Sunday, July 18

Numb and Number

Well into the 21st century, the first impression for anyone walking into a government office in India is likely an image of a deluge of paper, embodiment of its creaking infrastructure. A proliferation of overflowing cupboards, dusty files stacked wall to wall, cobweb-tarred piles kissing the roof and reigning over every spit-stained corner; it is an ugly and telling sight. The obvious: a grim tale of bureaucratic sloth suggestive of indifference, busy adding to the karguzari paper mountain day by day. Equally, a sense of wonder: how, in its midst and despite it, the business of governance carries on in our vast, parched lands.

Times are a-changing though. Via some central initiative but mostly local effort, the Government is waking up to technology and convergence. While paperless is a far cry, Indian officialdom is taking gradual, diffident steps to improve information management and productivity. This is only natural. Services, and specifically IT, offered a way out in a country beset by inadequate physical infrastructure. In tandem with corruption and lopsided left-leaning policy, these bottlenecks had leashed us to a 'Hindu' rate of growth and an economic has-been status. New Age technology enabled the emergence of a confident, vibrant India that we see generous glimpses of, today. Thus, it is only fitting that it provide the vehicle for our governance transformation, light in a pen-pushing paper-serving Black Hole where citizenry feared to tread.

Obviously, this goes much beyond paper. Of vital significance is technology's gamechanging capabilities in delivery of governance benefits. Indeed, no less than 27 mission critical projects have been put by the Government to this task. UID, or Aadhar as it now named, is arguably the most important of these: the core of our national e-enablement effort. The idea is simple - a unique identifier to serve as primary key driving the massive information repository that governance for a billion plus populace entails. Naturally, the superstructure can only be as good as its edifice. And the UID ask is humongous: plan and execute a 12-digit numerical tag for a mindboggling 600 million records, including associated biometric and personal data. All this over the next 4 years, while staying true to the goals of building a robust and efficient system. If successful, this identifier and pathbreaking database of biometric permanent account numbers and personal statistics would enable policy analytics and monitoring at an unprecedented scale. Frankly, it is near impossible to envision the full governance impact of the result. Yet, broadly speaking, its incisive segmentation and targeting ability would be a dream in terms of faster rollout, easier tracking and better audit.

Of course, the picture is not all hunky dory. The enormity of the exercise is perhaps equalled only by its complexity. For instance, potential private use is a double edged sword. While it does wonders for, say, a financial services company for verification, marketing analytics purposes etc, the risk in unfrittered online access to personal information can be immense, especially for a terrorism frontline state. To this extent, UID is much more than a technological challenge of system design. Imagine, its potential multilevel security solution and consider that this also address ease of accessibility, given a citizenry with varying levels of computer proficiency, safely assumed low in average. Then there are connectivity concerns (Mukeshbhai's opportunity can be Nilekani's bugbear!). Revert to traditional paper census methods or a paper-hub-digital-spoke model and you open up data compromise risks in L1 implementation itself. Power can play spoilsport too - though solar panels were used to fill gaps in proof-of-concept stage, one must bear in mind that a Karnataka does not an India make. We cannot be blind to the bureaucracy's internal change resistance either - some of the flock do love a good drought, as we unfortunately know only too well! And so on.

Yet, the RTI experience teaches us that political will at the top goes a long way in overcoming what seems prima facie insurmountable. Similar commitment must be mobilized to tackle the issue of Data Privacy protection for our citizens. Not only is this a clear checks-and-balances need in post-UID India, it is high time time the Government realizes that misuse potential in a nation with lax, ill-defined laws is not restricted to its Internal Security agencies. Take this train of thought forward, and one would love to see proactive public debate around Aadhar's design and other postulates and concerns - different from the self congratulatory world-hunger-solution posturing that has come by till date. Short of this, it will be another gamechanger that flattered to deceive!