Sunday, March 6, 2011

216 - A unique liberal dilemma - Yahoo News

Fri, Sep 24 05:49 AM
There are reports that Congress President Sonia Gandhi will lend her considerable political weight by being present at the launch of the UPA government's ambitious UID programme which seeks to give a single, unique identity number to all Indians in order to establish better state-citizen interface. In these politically charged times, with sections of the Congress sounding more coherent as opposition than the BJP, the Congress president's endorsement of the UID programme will indeed have great political significance. Of late, there is increasing opposition to the project by a small but influential section of civil society which has raised questions relating to potential violation of privacy and infringement of personal liberty by the state apparatus which might be tempted to abuse its access to the lives of citizens through the UID system.

Recently, Amartya Sen also lent some weight to such concerns by saying the UID project does raise questions of personal liberty.

Therefore, it is critical that Sonia Gandhi display unambiguous support for probably the most ambitious programmes undertaken by the UPA government so far. In fact many members of the National Advisory Council (NAC), which she heads, are highly sceptical about the UID programme. So this is one issue where Sonia Gandhi may differ with many members of NAC.

It is also interesting that among the first few UID numbers handed out will be to people living in Mumbai slums. In some ways a vast majority of the Mumbai slum-dwellers represent India's "mobile republic". As per official data, there are close to 250 million migrant workers in India who are on the move to seek jobs away from their village or place of birth. Mumbai possibly has the largest population of such subjects, most of whom are self-employed and relatively poor. So the symbolic importance of the UID launch in Mumbai slums must not be missed.

It must be clearly recognised that the emerging structure of India's economy is an unique one where 45-50 per cent of those incrementally gaining employment are self-employed. These self-employed citizens are largely poor and are considerably mobile in seeking work. The UID programme will particularly cater to some of these emerging structural realities of India's political economy. All current forms of identifications are based on specific geographical location, such as ration card, voter identification, driving licence, etc.

The UID will therefore be the only authentic, mobile identification number for over 250 million poor Indians on the move. Today banks invariably refuse to open accounts for migrant workers in big cities on the pretext that they don't have a permanent address. The UID will come as a great relief to this lot.

Some of India's liberal and enlightened citizens, who are ever so suspicious of the state's intentions, view the UID exercise as a "techno-commercial fantasy" which will not succeed. Indeed, there is a lot of cynicism around the project. However, for over 600 million poor, the physiological needs of survival clearly precede other philosophical/ intellectual concerns relating to loss of privacy felt so acutely by a section of liberal civil society.

One is not for a moment suggesting that the concerns over the UID project impinging on personal liberty are totally invalid. Simply put, there are the 600 million poor who, in the words of political scientist Partha Chatterjee, depend crucially for their survival on being able to choose tactically when to become visible and be counted by the state. This can be seen in government-led social sector programmes like rural employment guarantee, and targeted health and education services. The poor will certainly want mobile identities to be able to "become visible" at different locations across the country.

The rich, in contrast, want to largely remain out of the state's sight. In fact, it is likely that the creamy layer of society, which is economically and politically empowered, will not opt for the UID number. This lot has only limited interface with the state in their everyday life. They have access to private education, health, electricity and even security. They possibly depend on the state only for critical public goods such as clean air and water, since it is not easy to privately organise these.

Is there a contradiction between the majority of the poor seeking a sense of freedom by wanting to come under the state's radar and the others wanting to keep the state at bay while using it surreptitiously, when required? This paradox has been captured by Isaiah Berlin, one of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th century, in an essay where he explored "two concepts of liberty".

One concept of liberty, called negative freedom, is represented by the notion that individuals are totally free in society without any constraints or interference from others. The other concept — described as positive freedom — denotes submitting oneself to some collective form of self-determination, such as democracy. Even the 18th century French political philosopher Rousseau believed individual freedom is achieved through participation in the process whereby one's community exercises collective control over its own affairs in accordance with the "general will".

Of course, liberals argue that even in a democracy, driven by the general will, the government must actively create conditions for individuals to achieve self-realisation. This is seen in the form of constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech, movement, etc in liberal constitutional democracies. In the context of the UID project, bringing a new privacy legislation will denote a measure of negative freedom gained by individuals who want to guard against an "oppressive state".

Overall, there is always a striving to achieve a balance between positive and negative freedoms in a modern democracy. The unique identity project, once implemented, will also be tested in terms of the balance our constitutional democracy achieves between positive and negative freedoms this massive exercise creates. Its legal-political complexity cannot be denied as it seeks to create an official identity to empower over a billion people. Therefore, one must debate but avoid passing a premature judgment over the question of loss of privacy and personal liberty at this stage.

Before he died some years ago, Isaiah Berlin had said the only question that still remained unresolved in his mind was, "where should individual desires end and the needs of the collective begin?" This philosophical problem is not so easily resolved.

The writer is Managing Editor, 'The Financial Express'