Archive | August, 2009

Combat crimes against women

16 Aug

by Sankar Sen IN THE TRIBUNE

CRIMES against women are steadily increasing in the country. According to National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) Unique Crime Clock, 2005, the country reported one molestation every 15 minutes, one rape every 29 minutes, one murder every 16 minutes and one sexual harassment every 53 minutes.

Crimes against women registered under both IPC (Indian Penal Code) and SLL (Special and Local Laws) have increased sharply from 2002 to 2006. In 2006, a total of 1,64,765 crimes against women were registered all over India in comparison to 1,43,034 in 2002, over 15 per cent increase. The recent National Family Health Survey–III reveals that one-third of women in the 15-49 age group face physical violence and one-tenth sexual violence. About 30 per cent of married women were victims of domestic violence while 25 per cent suffered physical or sexual violence at the hands of the husband in 12 months preceding the survey.

From a comparison of the figures of crimes against women in India with advanced countries as well as neighbouring countries, it could be seen that crimes against women are showing an upward trend everywhere. Statistics from National Violence Against Women survey suggest that in the US, annually 5.9 million incidents of physical assault take place against women of which 76 per cent of the assaults are perpetrated by current or former intimate partners or dates. The condition in other developed countries is no better. The World Health Organization estimates that globally, one woman in five will be the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. In South Africa, a frightening 40 per cent of girls aged 17 or under have been victims of rape or attempted rape.

In countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, the percentage of reported crimes against women is far less than the actual incidence of crime. A large number of cases go unreported because the women victims and their family members are reluctant to report because of the fear of social stigma and shame. In India, most victims are from economically deprived and marginalised sections. They feel scared to complain against the powerful offenders.

Non-reporting of crimes, particularly in cases of rape, is common even in advanced countries. In a study of rape cases in the US, Smithyman concluded but for every 100 rape cases only 25 per cent were reported to the police, 13 per cent were arrested, 9 per cent prosecuted and 9 per cent are convicted. Similarly, the British Crime Survey 2002 estimates that the incidence of rape in 2000 were around 2,000 as against the reported figure of 7,000.

Women face maximum risks of violence from people like intimate partners, close family members, boyfriends or near relatives. According to a research study by the Institute of Social Sciences, sponsored by the Bureau of Police Research and Training, 75-80 per cent of the rape and other sexual assaults crime are committed by offenders known to the victims. In the US, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about one-third of number of crimes against women victims were perpetrated by their intimate partners.

The ISS study further revealed that irrespective of the type and nature of crime, young women between 15 and 30 years who are illiterate or poorly educated and belong to economically weaker sections are highly vulnerable to gender-specific crimes. An analysis of the secondary data compiled by the National Family Health Survey–III and the NCRB also confirmed this conclusion.

In respect of cases of trafficking, the age of girls trafficked from and into India is coming down. In India, girls as young as 10 years of age are being trafficked. The same trend is being witnessed in other countries also due to misconception that sex with young and virgin girls will cure many sexually transmitted diseases and minimise the risks of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Official statistics in India club kidnapping and abduction together. Though both offences are closely related, kidnapping is a crime involving minor girls while abduction involves adult females. Most cases of kidnapping are elopement of girls with their lovers. It will be useful if both crimes are registered under separate categories. A study conducted by New Delhi’s Centre for Women’s Studies aptly reveals that kidnapping and abduction represent two different forms of crime and a more accurate picture of actual abduction of women and girls would emerge if these two subcategories are separated and made into different categories of crime.

In most crimes against women, the accused are able to get away unpunished. For example, in 2006, of the 36,689 cases of domestic violence, which completed trial, only in 8,687 cases that the culprits were convicted. In others, they were either discharged or acquitted due to factors like poor investigation and prosecution, gender insensitivity among police and judicial officers and long delay in trials. All this is helping the accused to repeat similar crimes. Offenders in gender-specific crimes are repeaters.

Police probing crimes against women have to be trained and sensitised. In India, most investigating officers are not professionally competent and do the job in a casual and slipshod manner. Victims have often complained of apathy and insensitivity on the part of the police officers. This can be overcome through humane training and building an organisational culture of respect and concern for women.

