Why We Need Citizen ID

In the information age, IT is finding an increasing role in
governance. A big gap is the management of population-related statistics or
databases, which are usually huge and unwieldy. There’s been a population
explosion. Government business is becoming more complex, with more departments,
posts, institutions and districts being created. Legislation needs to be rapid,
and at times mind-boggling.

While technology has leapt ahead, retaining the old methods,
ledgers and systems is common. The result is that “information
confusion” seems to perpetually afflict public systems. Delays, which lead
to corruption, are also by-products, as those involved in the decision-making process are either not clear about the rules that need to be applied or even aware of where to look for what. This is again due to poor information management, the absence of databases and the inadequacies in database maintenance and administration. Manual maintenance of such databases, apart from being costly, also leads to inaccuracies that take enormous time and effort to detect-and then there’s subsequent correction.

Several departments of the government conduct periodic
surveys and verification to keep their population databases updated. The effort
taken and the expenditure incurred by each department are enormous. But one
department cannot easily use the data of the other. Also, updation done by one
department does not automatically mean that the database of another department
will be updated. So several departments continue with their independent
databases and there is no overall database maintained that would give a complete
or full picture about a city or town. The resultant redundancies can well be
imagined!

Thus the election department maintains a database of all
voters. The income tax department maintains a separate database of all IT
assessees, local bodies maintain lists of property tax and profession tax
assessees, trade and building licensees and so on. The telephone and electricity departments maintain their own list of customers, so do the water board and the commercial taxes department. Each of these departments maintains a database that is structured differently, used for different purposes, and are absolutely un-correlated or correlatable.

The experience of the income tax department a year ago was
most enlightening. Given the task of widening the assessee base using four
criteria (ownership of phone, property or vehicle, and foreign visits) though
they were able to access data from different departments or sources it was found
that the data from different sources could just not be simply merged or
correlated. It would take man-years of programming effort and computer time to
arrive at a semblance of a database.

Accuracy is another casualty. Ration cards are one area where
database discrepancies often exist. These translate into huge costs for
government. Sometimes the number of ration cards even outstrips the number of
households that can possibly exist in a given area.

Recently a survey of those below the poverty line was taken
up. This took several months of heavy work. Still, the results in some cases
were startling to say the least. One local body reported 90% of families as
being below the poverty line. However, when a re-survey was conducted the
figures magically dropped down to 40%!

This reflects a lot on the quality of surveys and their
utility. Assume that an already existing database, say the ration card data, is
used so that households with higher levels of income can straight away be
eliminated for the purpose of the survey that is to be conducted. However, once
the survey is conducted it may be again difficult to cross reference between the
two databases except through usage of the ration card number. In the meantime,
families may have split or shifted, and new cards may have been issued with the
result that it again becomes difficult to pin point the exact household that is
referred to by a card number.

The election department has computerized its electoral rolls.
This perhaps is the most comprehensive population database in existence. If this
were required to be cross-referenced with respect to the civil supplies database
the only common key would be the door number of the house. However, it is
possible that the street names may not be similarly entered in the two databases
(Depending on how the application form was entered or  how the survey was
done, the same road can be written in different ways: human beings can make out
the names refer to the same road but the computer cannot. Examples: Mt. Road,
Mount Rd.) Also, the same name (of an elector or a ration card holder) may be
entered in the two databases in different ways. Since no standardized formats
for data entry are currently prescribed it would be virtually impossible to
compare correlate and cross-reference the two databases.

How could this have been remedied?

A unique number for each citizen, if it exists, can be
instrumental in saving a lot of money, time and effort. Correlation between the
databases maintained by different departments is simply impossible in the
present set-up due to the lack of such a number.

A new national database

Imagine each citizen being given a unique identification
number, a “Citizen ID number” that would never again be allotted to
any other citizen. Also imagine that all the above databases maintained by
different departments carried just this one additional field containing the
Citizen ID number (CIN). And that it is made compulsory for this number to be
quoted in all state-related transactions.

This CIN would introduce the element of correlation between
various databases that is now lacking. Citizens would be saved the botheration
of needing to keep track of a variety of numbers like the PAN, sales tax
assessment number, passport and bank account numbers, property assessment ,
electricity, gas and water connection numbers.

What would be the other benefits? Firstly, searching within
and across databases would become much more simple, scientific and rational. It
would not matter if people mispronounced names or if names got recorded wrongly
by the survey staff. As long as the CIN is properly quoted all problems in
respect of pin-pointing individuals would vanish. Thirdly, if members of a
family are registered as voters it would be easy to check their possession of a
family card. Using the birth and death registration details it would be easy to
identify those reaching the voting age as well as in deleting the names of those
dead. If any survey is conducted by any department just by using this one
number, any other department can access the details of this survey and also use
it to compare and contrast the status of different individuals.

And very important but ludicrous and laughable survey results
would be things of the past since survey data would be verifiable (without the
5% or 1% “super-checks” or the so called “door-to-door
verification,” which are as impractical as they are incorrect). Thus,
maintenance of databases by different departments would become synergistic and
complementary. A lot of money, effort and time presently wasted by several
departments in carrying out similar surveys again and again and yet ending up
with inaccurate data would be saved. The need for frequent “ab-initio”surveys
by different departments would vanish.

When land ownership details are requested from the revenue
department, usually the data in respect of individuals owning land in a district
is available only for that district. But with increasing mobility, large numbers
own lands in more than one district. Consolidation of such land ownership data
across districts is not possible at present; it would become child’s play once
the CIN comes into being.

If quoting the CIN is made compulsory for all
government-related transactions (for a start), enormous benefit can result,
apart from ensuring accuracy. No scheme can succeed unless there is an element
of compulsion. For instance, unless the production of the identity card or
number is made compulsory for certain transactions, citizens will not come
forward to get themselves registered. This scheme is doomed to the same fate as
the electoral identify card where even after frequent appeals only 60% of the
electors have got themselves registered. Since the public knows that there is no
dis-incentive, an element of casualness has crept in, which is hardly conducive
to the success of any scheme!

The list can go on

The grammar for such a number, or code, should be carefully
designed for it to be useful and effective. A kind of beginning has been made
with the "electronic photo identity card (EPIC) number," which will
act as a unique citizen identification number. While contemplating its use as a
general purpose number, some design and practical issues will have to be
addressed. Firstly, the number should be such that it cannot change with space
or time. For instance, if a person were to move to Delhi from Chennai
permanently, his EPIC number would also change; so the number would have to
change every time a person shifts. A permanent citizen number, therefore, should
not be linked to the voting constituency.

However, even if a single citizen identification number
existed, to access data about a citizen one would still have to access several
databases. This would make analysis for all purposes difficult-whether it’s
for policy formulation or for implementation of schemes. All such problems would
vanish if there was a single unified database, whether for population or for
economic indicators. This would mean that all departments use and have access to
one and the same database.

In conclusion it must be stated that with the speed with
which information technology is penetrating the government at all levels, the
day is perhaps not far off when a unified database would become a reality and
accurate information would become much more accessible. But before that we must
make a start with the CIN.

TK Ramachandran
is collector, Ramnathapuram district, Tamil Nadu
The views expressed here are his own

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