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Updated: March 20, 2011 00:14 IST

Unique identity: the boon & the bane

Tajender Singh Luthra
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AN ID OF THEIR OWN: Fingerprint impressions being taken at a booth set up by the Unique Identification Authority of India at Patancheru in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh. File photo: Nagara Gopal
The Hindu AN ID OF THEIR OWN: Fingerprint impressions being taken at a booth set up by the Unique Identification Authority of India at Patancheru in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh. File photo: Nagara Gopal

If we do not make the UID number mandatory for all residents, a sizable population, especially those who need to be watched to control crime and fight terrorism, would happily like to be left out of its purview.

Right thinking tax authorities always crave for tearing apart one body having different names. But unearthing A's bank account even in a neighbouring city is a difficult job. Discovering B's immovable properties registered with a slight change of spellings, yet within the same city, is as hard as inventing a new wheel. Similarly, a policeman's simple need to instantly verify whether C's name and residence are as good as C claimed them to be is still a dream. Practically and legally, it is complex as well as cumbersome to detain somebody and wait for days to verify his name and address from a distant city.

Auditors could never unravel the mystery of fudged muster rolls. And, supposedly development funds continue to splurge on digging wells, constructing dirt roads and repairing schools that were never there. Illegal migrants from friendly and unfriendly neighbours enjoy the perks of our liberal democracy without adhering to the minimal requirements of being a good resident but we don't have a foolproof system to trace and send them back.

We are making world-class software to create the global-level services but only for export. Software architects long to create similar services for their own country but somehow they could not use their expertise at home. Though these tasks still remain a far cry, a good beginning has been made by ushering in the Unique Identity Number (UID) for every Indian.

UID would reveal the benami transactions in stocks and commodity exchanges. It would unearth benami holdings of agricultural land and real estate. The Election Commission would finally be able to issue identity-based card to all eligible voters. Banks, with the help of UID, would streamline their policy of “know your customer.” Duplicate PAN cards, ration cards, below the poverty line yellow cards, driving licences and many such cards which are issued to cheat the government would become a thing of the past. Certainly, UID would increase the government's tax collection, boost enforcement of the law and stop pilferage of development funds.

In a way, where the Right to Information Act stops after providing just information and falls short of directly delivering anything for the good of common man, UID would act as a weapon to bring about tangible changes in the system whose benefits would be openly felt by the public. The potent but somewhat inactive warhead of the RTI would get an effective and far-reaching UID launcher to hit the offender where it hurts the most.

However, UID would not solve our problems on its own. Different departments would not only have to create their own infrastructure but also have to make it compatible with the UID software architecture to exchange the desired information in real time. Moreover, they would have to make the use of the UID number mandatory by their customers to detect any misuse. A passport officer would have to make the software in his office compatible with the main UID software architecture to know whether a person is trying to get a second passport on a different name and address.

Electronic voting machines would have to be tweaked to allow only genuine voters to vote. Banks would have to make it necessary for account holders to quote their UID numbers to detect duplicate accounts. In a rather similar way, the police would have to fine-tune their computers to know whether an accused is concealing his identity or not. Needless to say, the longer we take to prepare for and utilise the benefits of UID, the lesser we would realise its true potential.

But one of the big questions is who would get UID. Will only Indian citizens get it? Or anybody living on Indian soil can apply for and get a UID number? There is still some ambiguity about the eligibility to get the UID number. Another significant issue is whether getting an UID number would be compulsory or optional for an individual. Will obtaining UID become mandatory for all individuals? Or will it be impossible for a person to function without obtaining UID? For example, if we can't get our driving licence, PAN card or passport without having a UID number, more than a majority of us would be indirectly spurred to get a UID number.

But this indirect approach would still leave many illegal migrants, slum dwellers, beggars and poor rural residents uncovered as they hardly need any government issued document to survive. Therefore, the aim of covering all residents of the country would always be a dream. Moreover, illegal migrants and particularly those from unfriendly neighbours and with ulterior motives would have a “legal” option of avoiding the gaze of UID and thus dodge the law of the land. Obviously, law enforcement is one area that would be the most adversely affected, if the UID number is not made mandatory for all residents. Therefore, we should adopt a direct approach to coax all residents to be under the cover of UID. Besides making the network of UID faster, it would make it more pervasive too.

However, if not utilised with the right intention, the blessing of UID might become a bane. If we do not make the UID number mandatory for all residents, a sizable population, especially those who need to be watched to control crime and fight terrorism, would happily like to be left out of its purview. And if we make UID mandatory for all residents, then the important topic to consider is whether UID number would confer any right on the holders.

The lurking danger is that on the strength of holding the UID number for a few years (say 10 years), even those who aren't citizens might claim to be citizens and assert their privileges.

These people would organise themselves, first, into pressure groups and, later, metamorphose into attractive political constituencies to lure different opinionated parties. It would be very hard for political parties to ignore such a striking section as their prospective constituency and disregard their privileges as citizens, particularly, the right to vote.

We need to learn from the experience of Assam in 1972. It would be convenient for these pressure groups to force the government of the day to decide a cut-off date of holding a UID number to make illegal migrants legal. Further, on the strength of holding UID, they would fight tooth and nail to stay, be citizens and vote in elections in India. The problem of illegal migrants is as bad for us as for the western world. But heavens will not fall if we also subsume a section of illegal migrants on the strength of possession of UID, provided we have a foolproof system to sift out those who are risk to our country's security. And even countries like the U.S. have been announcing amnesty schemes to legalise illegal immigrants from time to time. Many of our friends and relatives have been the beneficiaries of such amnesty schemes in the western world. To some extent, the U.S. and other western countries do it for their own benefit as they need illegal migrants as cheap labour.

At the same time, though not foolproof, the U.S. has a far better system to trace and send back illegal migrants. We would need to have similar, if not a better system, to strain out our risks. If used positively, UID itself would become a forceful weapon to sieve undesirable security risks out of the system. Therefore, right in the beginning, we need to seriously mull over the potential benefits and misuses of UID and be prepared with remedy.

(The writer is an IPS officer. The views expressed are personal. His email id is: tajendraluthra@rediffmail. com)

Keywords: UID scheme

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