Economic Survey moots central welfare database of citizens

‘Information can be used to improve targeting in schemes’

July 04, 2019 10:19 pm | Updated 10:19 pm IST - NEW DELHI

The Economic Survey 2018-19, tabled in Parliament on Thursday, pitched for setting up a central welfare database of citizens — by merging different data maintained by separate Ministries and departments — which can be tapped for enhancing ease of living for citizens, particularly the poor.

While the Survey pointed out that governments can create data as a public good within the legal framework of data privacy, it added that care must also be taken not to impose the “elite’s preference of privacy on the poor, who care for a better quality of living the most.”

Stringent safeguards

It also recommended granting access to select database to private sector for a fee, given that “stringent technological mechanisms exist to safeguard data privacy.”

The Survey noted that there had been some discussions around the “linking” of datasets, primarily through the seeding of an Aadhaar number across databases such as PAN database, bank accounts and mobile numbers. However, it clarified that the linking is “one-way.” For example, banks can use the tokenised Aadhaar number to combine duplicate records and weed out benami accounts, but this does not mean that the UIDAI or government can read the bank account information or other data related to the individual. “While private sector does a good job of harnessing data where it is profitable, government intervention is needed in social sectors of the country where private investment in data remains inadequate,” the Survey said.

These recommendations come at a time when India is working on finalising its personal data protection policy.

“The principle is that most data are generated by the people, of the people and should be used for the people,” it said.

The Survey highlighted that the governments already held a rich repository of administrative, survey, institutional and transactions data about citizens, but these data were scattered across numerous government bodies. Merging these distinct datasets would generate multiple benefits with the applications being limitless.

The government could utilise the information embedded in these distinct datasets to enhance ease of living for citizens, enable truly evidence-based policy, improve targeting in welfare schemes, uncover unmet needs, integrate fragmented markets, bring greater accountability in public services and generate greater citizen participation in governance, etc.

The datasets talked about inclusion of administrative data such as birth and death records, pensions, tax records, marriage records; survey data such as census data, national sample survey data; transactions data such as e-national agriculture market data, UPI data, institutional data and public hospital data on patients.

On granting access to the public sector, the Survey said, “Consistent with the notion of data as a public good, there is no reason to preclude commercial use of this data for profit… Although the social benefits would far exceed the cost to the government, at least a part of the generated data should be monetised to ease the pressure on government finances.”

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