A project to provide Indians with a unique identity can be variously interpreted. Narrowly construed,it can be seen as an effort to contain illegal immigrants; to strengthen security; to arrest misappropriation,misrepresentation and misallocation. Broadly defined,it can be regarded as the harbinger of radical social and economic change; a first step in defining not simply who we are but who we wish to be.
How will Nilekani interpret his remit? Will he steer the narrow course or plunge into the broader unknown. I would hope the latter not simply because against the backdrop of the social and economic consequences of globalisation,technology and demography we Indians do need to reflect upon our identity but also because if there is one person who can imagine the positives of stretching an idea beyond its conventional limits it has to be Nilekani.
A narrow construction of the remit will of course generate value. The plight of Air India; the flow of red ink from the public sector oil marketing companies,the lengthening shadows of power cutbacks these are just some of the glaring examples of wasteful expenditure,distributive inefficiency and sloppy management. The identity project should help arrest this haemoraging of public resources and avoidable loss. It should plug the leaks that prompted Rajiv Gandhi to comment that of Rs 100 allocated for poverty alleviation barely Rs 15 reached the intended beneficiary. It should help squelch the middlemen and vested interests that today sequester the subsidised petroleum products like kerosene and LPG meant for the poor; that inflate monthly wage bills by somehow adding fictitious names to the payroll; that draw government compensation as teachers or health workers but seldom enter a classroom or dispensary. And on the non-economic front it should make it easier to segregate bonafide citizens from illegal immigrants and strengthen the instruments of internal security.
The question is whether such a massive exercise is warranted for these narrow purposes. Government can surely build upon the various identity cards that are already in place to secure these goals. After all there is the PAN card; it identifies the tax payer; there is the BPL card; it provides access to subsidies and other entitlements,etc; there is the ration card it offers food on concessional terms,etc. I do of course appreciate that these cards cover only a fragment of the population; that they essentially correlate economic condition to economic entitlement and that they do not encapsulate the non-economic facets of an individuals identity. But these are inadequacies that can be overcome through the incremental application of appropriate technology. They do not require the start of a new project on the scale envisaged.
It is therefore to the broader remit that I turn for justification. Amartya Sen explained that identity is not a unidimensional and rigid attribute. People have multiple identities and it is a matter of personal choice and circumstance that determines their dominant identity at any particular point in time or place. A woman executive in office may cloak herself with the identity of a professional. But at home she may decide to doff that in favour of something that signals motherhood and/or housewife. The point is that identity is a fluid concept and whilst there are defining singular attributes like nationality,religion,caste,language or profession,the lens through which people see themselves and others reflect kaleidoscopic overlaps of these attributes. Identity is a shifting composite and individual behaviour reflects this composite.
The framers of our Constitution recognised this behavioural relationship. They saw in the Constitution the opportunity to broaden our identity and to thereby alter the dynamics of social relations. Prior to it identity was defined essentially within a social context. People knew their position within society. Caste determined who they met,where they ate; whom they married,etc. Social identity determined social rights. The Constitution stretched the context to cover political rights. Whilst recognising the reality of caste it supplanted it with the category of citizen a political identity that signaled a new freedom and a new equality and which found expression through the medium of universal adult suffrage. This was a deliberate decision taken by people like Rajendra Prasad and Nehru individuals who knew what they wanted and who turned to the Constitution to give expression to their vision. Of course social identity did not dissolve,but from 1951 onwards it shared space with political identity.
Mandal had an equally seminal impact on identity. For it elevated caste from being something of largely local salience to something with a national scope. It became a common badge of economic value. It was the ticket to schools,universities,jobs,politics,etc. It joined the panopoly of identities that dominate behaviour today.
We have to recognise that identity cards have a chequered past. They can be and are used for important but innocuous purposes like determining whether a person should be behind the wheels of a car. They have also however been used for dastardly ends. Identity cards were what enabled Nazi Germany to single out the Jews. Information that empowers an individual does also empower a state. Ultimately therefore what redeems a card is the vision and purpose for which it has been designed.
Nilekani should therefore ask: What is the vision and purpose of his project? Could it be to open the doors for Indians to push beyond the Mandal era? And if so would it be practically possible to design the system of collating and incorporating data in a way that triggers a reassessment of the relative importance of the different attributes of identity? Can the very process of determining identity lead to its redefinition and thereby to changes in behaviour? Nilekani may choose not to ask these questions but it would be a pity indeed possibly a lost opportunity,if he fails to appreciate that identities are not simply expressions of the past or the present. They entail visions of the future.
The writer is chairman,Shell group of companies in India. Views expressed are personal