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The promise of Aadhaar and Digital India

Governing 1.2 billion people with an army of bureaucrats is clumsy

Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

In his interactions with business and technology leaders at Silicon Valley next week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to showcase the potential of the Digital India programme that is expected to build a nationwide digital infrastructure that will allow the government to deliver many services to citizens directly. Predictably, it has led to a firestorm: influential academics in the US and privacy activists in India have issued dire warnings about the programme.

These warnings must be seen against the administrative nightmare that India is turning out to be. Some magnitudes can better help understand the challenges faced by citizens and governments alike. Take a simple number, the population of the country. By the 2011 Census, this number was 1.2 billion people. This is expected to rise to 1.35 billion by 2020. Even if the government is equipped with an army of officials to deliver basic services, it is unlikely that it will be up to the task. In recent years, even trivial administrative tasks—allocating the number of toilets in school; ensuring that doctors and teachers come to work; that government carry out fumigation services and a host of other piffling but essential jobs—have required the intervention of courts just to get the government moving.

It is not difficult to understand this state of affairs. For each official handed out a particular job—say, issuing a certificate required to avail further services, for example an old-age pension or a scholarship—there are thousands of citizens queued up to demand the service. In a perfect world, the official will simply do what is expected of him. That rarely happens to be the case: the mismatch between the number of people demanding a service and the number of bureaucrats delivering them bestows immense discretion in the hands of officials. Even the most dedicated believer in operations research will agree that no easy answers are available to smooth the process of service delivery in the face of such disproportionate numbers.

The Digital India programme—which is expected to be completed in 2019—hopes to sort this by ending the physical interface between those who demand the service and those who deliver them. If implemented properly, it has the potential to greatly reduce discretion and corruption. The project is still in its infancy and the task of creating an India-wide digital infrastructure is hugely ambitious and, like many other government programmes, may leave a gap between what is promised and what is delivered.

The other face of this service delivery system is the Aadhaar number rollout. Once matched with the digital service delivery platform, this combination has the potential to greatly reduce discretion and its other face, corruption. There will be plenty of problems—technical and administrative—but with trial and error, they are likely to be weeded out.

The resistance to these programmes is twofold. On the one hand, there is a fat layer of intermediaries who lubricate the system by smoothing the interface between officials and, for the lack of a better word, supplicants. These intermediaries—local power brokers, low-level politicians and even outright thugs—stand to lose almost everything if Digital India and Aadhaar succeed. On the other hand are activists and academics who fear for the destruction of the right to privacy. Some of these concerns, while somewhat valid, overlook the benefits of direct service delivery. If it were not for their learning, scholarship and genuine concerns, one would be forced to conclude that they see a complete trade-off between service delivery and privacy and that a corrupt and inefficient system is preferable to a seamless process of delivery. This is, of course, not true. These critics are merely misinformed. The government should try to reach out to them and, if possible, address their fears.

It is the danger of bureaucratic resistance that needs some political firefighting. Official resistance may take the form of delays and time overruns in implementing these projects. These impediments must be wiped clean.

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