In India, women police officers (48625) as on Dec 31, 2006, comprise only 4 per cent of the total police strength. In Haryana and West Bengal, according to the ISS study, women police officers constitute around 3 per cent of the force. Their shortage hampers effective investigation of crimes against women. Moreover, in states with adverse male-female ratio, most crimes against women occur.

To understand the nature and extent of crimes against women and take steps to combat them, victimisation surveys have to be undertaken. In the West, greater reliance is placed on data collected through victimization surveys than on police statistics which are considered unreliable. The British Crime Survey of 2002 reveals that according to their estimates around 60,000 women were reported to have been victims of rape during 2000 as against the figure of 7000 reported by the police in the same year. In India, victimisation surveys similar to those in the UK and the US have become imperative.

Denial of rights such as right to life, right to health and right to education to women and girls is the most crucial consequence of violence against women. Studies in many countries have shown high levels of violence during pregnancy resulting in risk to the life of both the mother and unborn foetus.

Crime and violence against women has a depressing effect on children. They develop various complex psychological and behavioral problems leading to the lack of concentration in studies, depression, difficulties in socialization etc. Studies suggest that the violent behaviour of males as grown ups was a result of their being witnesses to domestic violence in their childhood.

The writer, a former IPS officer, is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi


Why are political parties silent on khaps?

16 Aug

These so-called panchayats must be banned


IN its lead editorial in The Tribune (July 25), a question is posed in all anguish: “Who rules Haryana?: The law or the khaps?” The answer is resounding: “the khaps”. From meddling into marital affairs to ostracising a family and lynching a young man for violating khap norms of marriage, the institution of khap panchayat in Haryana has traversed its hideous journey from the grotesque to the macabre.

The two marriages in question were not the same gotra marriages as erroneously reported in a section of the media. Grooms and brides in both cases belong to different gotras. Objections to these marriages rest on frivolous grounds — in one case some families of the bride’s gotra residing in her in-laws’ village while in another case the bride and the groom belonging to two neighbouring villages.

Khap panchayat is largely a Jat institution around Delhi. It is a gotra-centric body covering a cluster of villages dominated by a particular gotra of Jats. All the members of a khap are supposed to be related to one another with ties of blood. This bhaichara (brotherhood) is the basis of solidarity. Marriage within the same khap is a taboo. Even marriage in the gawand (neighbourhood) is frowned upon.

The khap is a medieval institution when Jats were tribals divided into clans. It acted as an instrument of security in an age marked by lawlessness. In modern times, it has outlived its utility when various institutions to maintain law and order are in operation.

The functioning of khap panchayats in Haryana and elsewhere around Delhi poses some fundamental issues which must be given due consideration if the society has to retain its civilised character. First of all, the concept of bhaichara in the khap area which was the raison d’etre of the institution is a myth now. Improved means of communications, transport, mass media and the spread of modern education have exposed the rural youth to the outside world and have led many of them to reject the mores of tribal society. All the members of a khap are no longer regarded as brothers and sisters and the intimacy between the two sexes is getting quite common. When it takes the shape of a matrimonial alliance, this is taken as a threat to the haloed institution of khap and invites barbarous punishment.

Secondly, the khap panchayat has no elective principle. Its so-called mukhias are self-appointed guardians of social mores. It has emasculated the electorally-constituted panchayats which give due representation to women and weaker sections.

Thirdly, It has no idea of symbiotic relationship between tradition and modernity. Tradition untouched by modernity starts stinking while modernity cut off from tradition is shallow. It is the harmonious blend between the two which takes society forward. The lack of this understanding explains its rigidity. In this respect, the Gatwala khap of Malik Jats in Gohana sub-division of Sonepat district of Haryana has proved quite sensible.

In cases of such marriages which recently rocked two villages in the state, the couple is advised to settle at any place other than the village of the groom and the issue is quietly buried. If this flexibility had been shown in the above two cases, the mammoth human tragedy — one young man brutally murdered while another narrowly escaped death after attempted suicide and his family currently living under serious threat — would have been avoided. Ravinder of Jhajjar district has been living with his aunt near Delhi for many years and had agreed to sever all relations with his parents while the deceased Ved Pal of Kaithal district had settled in Punjab.

