ET, March 25, 2013


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NEW DELHI: The government is having second thoughts about the wisdom of having a national identity card for all Indian residents — an idea that was first mooted by late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, was promised by Congress as part of its 2009 election manifesto, and has been approved by the cabinet on different occasions in the past. At the first meeting of the group of ministers set up under Defence Minister AK Antony to review the proposed expenditure on such cards, ministers raised basic questions about the purpose of issuing resident I-cards — queries that have been already settled or resolved by previous decisions. Over 150 countries issue such national I-cards to their residents, including Germany, Oman, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

“Will the resident identity cards serve any purpose? These cards must serve a larger social purpose which should be demonstrable,” said a senior minister who is part of the GoM, when asked about the dithering over the decision to issue I-cards based on the National Population Register (NPR) being created by the census office.

The worries seem to be political as Congress does not want to spark a debate over who is a resident or who is a citizen. It may be looking to delay the process of issuing I-cards, which would have coincided with the build-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and five major state elections over the next seven months.

“The resident I-cards could unleash a fresh form of politics over Indian citizens versus residents,” admitted a minister.

Any discussion on this subject will throw up the issue of illegal migrants from Bangladesh, an important vote bank in several states like Assam and West Bengal. The Congress brass is also apprehensive that a resident identity card based on biometric (finger print and iris) data collected for the NPR would be seen as a tool that could be used to target minorities.

Nearly Rs 4,000 crore has already been spent on the NPR exercise to collect biometric details of all residents, of the Rs 6,600-odd crore approved by the cabinet for the purpose. But on January 31, the cabinet did not clear the expenditure for issuing I-cards to 82 crore adult Indian residents at a cost ofRs 5,500 crore, feigning confusion between the NPR and Aadhaar numbers being issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).

Home ministry officials had made a presentation to the GoM on March 13 about these I-cards’ utility in addressing security concerns as well as delivering the government’s welfare programmes to the poor — and the executive decisions over the past several years to issue them. But ministers aren’t convinced. “The security applications of NPR cards are not clear,” said the minister quoted earlier, requesting anonymity. “If someone runs away after triggering a blast, how will having an NPR card help? Police enquiries also result in tracing such people even without identity,” he pointed out.

Another minister who is part of the GoM said security concerns flagged by the Indian Navy after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks have already been addressed by the coastal NPR exercise that was conducted on a priority basis. But the exercise covered only 1.2 crore people in 3,331 coastal villages and small towns. Major cities like Chennai and Mumbai and larger towns that dot India’s coastline are yet to be covered, said a senior government official.

In June 2012, the committee on strengthening coastal security against threat from sea had directed the census office to complete the NPR, and issue I-cards to people in all the remaining coastal areas on a priority basis. The National Security Council Secretariat has made a similar request to the home ministry to provide identity cards to people living in the Siliguri corridor in the North-East.

Officials are baffled by the government’s growing reluctance over the issue of such cards despite explicit assurances to Parliament that this would be the logical conclusion of the NPR exercise. They point to Finance Minister P Chidambaram’s approval of the I-card costs following elaborate deliberations by the Expenditure Finance Committee, which over three meetings had settled all the concerns or doubts raised about NPR cards by the Planning Commission, UIDAI and ministries.

“Normally, once the finance ministry okays an expenditure, the cabinet simply ratifies the move as all the pros and cons have been thoroughly examined by the ministry. It’s very unusual for the government to send the issue to a GoM,” a secretary-rank official remarked at a meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office last week to discuss the UPA’s Aadhaar-led ‘game changer’ — direct benefit transfer.

Planning Commission Deputy Chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia and UIDAI chief Nandan Nilekani are special invitees to the GoM that also includes Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and Chidambaram.

The home ministry has requested the Cabinet Secretariat for the GoM to be reconvened soon and is preparing a fresh note on how NPR cards will address security threats in the areas of border management, immigration, counter-insurgency and terrorism.