Tuesday, 17 May 2011

How Powerless Are You?

The Indian Government's ambitious UID project has stalled. And no one would admit it if you asked them. A universal ID system is not only difficult in a country like India, it is next to impossible. This is why significant power, responsibility and sums of money have been given to the one man Nandan Nilekani, who can make it happen.

Except that he hasn't.

And because none of what he had promised has in fact turned out the way he wanted it to be, he has introduced a new scheme, called Aadhar, which on paper is brilliant. Aadhar is akin to a Social Security number, is completely voluntary, and is biometrically verified. And what this translates into, is that anyone, irrespective of whether or not they have a birth certificate or passport or residence, can have his own means of identification. This is a boon for the lower level working class of India, who have no access to any documents of any sort. This means they can now avail of banking, telephony and other services, with a simple card, issued once in their name.

Since it is biometrically verified, an Aadhar Card cannot be forged or stolen. It can also be issued at source, as all that needs to be checked are the person's fingerprints, photograph and name. If these are not present in the national database, they are then added, and the applicant becomes a bonafide recipient of an Aadhar card. All of this is so brilliant, that already, 4.3 million people are beneficiaries of the Aadhar cards, with half of them coming from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, home to lots of very poor farmers, and very rich software engineers. Future plans are very smart also, and include such niceties as mini ATMs, akin to a recharge shop associated with no frills bank accounts.

Except that none of this addresses the real issue. India is a country of over a billion people. Barely 1% have got any sort of UID or Aadhar card. Andd even after they do, if they do at all(it took 3 years for 1%, maybe another decade for 100%)...the question still remains, how do they decide their own fate.

The poor in India have very little power over their lives you see. The men governing them play on a chessboard too big for any individual to see. Most are restricted to the view of one square. A few can see a few moves ahead. But issuing a card, identification, and validity to Indians does not guarantee them what it should, power over their own lives.

It does not guarantee them what should have been guaranteed first and foremost in a democracy. It does not guarantee them Universal Suffrage.

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