CITIZEN DATABASE: Why Don’t We Wake up?

Imagine no poll-related violence and booth capturing being reported from
Bihar, or for that matter, any other part of India. The voters just go to a
nearby information kiosk, log on to the election commission’s Web site, punch
in their citizen number, swipe their ID cards and vote. Of course, their
identity is also determined by the biometrics scanners that these outlets have

Forget those nasty scenes and long queues for kerosene or sugar in front of a
public distribution system (PDS) outlet as the government decides to do away
with the subsidy regime. Instead, those below the poverty line (BPL) can now
make purchases through the open market with the same subsidy being made
available to them in cash through a monthly stipend. What’s more, the
beneficiaries just need to walk into an ATM center, swipe their ID cards, key in
their citizen numbers, put hands on the biometrics scanner to confirm their
idendity and walk out with the dole.

The Legacy Systems

Birth registration 40%
Literacy 60%
Driving Licenses: High credibility
< 20% coverage
Ration  >75 coverage but very
low credibility
Electoral Card 50%
Employment record 40% below poverty line

The touts at the passport office have been put on the endangered species list
as a person can use the information kiosk to log on to the Web site of the
regional passport office and send online application. The passport office issues
the passport in less than a week’s time as it is able to verify the person’s
antecedents by simply capturing information from the ID card and cross checking
with the national database. What’s more, as the verification is based on both
biometrics and the unique citizen number, the department does not make a mistake
such as issuing multiple passports to the same person.

If these are not enough motivation to make you all agog to be part of the
citizen database and get your unique citizen number, think about the number of
times you have faced an embarrassing situation just to prove that you are who
you claim to be. All this despite carrying several documents that may simply not
have been attested. According to Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), on an average,
Indian adults waste one day per person, every year in just proving their
identities. Multiply this with the minimum wage of Rs 60 and one can very well
calculate the huge productivity loss for the country–Rs 4,000 crore per annum,
as per a very conservative TCS estimate. Interestingly, one would agree that
most of the individuals who actually have to struggle in providing proof of
their identity earn much more than the minimum wage.

Be it applying for a driving license, telephone connectivity or LPG, getting
an insurance policy or just opening an account in the bank, one’s identity is
always an issue of suspicion. Not to forget the fact that despite showing proof
of residence and other such required documents, there still remains a need for
someone who can introduce you to the bank. What if all this is taken care of by
simply flashing a citizen ID card and through the verification process as
mentioned above. Sounds interesting?

The way out

While it’s a fact that the possibilities such as mentioned in the three
examples might need some time for materializing into a reality; it is also a
given fact that none of these usage can be realized unless there is a proper
mechanism to identify citizens, their needs and potentials. All this–and
everybody will agree–requires a uniform citizen database and technology tools
that would enable datamining by different departments to compare, correlate and
cross-reference their independent information while constantly upgrading any
changes. This calls for intensive use of technology to create a data management
system that will be able to respond to queries from different agencies about
each individual in the country. In other words, this also means that every
citizen has to be identifiable by the system and hence the need for a unique

Vicious to virtuous

Nishan wish list Implication of the new
Secure and unique ID card Offers the only reasonable chance of creating a comprehensive, dynamic and secure database
Biometrics enabled  During its construction, nurture it independent of existing transactional records
Pervasive, no significant loopholes Existing transactional records or the legacy records are not a procedural gateway to Nishan
Backed by computerized database Nishan implementation mechanism should deliberately avoid providing for each and 
every eventuality
Capable of dynamic updation  
Citizen friendly enrolment
Founded on legislation


Build a new national ID system using the legacy database as referece. However, once the project is complete the new database can serve as the referece point for the legacy systems to make their services more efficient

So is the citizen database or the need for a national identity card system (NICS)
primarily aimed at making identification process much simpler for Indians? The
answer lies in understanding what identity is all about. According to Viraj R
Chopra, consultant with TCS and head of the team that has prepared a feasibility
report of implementing the national ID system, Nishan, for the ministry of home
affairs, “Citizen’s ID is the sum total of either their past
transactions.” To make it simple, an individual is recognized either by
organic details like appearance, physical structure and fingerprint or by the
inorganic identity derived from the person’s transactions with varied
institutions, the society and the nation. Hence, inorganically a person’s
identity would be the summation of transactions like education, hospitalization,
travel, mobility, employment, marriage, parenthood awards and honors et al.