Fourthly, the observance of khap norms has become impractical with the changing complexion of rural society. For instance, Samchana village has more than 15 Jat gotras. If the khap norm of avoiding matrimonial alliance among these gotras is observed, marriage in this village is well nigh impossible. As such the norms have been relaxed.

There are several villages in the khap belt which have about a dozen of Jat gotras, making matrimonial alliances a nightmare. Then there is a vast tract of land ranging from Fatehbad district in Haryana to Abohar-Fazilka in Punjab and adjoining areas of Rajasthan from Sri Ganganagar district to Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Badmer in Rajasthan where there is no khap system and every Jat-dominated village has almost all the Jat gotras prevalent in that area. Marriage in the same village is quite common in this belt.

Chautala, a village in Haryana, that has produced several leading politicians in the state, has several dozen marriages among its different Jat gotras. Moreover, Punjabi and Bania communities in Haryana are quite flexible in matter of gotras in matrimonial alliances. It is only Jats wedded to khaps who still live in medieval times.

The khap panchayat has become a law unto itself. It has evolved a parallel judicial system. Kangaroo courts are held and fatwas issued. Two ghastly incidents referred to above is not a rare occurrence. Several such episodes have occurred in the state and the culprits went scot- free. It is the kid-glove treatment meted out to khap custodians that has emboldened them to run amuck. A studied silence maintained by the leaders of all the political parties in Haryana except one left party is amazing. Consequently, Haryana has become a killing field for the youths eager for matrimonial alliances of their choice.

The khap panchayat in Haryana sticks out like a sore thumb in the body politic — a diseased part incapable of being cured and hence needs to be amputated. It is time its unconstitutional activities were banned with a heavy hand.

The Rajasthan High Court and the State Human Rights Commission took a suo motu notice of the functioning of the caste panchayats in the state and issued instructions to the state administration to apply a curb on them. The Home Ministry of Rajasthan vide its letter No. P-10(26) Home 13/98 dated February 14, 2001 issued instructions to the law enforcing agencies in the state to curb the unlawful functioning of the caste panchayats in the state. This has gone a long way to keep the monster under leash.

Rapid advance made by Haryana in the material field is regressive in the face of growing moral decay and spiritual atrophy in the state, with a sizeable section of its population fast lapsing into the dark zone of barbarity and depravity. It is like getting all the riches on the earth after selling one’s soul to the Lucifer.

The writer is Member, Administrative Reforms Commission, Haryana, Chandigarh


15 Aug


Honour killings

Interview: Brinda Karat, MP

U.P.: Death by decree

Interview: Kirti Singh, Member, Law Commission

Nothing honourable

Feudal roots

Tamil Nadu: Demons and gods

Drought of justice, flood of funds

15 Aug

P. Sainath in The Hindu

Ask for expansion of the NREGS, universal access to the PDS, more spending on health and education — and there’s no money. But there’s enough to give away to the corporate world in concessions.

Sure, August is proving an unusual month. But what an extraordinary one July was! We celebrated the delivery of the cheapest car in the world and the costliest tur dal in our history within the same 31 days. And it took some work to get there. The price of tur dal was around Rs. 34 a kilogram just after the 2004 elections, Rs. 54 before the 2009 polls, Rs. 62 just after and, now at over Rs. 90, bids for three-figure status.

The euphoria of July also saw Montek Singh Ahluwalia declare that the “worst is behind us.” (Though it must be conceded that he said that even in June and, possibly, earlier.) That’s good. I only wish he had told us when the worst was upon us. It would have been nice to know. Otherwise, it gets hard to appreciate improvement.

As a matter of fact, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar suggest that the worst could be ahead of us. And they don’t mean the swine flu. Both appear to have written off much of the kharif crop. They advise us to buckle up for a further rise in food prices due to the drought they now say affects 177 districts. That they’ve thrown in the towel on the kharif crop is evident in their calling for a more efficient planning of the rabi. Yet, the government had two months during which it could have opted for compensatory production of foodgrain in regions getting relatively better rainfall. But there was no effort at monsoon management.

