Will the Unique ID project improve accountability? 3

Improving accountability depends on political and social initiatives, and not technological solutions. But technology can shape society and politics in limited ways.

A bold new step has been taken by the government of India to provide all citizens with a Unique Identity Card using smart cards that is expected to be used by citizens while paying taxes, securing government benefits, etc. In an imaginative move the government has appointed the experienced Nandan Nilekani to head the project. Many claim that this will improve the implementing of large schemes while sceptics argue that accountability does not have technological solutions. I explore some aspects of the theme here.

The issue

A planning commission report on this topic (Planning commission 2007) mentions that smart cards with unique ids can improve efficiency, reduce identification errors in selecting beneficiaries, bring greater flexibility in implementing programmes and reduce duplication in information gathering about individuals for each scheme. The report is careful to point out that these problems cannot be “solved”, but can be mitigated by the use of smart cards. The report also points out that the efficiency of smart cards will depend on the quality of data that goes into it.

The Ghosts

Let’s take the example of fake ration cards. The report correctly states that there are many fake ration cards that are used for corruption, and this represents a loss for the government. To make things clear, let me distinguish fake ration cards from fake currency. Once fake currency is printed, it can be used freely used anywhere. Faking ration cards on the other hand goes beyond successful printing. Every transaction in a ration card has to be recorded in a corresponding register at a specific ration shop. Typically, the dealer also tends to know the cardholders especially in the rural areas. Thus, without the cooperation of the dealer and the accompanying system of inspectors and others, the project will not succeed.

Typically ‘fake cards’ are cards issued in the names of non-existing people, or cards that are issued in the names of some people who never get to see them. Especially when there is a lot of money involved there will be an attempt to replicate such faking with smart cards as well. After all, if those who are in charge of confirming people’s identity cooperate while issuing smart cards, it would be possible for locally influential people to hoard a large number of such smart cards.  That said, use of biometric identification will definitely put pressure on those who indulge in corruption using “ghost cards” by making the detection of such corruption easier.  This can pose a problem when such corruption is challenged by collective action, by political opponents or other forces.

Other forms of corruption

The use of biometric identification could put pressure on the use of fake cards, but it does not help mitigate other forms of cheating e.g. under measurement of goods, telling people that government did not supply the full quota of kerosene while making fake entries while swiping cards, shifting better quality grains for worse during transit, adulteration etc.  Such forms of corruption will continue as usual. In many states people who are really poor are often not identified as Below Poverty Line (BPL) and thus are denied their entitlements; this will not change with smarter cards either.

These are just a few examples among a wide array of disempowering practices that will continue with the introduction of smart cards, and given this background, it is not surprising that activists who encounter the system on a day-to-day basis have limited enthusiasm for it. As one person put it, ‘there are only political solutions to accountability, and no technological solutions’. I agree with that view.  That said, it does not mean that the introduction of new technologies will have no impact on corruption or the delivery of public services: if it is designed well, technology could alter some aspects of politics and thus improve accountability. The critical thing to keep in mind is that UID is a tool – and tools do no achieve results by merely being there.  The impact of UID depends on how it is used, and that depends on the political will, administrative initiative and the degree to which UID based systems are amenable to people’s control.  I take these up in other articles in this website.

This post is a part of the series on technology and governance in India.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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