Experts believe that it is these sets of citizen information that is needed
the most when it comes to planning for a nation. In fact, an identity
essentially facilitates transactions between individuals and institutions, or in
the nation’s context, facilitates the citizen-to-nation interaction. This
unfortunately is negligible in India as compared to other developed and
developing countries like the US, UK, Germany, Argentina, Malaysia and even
Brazil or China. Nevertheless, like in most of the other countries, the need for
NICS in India has been triggered by the internal security threats.

A long pending issue

In India, the idea for NICS or a similar system was mooted in the early 1950s
with the government of India realizing the need for maintaining a national
population register that would record and reference citizens. Through the 1970s
and 1990s, this requirement assumed alarming urgency with the influx of illegal
immigrants, especially from Bangladesh, threatening to overturn the demographic
balance in several parts of the country. According to estimates, there are
around 18 to 20 million illegal immigrants already residing in the country. Add
to this, facts that the country has ten times the number of illegal immigrants
than the US, a population approximately four times that of the US and is of
one-third size of the US, and one can imagine the magnitude of the problem. What’s
more, India’s GDP at $450 billion is one-fourteenth that of the US, severely
straining its social welfare and basic infrastructure.

Does this mean that the need to distinguish between citizens and non-citizens
should then be the prime driver for initiating such a massive exercise in India?
Also, what is the guarantee that NICS will actually be able to stop, or even
curb, or regulate the influx of illegal migrants? Experts agree that there can
never be a foolproof system to tame this menace and hence no guarantee. However,
it’s a fact that a citizen database and subsequent issuance of citizen ID card
does help a country tackle infiltration more effectively. It also facilitates
anti-insurgency drive, enhances investigative capability of law and order
agencies while providing reference for crime records and judiciary.

Plugging breaches

But that’s not all. While internal security is a national
concern and its breach is one of the prime drivers for a secure ID system, there
are other equally important issues–breaches in economic, social and
administrative security. An authentic citizen database not only helps in
plugging these existing big gaps; it also makes sure they do not become
recurring issues for the country.

Just consider these facts. While there are 20 million
tax-payers in the country, an equal number of citizens are estimated to be out
of the tax net. Equate the present tax payer base with the budgeted IT
collection of Rs 31,950 crore during 2000—01 and one realizes that a million
tax payers contribute Rs 1,600 crore. A proper documentation of citizens will
substantially enhance revenue generation by eliminating tax evasions. Similarly,
while India’s food subsidy bill is around Rs 8,210 crore, an estimated 25% of
the population benefiting through the scheme, actually do not qualify for the
dole. Also, about 10% of the PDS supplies are reportedly diverted to the open
market. All these amount to a serious social and economic breach.

An accurate and dynamic database will not only help the
central and the state governments streamline their utilities management and in
eradicating corruption at all levels, it will also help them move towards the
much hyped e-governance–the government of Andhra Pradesh providing a fitting
example. It will also help the government computerize issuance of welfare and
rehabilitation grants, or any other subsistence allowance from time to time,
making the dream example come true. If only the country is able to mop up tax
revenue from the additional 20 million evaders, India can afford to start
weaving its first social security network.

However, does all these causes actually warrant creation of a
new database and issuance of yet another ID card when the country has already
spent millions in electoral cards, IT PAN cards, passports, ration cards,
driving licenses, birth and education certificates? The answer is yes, because
despite having an exhaustive coverage of the population, the present systems are
not equipped to handle a population figure that is one billion and growing.

What ails the present system?

To understand why the existing ID document systems–and
there are plenty of those in the country–do not fit the bill of serving as a
national database one needs to understand what these systems have actually

While several government agencies in the country have been
conducting surveys and verifications to keep their databases updated, there has
been no attempt whatsoever to standardize the format and analyze the information
captured to project a complete picture of the human resources. Neither has any
attempt been made to link all these data to facilitate their usage. A classic
example of this is the case of the income tax department. In its attempt to
widen the assessee base, the agency, in 1999, decided to use four basic criteria–ownership
of phone, property or vehicle and undertaking of foreign visits. This was a good
move as the department could have got lot of reference data in the form of
ownership numbers, land registrar record and passport details. However, they
soon realized that it would take them several man-years of programming efforts
to arrive at a semblance of this information flowing in from different sources.

