The central government recently appointed you, a Bangalorean, as the head of the ambitious Universal Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), and you accepted. Congratulations. Please address one key question to set the right expectations amongst citizens early on.
In your book, Imagining India, you have rightly recognised that we are a country full of random, disconnected procedures for IDs and ‘ID proofing’. Everything from passports, to phone lines to ration cards to driver licenses, voter rolls, water connections, BPL cards, gas connections, bank accounts and more involves citizens interacting with a local, state or central government agency, PSU or private utilities. A change of address can be a nightmare. And as many, including yourself have noted, our government departments work in isolation, each having its own database with no linkage to other government databases.
The databases are usually not in good shape – problems of data entry, duplicate entries, dead entries, and more. Voter rolls and BPL cards are examples. More importantly, citizens have always had to deal with inconvenience when getting IDs. Given all this, the argument for a universal ID system cutting through crawling bureaucracies and dusty government departments was always going to have appeal, and emotive appeal even.
From what we can gather, in the first phase, the UIDAI is going to focus on helping central government benefit schemes better target hundreds of millions of citizen beneficiaries. This is laudable, but what about state government and local government schemes?
You know well that plenty of transactions at the local level are administered by state and local governments. These could definitely benefit from a universal ID too. In your book, you proposed a cross-cutting approach: whenever a citizen approaches any government agency (local, state, national), PSU, bank et cetera, a Universal ID for them could be issued. Are you going to start off with a pilot-like focus on central government schemes or are you going to straight away go with a multi-level programme across centre, state and local?
It may be worthwhile clearing this up right away. Wish you all the best.⊕