Even today, there are very useful things that could be done to counter the worst ahead. A positive step taken by the Rural Development Ministry now allows small but vital assets like farm ponds to be created on the lands of farmers through the NREGS. A pond on every farm should be the objective of every government. (Incidentally, this would help hugely with the rabi season. It would also ease the hostility of quite a few farmers towards the NREGS.) A massive expansion of the NREGS will also help cushion the lakhs of labourers struggling to find work and devastated by rising food costs. But it would call for throwing out the entirely destructive 100-days-per-household limit on work under the scheme. With the Prime Minister calling for anti-drought measures on “a war footing,” this should be the time to do it.

The price-rise-due-to-drought warning is a fraud. Of course, a drought and major crop failure will push up prices further. But prices were steadily rising for five years since the 2004 elections, long before a drought. Take the years between 2004 and 2008 when you had some good monsoons. And more than one year in which we claimed “record production” of foodgrain. The price of rice went up 46 per cent, of wheat by over 62 per cent, atta 55 per cent, salt 42 per cent and more. By March 2008, the average increase in the prices of such items was already well over 40 per cent. Then, they rose again till a little before the 2009 polls. And have risen dramatically in the past three months.

The Agriculture Minister appears to have figured out that the stunning rise in the price of pulses may have little to do with drought. “There is no reason,” he finds, “for prices to rise in this fashion merely on a supply-demand gap.” He then goes on to find a valid reason: “blackmarketing or hoarding.” But remains silent on forward trading in agricultural commodities. Many senior Ministers have long maintained that “there is no evidence” that speculation related to forward trading has had any impact on food prices. (The ban on trading in wheat futures was lifted even before the results of the 2009 polls were announced in May. And existing bans on other items have been challenged in interpretation.)

The price rise since 2004 could be the highest for any period in the country barring perhaps the pre-Emergency period. For the media, of course, July was far more interesting for the political price in Parliament over the gas war between the Ambani brothers. When these two barons brawl, governments can fall. Also, how could atta be more interesting than airline tickets (the prices of which fell dramatically over several years)? Food prices might have gone up but airline travel costs went down and those are the prices that mattered.

So the price of aviation turbine fuel became a far more to-be-covered thing as private airlines threatened a strike demanding public money bailouts. At the time of writing, it appears the government will try and make things cheaper for them. These airline owners include some associated with the IPL, which got crores of rupees worth of tax write-offs last year. Maharashtra waived entertainment tax on the IPL. And with so many games held in Mumbai that proved a bonanza for the barons paid for by the public.

There’s always money for the Big Guys. Take a look at the budget and the “Revenues foregone under the central tax system.” The estimate of revenues foregone from corporate revenues in 2008-09 is Rs. 68,914 crore. ( By contrast, the NREGS covering tens of millions of impoverished human beings gets Rs. 39,100 crore in the 2009-10 budget.

Remember the great loan waiver of 2008, that historic write-off of the loans of indebted farmers? Recall the editorials whining about ‘fiscal imprudence?’ That was a one-time, one-off waiver covering countless millions of farmers and was claimed to touch Rs. 70,000 crore. But over Rs. 130,000 crore (in direct taxes) has been doled out in concessions in just two budgets to a tiny gaggle of merchants hogging at the public trough. Without a whimper of protest in the media. Imagine what budget giveaways to corporates since 1991 would total. We’d be talking trillions of rupees.

Imagine if we were able to calculate what the corporate mob has gained in terms of revenue foregone in indirect taxes. Those would be much higher and would mostly swell the corporate kitty for the simple reason that producers rarely pass on these gains to consumers. Let’s take only what the budget tells us (Annexure 12, Table 12, p.58). Income foregone in 2007-08 due to direct tax concessions was Rs. 62,199 crore. That foregone on excise duty was Rs. 87,468 crore. And on customs duty Rs. 1,53,593 crore. That adds up to Rs. 3,03,260 crore. Even if we drop export credit from this, it comes to well over Rs. 200,000 crore. For 2008-09, that figure would be over Rs. 300,000 crore. That is a very conservative estimate. It does not include all manner of subsidies and rate cuts and other freebies to the corporate sector. But it’s big enough.