Similarly, while the election commission has done a good job
of converting the electoral roll into electronic format and perhaps has the most
comprehensive population database that exists in India, this cannot be utilized
by any other agency in a comprehensive manner for lack of a standardized
datamining facility. Accuracy and the number of citizens covered are the other
drawbacks of the legacy systems. While IT PAN card and the passport enjoy the
highest credibility, the database is too small to be of much use. On the other
hand, ration card has the highest reach but scores lowest in terms of integrity
of the data captured. Also, there has been a considerable skepticism about the
voter’s ID card system with the country actually ridiculing the EC initiative–a
fact proved by the lack of interest amongst the average citizen to register with
the department.

But then how does one ensure that another such attempt to
create a national repository of citizens’ data will not be inflected by the
same maladies and does not suffer the same fate. According to the feasibility
report submitted by the TCS to the ministry of home affairs, the maladies can be
avoided by enacting a legislation to create a special purpose vehicle that would
work independently despite using the several existing databases for reference.

The new game plan

The feasibility report for implementing National Identity
System Home Affairs Network (Nishan), submitted by the TCS to the union home
ministry in August 2000, suggests that the government first needs to enact
legislation through a bill in the Parliament. Creating a dedicated task force to
steer the cause can do this. The next step TCS suggests is the creation of a
national registration authority, and a special purpose vehicle (SPV) that would
implement and sustain the system. The task force would also select equity and
technology consortium leaders, who in turn would finalize partners to handle
these. Finally, TCS recommends that the government of India (GoI) adopt a
market-based data capture mechanism that would use 15,000 franchisee as
collection centers to capture citizen data. The consultant also suggests use of
the state machinery for compiling information in sensitive areas like the
Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, as also in remote rural areas where
accessibility is the key issue.

TCS proposes a five-layer network for Nishan that will be
divided on the basis of functionality. According to it, the 15,000 franchisees
will form the base of this pyramid network. Data captured by these franchisees
will be transferred to 462 distribution centers located in each district
headquarter or area having good optic fiber connectivity. Data from these
distribution nodes will be forwarded to 43 access nodes, all of which will be
located at major urban centers on the department of telecommunication’s
synchronous transmission module (STM) rings. These access nodes will in turn
forward data to the five backbone nodes at Mumbai. Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and
Hyderabad. Finally, data from the backbone layer will be transferred to a
central database, preferably in Delhi, for specific purpose of verification, PIN
and card issuance and storage.

The TCS proposal also suggests that the plan can be
self-sustaining with a little help from the GoI. The agency estimates the total
project cost to be around Rs 4,000 crore–the total capital expenditure being
Rs 1,584 crore and data capture cost hovering at Rs 600 crore. The report
suggests that the GoI needs to pay Rs 10 per card issued to the special purpose
vehicle. It also proposes to charge Rs 50 each from citizens being issued the ID
card. This, experts at TCS feel is a nominal amount that 80% of Indians will be
willing to pay, provided they are convinced of the benefits attached. For the
remaining 20%, those unable to afford the cost, TCS suggests a little cumbersome
route of processing the application through local police station. Remarks
Chopra, "These 20% population would be having negligible transactions with
the state and hence very few would have documents to support their application.
Hence, we will have to refer them to the local police in any case. Starting the
process from a police station for them would at least ensure saving on the time
lag between data capture and verification.

However, warns Tanmoy Chakrabarty, VP, business development,
EDS, "The success of the system depends much on the country’s willingness
to undergo a business process reengineering in terms of how a citizen would
benefit by getting registered with the database and keeping yet another ID card.
The process could add value to the ID document by ensuring hassle-free services
from the government and that could be a big motivation factor." According
to him, the project needs to evolve a value proposition to entice the common man
to be part of the process, which otherwise will become another farce.

Shubhendhu Parth in New

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