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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Identity crises

Why don’t the poor opt for existing I-card systems?

Written by Bibek Debroy |
February 5, 2009 11:21:31 pm

When travelling abroad,one is used to hotels,offices and assorted other places asking for identification proof. That’s true not only of developed countries,but developing ones too — 9/11 reinforced the trend. Until 26/11,that was rarely the case in India. Every Indian’s aspiration is of becoming a VIP,whatever that expression means. Consequently,self-proclaimed VIPs resent the idea of being asked who they are. The world is supposed to know who they are. Post 26/11,this has changed and there is greater insistence and acceptance of identity-proof. For those with access to passports,driving licences and PAN cards,there is no problem.

However,for the majority of Indians,especially those living in Bharat,there is a problem in establishing who you are,unless you possess voter cards and/or ration cards. There are three different nuances of the legal identity problem. First,there are geographical areas ostensibly illegal,such as urban slums

involving encroachment. With Slumdog Millionaire in the news,Dharavi is one obvious instance.

“So they live in illegal houses and use illegal electricity,drinking illegal water and watch illegal cable TV. They work in Dharavi’s numerous illegal factories and illegal shops.” That’s a quote from Vikas Swarup’s Q&A. Many proofs of identity are linked to place of residence. If residence is illegal,how does one establish legal identity?

The second nuance is linked to informal work. Large chunks of India are in the informal workforce. Informality doesn’t mean illegality. But it often means lack of legal identity,since this work is typically outside registration systems. Perhaps 450 million Indians are in this category and the number will be more if those presently outside the workforce (such as women) begin to enter,as female work participation rates rise. If not linked to place of residence,identity-proof is sometimes linked to place of work and we thus have a problem. Elsewhere,transitions from self-employment to wage-employment and rural to urban facilitated legal recognition through work-place. Developing countries with national identity systems have smaller populations. Or,to take the Chinese example,communism built in household registration systems.

The third nuance of legal identity is individual-based and given the above,becomes difficult to establish. This isn’t a problem that plagues India alone. It is a problem that characterises much of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa and some segments of Latin America and East Asia too. There are several dimensions to the Indian problem. First,there are multiple identity cards for different purposes and a card acceptable for one purpose is not accepted for another. Second,there is rampant bribery and corruption in issuing cards. People who are entitled to them don’t get them and those who shouldn’t get them do,illegally. This has been documented ad nauseam for driving licences,BPL cards and Antyodaya,with the CAG having castigated several states. Third,counterfeit cards float around and those who are meant to check them for authenticity are negligent or lack necessary means. Identity cards don’t only establish identity. They are also required for subsidised access to public services and positive discrimination,such as caste certificates. We should probably have solved the problem in the ’60s,when Central and Centrally-sponsored schemes proliferated.

But we didn’t solve it then and wouldn’t have bothered even now,had it not been for 26/11. Prior to that there was a multi-purpose national identity card (MNIC) pushed by the NDA in 2002,with the stated objective of curbing illegal migration from across the border,especially Bangladesh. It was ostensibly tried out in border districts in pilot mode,with Delhi,Andhra Pradesh,Tamil Nadu,Goa and Puducherry thrown in. However,despite pilots being over by 2008,the UPA didn’t seem very serious about MNIC,perhaps because electoral politics in some states encouraged issuance of electoral cards to those who weren’t Indians. 26/11 changed this and there have been government statements that after the 2011 Census,every Indian will have an MNIC,probably by 2015. The database will therefore be Census-driven. Does that automatically ensure every MNIC is genuine? And despite the euphoria about biometry,will agencies possess authentication technology? Will MNIC also be used to target public services and positive discrimination?

There is possibly some utility in splicing NREGA and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) into the Census database. The advantage of the former is that there is an explicit provision of mandatory social audits by Gram Sabha to check veracity. In most states,Gram Sabha audits haven’t worked well. However,NREGA also incorporates provisions on right to information,public disclosure and third-party audits. These have worked much better —what better evidence than murder of NREGA activists in Jharkhand?

As of now,NREGA only covers households self-identified as poor. But with that as base data,one should be able to create a database of adults in rural India,at least those in working-age groups. Similarly,school enrolment has shot up dramatically,though that doesn’t mean we have solved the problem of drop-outs and inadequate retention. Largely because of mid-day meals,and not core SSA,there are probably only around five million children who are never enrolled in primary school,mostly children of migrants. Stated differently,why don’t the poor opt for existing I-card systems? Apart from the lack of information,each existing I-card is issued by a monopoly state provider,engendering corruption and high transaction costs. Offering choice and multiple channels helps eliminate monopoly and reduce corruption. In a way,NREGA offered choice by roping in panchayats and third-party audits,and civil society also helped curb excesses and discretion associated with monopoly. There is thus a check on the Census database. More importantly,if the splicing isn’t done,home ministry-driven MNIC will only be used for establishing identity and will primarily be for security.

That’s an important step. But we still won’t have a single identity card,and identity requirements for subsidised public delivery of services and positive discrimination will remain. That shouldn’t be the end-goal. Let’s not forget that,contrary to what the Administrative Reforms Commission recommended in its second report,NREGA payments are compulsorily made through bank and post office savings accounts,not in cash. If there are multiple good ideas,let’s marry them.

The writer is a Delhi-based economist

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