Simply put, the corporate world has grabbed concessions in just two years that total more than seven times the ‘fiscally imprudent’ farm loan waiver. In fact, it means that on average we have been feeding the corporate world close to Rs. 700 crore every day in those two years. Imagine calculating what this figure would be, in total, since 1991. (Er.., what’s the word for the bracket above ‘trillion?’) Ask for an expansion of the NREGS, seek universal access to the PDS, plead for more spending on public health and education — and there’s no money. Yet, there’s enough to give away nearly Rs. 30 crore an hour to the corporate world in concessions.

If Indian corporates saw their net profits rise in April-June this year, despite gloom and doom around them, there’s a reason. All that feeding frenzy at the public trough. The same quarter saw 1.7 lakh organised sector jobs lost in the very modest estimate of the Labour Ministry. That’s not counting the 15 lakh jobs said to have been lost in just the export sector between September and April by the then Commerce Secretary.

And now comes the drought. A convenient villain to hang all our man-made distress on — and sure to oblige by adding greatly to that distress. A huge fall in farm incomes is in the offing. If the government wants to act on a war footing, it could start with a serious expansion of the NREGS (about the only lifejacket people in districts like Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh have at this point, for instance).

It could launch, among many other things, the pond-in-every-farm programme. It could restructure farm loan schedules. It could start getting the idea of monsoon management into its thinking. It could curb forward trading-linked speculation that was driving one of our worst price rises in history long before the drought was on the horizon. And it could declare universal access to the PDS. That cost could probably be easily covered by, say, cancelling the dessert from the menu of the unending corporate free lunch in this country.

Taking goals of NREGA-I forward

14 Aug

Mihir Shahin The Hindu

Envisioning NREGA-II is important to realise the unfulfilled dreams of NREGA-I, which has failed thus far to break free of the shackles of a debilitating past.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) promises a revolutionary demand-driven, people-centred development programme. Planning, implementation and social audit by gram sabhas and gram panchayats can engender millions of sustainable livelihoods following initial rounds of wage employment. But NREGA-I has had to battle against the legacy of an ignominious past. Rural development programmes over the last 60 years have been dependent on the munificence of the state . They have been implemented top-down, using labour-displacing machines and contractors who have customarily run roughshod over basic human rights.

NREGA is poised to change all that. And there is no doubt that its promise has charged the hearts and minds of the rural poor with unprecedented hopes and expectations. But the first three years of the programme have also shown that NREGA suffers from many ills — leakages and delays in wage payments, non-payment of statutory minimum wages, work only for an average of 50 days per annum as against the promised 100 days, fudged muster rolls, few durable assets and even fewer sustainable livelihoods.

Envisioning NREGA-II is important to realise the unfulfilled dreams of NREGA-I, which has failed thus far to break free of the shackles of a debilitating past. At least seven key elements need to characterise NREGA-II. One, strengthening the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) by providing them requisite technical and social human resource so that plans can be made and implemented genuinely bottom-up. Without a cadre of social mobilisers or lok sewaks (at least one in every village), it is difficult to convert NREGA into a truly demand-driven programme, where works are undertaken in response to the needs and aspirations of a fully aware citizenry. Otherwise, the current practice of works being imposed from above will continue unchecked. And without much greater technical support to the PRIs, it will be hard to stop the backdoor entry of contractors.

Two, there needs to be a renewed focus on improving the productivity of agriculture and convergence to engender allied sustainable livelihoods. NREGA is not the usual run-of-the-mill relief and welfare programme of the past. It is not merely about transferring cash to people in distress. It is about creating durable assets that will ultimately lead to a reduced dependence of people on NREGA. The percentage of agricultural labour households in India who own land is around 50 in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, 60 in Orissa and Uttar Pradesh and over 70 in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. And if we focus on Adivasis, the proportion shoots up to as high as 76-87 per cent in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. Millions of our small and marginal farmers are forced to work under NREGA because the productivity of their own farms is too low to make ends meet. NREGA will become really powerful when it helps to rebuild this decimated productivity of small farms and allows these people to return to full-time farming, thereby also reducing the load on NREGA.

