What UID will really do

Puja Mehra        Print Edition: November 15, 2009

The Unique Identity Authority (UIA) will not plug the chronically leaky delivery of public services, which means, it may not improve the targeting of these services. To that extent, it may not turn out to be the tool for poverty alleviation that some expect it to be.

Its high-profile Chairman Nandan Nilekani says fixing bad governance isn’t exactly what he signed up for. “My primary concern is to ensure every resident of India gets a unique identification (UID) number,” he says. It’s a tall order that has never been achieved before by any other country and, at any rate, will be of huge service to national security. Nilekani isn’t guaranteeing whether an unique identification will provide unhindered services that its holder is entitled to - since that’s for the providers of these services to ensure.

UIA will not resolve bad delivery of public services.
It will not alleviate poverty.
It will give unique identification numbers.
Using the UIDs for fixing governance issues will be up to the public service providers.

The big-buck project, he explains, will involve two stages: first, the technical infrastructure will be laid out and the database built by acquiring data from the likes of PAN card issuing authorities.

The enrolment drive will form the second stage where partners such as mobile phone operators will assist in the collection of biometric samples. In the third stage, in which Nilekani sees only a consolatory role for the UIA, the new infrastructure and database will be used to drive transparency and accountability in public services.

“We could hold workshops for departments and offer consultation on leveraging the database,” he explains. The database will partially resolve bad targeting by preventing a claimant from usurping more than his share of benefits. Nevertheless, it will not be able to differentiate between undeserving and genuine claimants, feel observers.

So, is mass faith in the UID project misplaced? The globally acceptable rate of error in biometric identification technologies is 0.4 per cent, which for the UID project turns out to be a whopping 40 lakh Indians. It’s the overarching faith in technology as a tool for addressing socio-political issues that seems to be the trouble here. It’s not a magic wand and technologists are no wizards.

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