Is the World’s Biggest Social Inclusion Program on Target to Succeed?

India’s Unique Identity (UID) project — launched with much fanfare more than two years ago and spearheaded by Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani — is getting increasingly mired in controversy.  Touted as the world’s biggest social inclusion program, this project aims to give a unique identity number to all residents of the country. The UID number is expected to be used primarily as the basis for efficient delivery of welfare services and also for effective monitoring of various government programs.

The UID Authority of India (UIDAI) has the mandate to issue UID numbers to 200 million residents by March 2012. Until now it has issued numbers to around 37 million people and has captured the data for around 100 million. A few weeks ago, the UIDAI sent a proposal to the finance ministry for additional funds to cover the entire population by 2014. But this has been rejected.

The UIDAI finds itself facing obstacles on multiple fronts. The home ministry has said it does not find the data collected by the UIDAI reliable. It wants to collect its own data. This will mean duplication of data and cost. Meanwhile, the planning commission, to which the UIDAI is attached, has raised questions about its administrative structure. It has also asked for an independent financial advisor to monitor its finances and transactions.

In a note to the finance ministry, the planning commission wrote: “UIDAI’s present system represents a major departure from the government of India procedures and removes all built-in checks and balances. We need to relook at [its] administrative structure.” Following this, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India has initiated a pilot performance audit of the UIDAI’s operations. Reacting to these criticisms, the UIDAI has recently recast the role and powers of its financial advisor.

But the UIDAI has been facing flak also from other quarters. Aruna Rao, social activist and member of the National Advisory Council, has characterized the UID program as a dangerous and invasive act. According to her, the UID data will facilitate targeting of certain communities.

In an encouraging move, however, a few days ago Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, offered his full support for the UIDAI. Talking to reporters, Singh said that the issue of duplication of cost and data can be “resolved.” He added: “[The UID’s] performance has been very good until now. I am not in favor of holding back [its] expansion plans.”

The UIDAI is now expected to approach the cabinet for the next phase of its operations to cover the entire population of over 1.2 billion by 2014. The smooth sailing of the UID program is important not just for the immediate benefits it will bring to the millions of Indians who lack any form of identity; it has a role beyond that. Nilekani’s success in seeing the project through despite all hurdles could serve as a beacon for other corporate honchos to jump into the murky waters of Indian politics and bureaucracy and use their expertise to bring about far reaching changes in society.

Nilekani, who was invited by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to head the UIDAI in mid-2009, sees the controversies as a “process of debate” and a natural part of any large scale and transformational project. Talking to daily newspaper Times of India, Nilekani said: “An important lesson I have learned is that in the public space there are a lot more stakeholders with different views. We have to work with them and build consensus, which is what we are doing.”

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