What would accelerate this strengthening of small and marginal farming is the proposal to allow assets creation through NREGA on farmers’ lands. This is element three of NREGA-II and would help the poorest who constitute 80 per cent of farmers in India. It is not entirely clear why certain sections of civil society are opposed to this idea, which will also mitigate the apparent conflict perceived by some Gandhians between small farmers and NREGA. Especially given the just demand for extending the work guarantee of 100 days to every person (as promised in the Congress manifesto), there is need to extend the scope of NREGA to small and marginal farmers’ lands. This remarkably inclusive provision can potentially transform Indian agriculture, which is crying out for greater public investment.

Apparently there is an apprehension that if work is allowed on poor farmers’ lands, the provision will be misused by powerful rich farmers in the village. Let me begin by stating that Magsaysay award winner Deep Joshi believes that NREGA should actually be used for assets creation on all lands, much as in a watershed programme, so that plans can be made and implemented on a watershed basis. I disagree with him only because I feel priority must be given to the poor. But I fail to understand opposition to work on farms of the poor themselves. Misuse of NREGA provisions is a genuine fear but that should be addressed with element four of NREGA-II — strengthening social audit.

Here we have two possible ways forward, what I call MKSS-I and MKSS-II. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) blazed the trail of social audit in Rajasthan. MKSS-I, a process that has been fraught with violent opposition from vested interests, and by the MKSS’ own admission, has been less than successful. MKSS-II refers to the social audit pro-actively promoted by the government of Andhra Pradesh and guided by the MKSS that has achieved unprecedented success. However, this remains a predominantly top-down approach with relatively weak roots. What we need to do is to combine the strengths of MKSS-I with those of MKSS-II, because social audit is undoubtedly the weakest link of NREGA so far, even though it was hailed initially as its most attractive differentia specifica. Pramathesh Ambasta, National Coordinator, Civil Society Consortium on NREGA, is working on a blueprint of a National Authority for NREGA, which should become a matter of serious reflection and debate if we are to strengthen social audit, evaluation and grievance redress, by making them independent of the implementing agency.

Element five has to be more of creative use of information technology (IT), which can greatly strengthen social audit and reduce chances of fraud and leakage. As in Andhra Pradesh, computer systems need to be tightly integrated end-to-end so that any work registered in the system is alive, status-visible and amenable to tracking. Delays at any stage can thus be immediately identified and corrected. The system keeps track of the work from the day the work-ID is generated and flags delays in the payment cycle as soon as they occur. Because the network secures all levels from the ground up to the State headquarters and data are transparently and immediately available on the website, a delay at any stage is instantly noticed by the monitoring system. Free availability of this information on the website also facilitates public scrutiny, greater transparency and better social audit.

IT has one more new dimension. Ever since it was decided to make payments only through banks and post offices, NREGA-I has run into serious trouble caused by delays and corruption in payments. Workers, especially in remote rural India, find it very hard to travel long distances to get money. This promotes a nightmarish variety of malpractices. It is now imperative that we roll out the banking correspondent model using handheld computer devices and mobile phones to all gram panchayats in India by the end of the Eleventh Plan period. The government needs to commit the support required to make this happen in a time-bound manner to achieve unprecedented financial inclusion on the doorstep for our poorest people living in distant hinterlands. The demand-driven, pro-poor unique ID project can play a key role in this regard and also greatly benefit from the demand created by this exercise.

Element six of NREGA-II is a reformed schedule of rates (SoRs). The commitment to pay real (indexed to inflation) wages of Rs.100 a day can never be fulfilled if we continue to use antediluvian SoRs that were meant to serve the “contractor-machine raj.” Using these rates will inevitably underpay labour, especially women. We need gender, ecology and labour-capacity sensitive SoRs that are themselves indexed to the real minimum wage, undergoing revisions with each revision in the statutory wage. Otherwise, complaints of underpaid labour will never cease.

