the UID authority is to pay poor Indians Rs100 each for volunteering to register. 

The proposal has its critics since it can not only be misused by unscrupulous persons but it needlessly duplicates the work being currently carried out by the Registrar General of India as part of the on-going nationwide head count.