India’s ID plan: An end to its inept bureaucracy or an Orwellian nightmare?

In The National today:

NEW DELHI // A plan to provide each of India’s 1.2 billion citizens with a unique identification number has been praised as an essential programme to impose some efficiency on India’s infamously inept bureaucracy.

But its opponents have said it is ripe for abuse. The government could use it to spy on its citizens and criminals could steal the data and create false identities.

Since the plan was launched in mid-2010, about 110 million Indians have queued up at data-processing centres across the country to have their irises scanned and their fingerprints recorded.

The unique identification (UID) number that arrives in the post a couple of months later can then be used to apply for welfare benefits and set up a bank account, without the endless form-filling and bribe-giving, which often goes along with proving your existence in India.

Headed by the respected former chairman of IT giant Infosys, Nandan Nilekani, the scheme has been a model of unusual government efficiency.

But the programme is now under threat from the Home Ministry, which has its own biometric database.

It collects not only fingerprints and irises, but also sensitive information such as caste and religion, which it wants to use for security purposes.

A turf war between the Home Ministry and the UID Authority led to a compromise last week. The agencies agreed to share their data to avoid duplication. That allowed Mr Nilekani to collect another 400 million people on to his database. The government is providing more than US$1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) to merge the databases.

The deal is a boon for the Home Ministry, since it has only registered about 8 million citizens on its National Population Register (NPR).

It is unclear how all this information will be stored and shared, but it has done nothing to allay the fears of activists who foresaw the UID scheme turning into an Orwellian nightmare that could target, rather than help, India’s poorest citizens.

Read the rest here…

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