By Erika Kinetz
The Associated Press
MUMBAI, India (AP) — A small square of plastic, no bigger than a credit card, is all that stands between Pralhad Dandekar and his ability to bring home food for his wife and two daughters. It is an identity card issued by the state government that all fishermen in the open seas are required to carry.
Dandekar, a wiry 58-year-old, said he applied for the card two years ago.
“I wait, wait, wait,” he said.
India has a huge identity problem: Too many people like Dandekar struggle to definitively establish who they are. Indians of means can flash passports, driver’s licenses, and credit cards, but the poor rely on a jumble of electricity bills, ration cards, voting cards, and letters from local officials — none of which are foolproof.
That has made it harder for them to get jobs, open bank accounts and establish property rights, stymieing their ability to participate in, and in turn, fuel India’s growth. It has also increased the potential for graft in India’s massive social subsidy programs.
Enter outsourcing guru Nandan Nilekani, the man India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has tasked with identifying India’s masses.
On July 15, Nilekani took over as director of the Unique Identification Authority of India, a new government office that plans to issue national identity cards to all 1.2 billion Indian citizens.
Nilekani, 54, rose to prominence as a founder of Infosys Technologies Ltd., India’s second-largest outsourcing firm, and has become an expert at expounding the revolutionary social potential of technology.
“Identity has become a basis for exclusion,” he said over coffee in Mumbai. “The poor have no access to identity. Therefore all the time they are running around re-establishing their identity.
“Every piece of life becomes easier. Just the simple act of saying I stand by who this person claims he is. Can you imagine the value of that?”
Unlike the United States, top business people in India rarely enter public service.
If Nilekani succeeds, he could inspire others to make the shift.
He is keenly aware, however, that establishing the unique identity of 1.2 billion Indians is very complex.
“It keeps me awake at night, thinking, ‘What the hell have I got into?’” Nilekani said.
The challenge is twofold: He must get everyone — including people in remote tribal areas — an ID card and he must ensure that there are no duplicates.
Nilekani plans to create a central database of names, modeled on India’s electronic securities depository, and use biometrics — probably some combination of fingerprint and facial identification — to ensure that every Indian gets one and only one identification number.
The first batch of ID cards will come out in 12 to 18 months, he said, but declined to specify how long it might take to complete the rollout. The agency’s initial budget is 1.2 billion rupees ($24.6 million), but the total cost will likely be far higher.
“It will take years and years and years,” Nilekani said. “Even if it costs a bit of money, if a few hundred million poor people get better public services, it’s worth its weight in gold.”
Just ask men like Dandekar. The process of getting a fisherman identity card is so predictably and excruciatingly slow that at least three dozen fishermen societies in Mumbai have started issuing temporary identity cards, so people can work while they await their state government ID. Dandekar has one, and that is the only reason he’s able to ply his trade while he waits for his state ID — which became compulsory for fishermen after the November terror attack on Mumbai.
The complexity does not end there.
All those cards are only good in the state of Maharashtra.
“I need a card that will work all over India,” said fisherman Shiv Kumar Chinna Coundar, 38.
“If they gave us a national identity card, then I wouldn’t have to pay chai pani in any state,” Coundar said.
There’s also the question of security. Without a foolproof means to establish a person’s identity, many only hire people they know — cutting off the stream of migrants who pour into Mumbai, hungry for jobs.
Boat owner Laxman Hiraji Dhanur, 60, said he has become more concerned about security since last year’s terror attack on Mumbai.
Five miles off the coast of this sleepy jumble of shanties, Ajmal Kasab, the only surviving attacker, allegedly slit the throat of the navigator of a hijacked fishing boat.
Such stories send a chill through Dhanur.
He said he can never know for certain if people are who they say — or even if they are really Indian citizens. So he, like many others, relies on word of mouth.
“I only hire my relatives and friends,” he said. “If we had a foolproof national identity card, I wouldn’t worry so much.”
He said he might even hire strangers. Writ large, that small shift in attitude could mean easier access to jobs for millions of Indians. And that would surely be a transformation. ♦