A smart citizen card can be among government’s top feats

By Prasanto K. Roy, IANS,

This can become the largest database on planet earth and the oldest technology-driven plan that is still doing the rounds in India – a unique, single identity smart card for every citizen and resident in the country.

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Don’t expect it in 2011, despite Home Minister P. Chidambaram promising a smart card in the hands of every Indian by then. But even if it eventually does happen within this government’s tenure, it would be one of its top achievements.

So my wallet will hold just one smart card: One identity for voting, a secure access, and just about everything. And this would give our megalith government “one view” of me.

Why is this so big?

Just look at all our mega-databases of residents. Each built up with billions of taxpayers’ money. None “talks” to any other database. Each is a subset, and sometimes an overlap, with the citizenry.

The voter identity card: This database of over 714 million covers citizens of voting age, but not the younger ones, or foreign residents. So it can’t be a universal ID. Could it be extended? No, the Election Commission has its hands full.

The permanent account number (PAN) card: This covers some 300 million income tax assessees, or anyone who files tax returns, including foreigners and companies. Yet, the tax administration cannot easily scan transactions to verify income. With all its computers, it is running two years late in scrutinizing returns.

The Census: This could have been the master database for India, covering all citizens, but it’s more for demographics than individual detail, and it’s not available to other agencies.

Ration cards: This centralised database supports the public distribution system. It is accessible on the web, but it covers just four million people, mostly below-poverty-line.

So it is with every other database. Each is a silo that doesn’t talk to any other database – the raison d’etre for the smart card.

A single master database will give the government a common view of all residents and for wherever identities need to be proved. It will help identify the illegal immigrant and give a fillip to national security and tax collection.

Take the US social security number (SSN). It’s a nine-digit number issued to US citizens and residents – even temporary, working residents – by the US government.

The US programme started in 1936, with 25 million SSNs issued as tax identities. Rules were later changed so that even minors required a social security number. Today it is issued with birth certificates and is a major tool for homeland security.

The tax administration is also happy, for it can correlate transactions such as investments, payouts and property and vehicle purchase in near real time – as India would like to do, but can’t.

So why is India two decades behind?

Old problem: No Driver. The database owners had no interest, inclination or resources to go and set up a national database. This has to be driven from the top – the Prime Minister’s Office or the President’s Secretariat, or by an empowered group that has now been planned.

There is also the challenge of collating a database and issuing the cards across India’s billion-plus people. The Election Commission knows after all these years that no more than 82 percent of the 714 million voters have cards.

The Election Commission database is also flawed. The cards have errors and its holders often find their names missing from the voter list or in the wrong list. Examples: Leader of Opposition L.K. Advani, cricket captain M.S. Dhoni, actor Priyanka Chopra. And most surprising of them all: Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla himself.

But the die is cast, with top-level assurance from President Pratibha Patil and Chidambaram that every Indian will carry a smart card in three years and pilot projects are on.

The card is also in place: A secure, chip-based smart card specified by a group from the state-run National Informatics Centre, Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, Bharat Electricals Ltd and the Intelligence Bureau, to name a few.

If these cards reach even half of India’s citizens by 2011, the UPA government will deserve praise. But even if they don’t, the first steps are good – it is part of the manifesto of the Congress party, which heads the UPA coalition.

This can become Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s top achievement in the realm of technology-driven governance, as also for homeland security – and may even help speed up, just a bit, the technology market’s recovery.

(07-06-2009-Prasanto K. Roy is chief editor of CyberMedia’s ICT publishing group. He can be reached at [email protected])