Finally, element seven — the role of civil society, which is crucial in making NREGA realise its potential. Whether it is grass-roots activists assisting PRIs in social mobilisation, developmental NGOs building capacities of panchayats and supporting them in planning and implementing NREGA works, academic institutions helping to improve the standards of evaluation or eminent citizens acting as ombudsmen, there is an urgent need to mandate civil society action in strengthening NREGA. On its part, civil society needs to adopt a strategy of dialogue and support to make NREGA a success. Revamped and revitalised CAPART (Council for People’s Action and Rural Technology) and NIRD (National Institute of Rural Development) based on vibrant partnerships with civil society could help facilitate this change.

Each of these seven elements was part of the original NREGA vision. What NREGA-II will do is to place renewed emphasis on key aspects of this vision and build new strategies to help the programme realise its true potential. It is good that the Ministry of Rural Development is engaging in detailed discussions with various stakeholders as also the Central Employment Guarantee Council before unfurling the NREGA-II blueprint.

(The writer is Member, Planning Commission. Views expressed are personal.)

High-cost, high-risk

2 Aug


The UPA government is going ahead with the ID card project, ignoring criticisms and alternative suggestions.


Nandan Nilekani, Chairperson, Unique Identification Authority.

WITH the appointment of Nandan Nilekani as the Chairperson of the Unique Identification Authority (UIA), it is clear that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has decided to go ahead with the controversial project to provide each Indian citizen with a unique and multi-purpose identity card. The media are abuzz with commentators praising the government for a landmark decision that would “change the face of governance” in India. With contracts worth hundreds of crores up for grabs, the IT industry too is in delight. “Bring them on! We will fix it,” the tech industry appears to be claiming on what is essentially a social problem.

The project was initiated by the National Democratic Alliance government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002. A perusal of its history shows that the dirty groundwork had already been completed under the NDA. The origins of the project can be traced back to the controversial report of the Kargil Review Committee, appointed in the wake of the Kargil War, in 1999. This committee was chaired by K. Subrahmanyam and had as its members B.G. Verghese, Satish Chandra and K.K. Hazari. In its report submitted in January 2000, the committee noted that immediate steps were needed to issue ID cards to villagers in border districts, pending its extension to other parts of the country. By around 2001, a Group of Ministers of the NDA government submitted a report to the government, titled Reforming the National Security System. This report was based largely on the findings of the Subrahmanyam Committee. The report noted:

“Illegal migration has assumed serious proportions. There should be compulsory registration of citizens and non-citizens living in India. This will facilitate preparation of a national register of citizens. All citizens should be given a Multi-purpose National Identity Card (MNIC) and non-citizens should be issued identity cards of a different colour and design.”

In 2003, the NDA government initiated a series of steps to ensure the smooth preparation of the national register, which was to form the basis for the preparation of ID cards. The best way was to link the preparation of the register with the Census of India. However, the Census has always had strong clauses relating to the privacy of its respondents. Thus, the Citizenship Act of 1955 was amended in 2003, soon after the MNIC was instituted.

This amendment allowed for the creation of the post of Director of Citizen Registration, who was also to function as the Director of Census in each State. According to the citizenship rules notified on December 10, 2003, the onus for registration was placed on the citizen: “It shall be compulsory for every Citizen of India to…get himself registered in the Local Register of Indian Citizens.” The rules also specified punishments for citizens who failed to do so; any violation was to be “punishable with fine, which may extend to one thousand rupees”.

In other words, the privacy clauses relating to Census surveys were diluted significantly by the NDA government in 2003 itself.

The UPA government has only carried forward the plans of the NDA government under a new name. The MNIC project was replaced by the National Authority for Unique Identity (NAUID), and placed under the Planning Commission. The NAUID was established in January 2009, after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008. However, the steps to establish it had begun even before the Mumbai attacks.

According to a press release of the government dated November 10, 2008, the Unique Identity (UID) project would serve a variety of purposes: “better targeting of government’s development schemes, regulatory purposes [including taxation and licensing], security purposes, banking and financial sector activities, etc.” The UID will be “progressively extended to various government programmes and regulatory agencies, as well as private sector agencies in the banking, financial services, mobile telephony and other such areas.” As per the interim budget of the UPA government in February 2009, the UIA was established.

The public response to the ID project has been influenced by the liberal praise that the media have showered on it. In fact, the nature of reporting would have one in doubt on whether the praise is for the project per se or for the appointment of the Chairperson. Some commentators hailed Nilekani’s appointment as a first step in the absorption of technocrats into government. It has also been argued that ID cards would increase the efficiency of poverty alleviation programmes. In fact, while better delivery of poverty alleviation programmes is the stated primary objective of the project, it is no one’s doubt that the actual primary objective is to address terrorism.

Indeed, the presence of identity cards for citizens in an electronic format is a welcome measure. In specific sectors/schemes and in specific contexts, it can increase the efficiency of service delivery. At the same time, there are a number of reasons why the UIA project has to be thoroughly critiqued, and even opposed.


First, international experience shows that very few countries have provided national ID cards to citizens. The most important reason has been the unsettled debate on the protection of privacy and civil liberties. It has been argued that the data collected as part of providing ID cards, and the information stored in the cards, may be misused for a variety of purposes. For instance, there is the problem of “functionality creep” where the card can serve purposes other than its original intent. Some have argued that ID cards can be used to profile citizens in a country and initiate a process of racial/ethnic cleansing, as during the Rwanda genocide of 1995. Legislation on privacy cannot be a guarantee against the possibilities of misuse of ID cards.

Two countries where the issue of national ID cards has been well debated are the United States and the United Kingdom. In both these countries, the project was shelved after public protests. Countries such as Australia have also shelved ID card schemes. While China declared its intention to introduce an ID card, it later withdrew the clause to have biometric data stored in such cards.

In the U.S., privacy groups have long opposed ID cards; there was opposition also when the government tried to expand the use of the social security number in the 1970s and 1980s. The disclosure of the social security number to private agencies had to be stopped in 1989 following a public outcry. A health security card project proposed by Bill Clinton was set aside even after the government promised “full protection for privacy and confidentiality”.

Finally, the George W. Bush administration settled in 2005 for an indirect method of providing ID cards to U.S. citizens. In what came to be called a “de-facto ID system”, the REAL ID Act made it mandatory for all U.S. citizens to get their drivers’ licences re-issued, replacing old licences. In the application form for reissue, the Department of Homeland Security added new questions that became part of the database on driving licence holders. As almost all citizens of the U.S. had a driving licence, this became an informal electronic database of citizens. Nevertheless, these cards cannot be used in the U.S. for any other requirement, such as in banks or airlines. The debate on the confidentiality of the data collected by the U.S. government continues to be alive even today.

The most interesting debate on the issue of national ID cards has been in the U.K. With the introduction of the Identity Cards Bill of 2004, the Tony Blair government declared its intent to issue ID cards for all U.K. citizens. Public protests have forced the Labour government to shelve the policy to date. The debate has mainly centred around the critical arguments in an important research report on the desirability of national ID cards prepared by the Information Systems and Innovations Group at the London School of Economics (LSE). The LSE’s report is worth reviewing here.


The report identified key areas of concern with the Blair government’s plans, which included their high risk and likely high cost, as well as technological and human rights issues. The report noted that the government’s proposals “are too complex, technically unsafe, overly prescriptive and lack a foundation of public trust and confidence”. While accepting that preventing terrorism is the legitimate role of the state, the report expressed doubts on whether ID cards would prevent terror attacks through identity theft:

“…preventing identity theft may be better addressed by giving individuals greater control over the disclosure of their own personal information, while prevention of terrorism may be more effectively managed through strengthened border patrols and increased presence at borders, or allocating adequate resources for conventional police intelligence work…. A card system such as the one proposed in the Bill may even lead to a greater incidence of identity fraud…. In consequence, the National Identity Register may itself pose a far larger risk to the safety and security of U.K. citizens than any of the problems that it is intended to address.”

In conclusion, the LSE report noted that “…identity systems may create a range of new and unforeseen problems. These include the failure of systems, unforeseen financial costs, increased security threats and unacceptable imposition on citizens. The success of a national identity system depends on a sensitive, cautious and cooperative approach involving all key stakeholder groups, including an independent and rolling risk assessment and a regular review of management practices. We are not confident that these conditions have been satisfied in the development of the Identity Cards Bill. The risk of failure in the current proposals is therefore magnified to the point where the scheme should be regarded as a potential danger to the public interest and to the legal rights of individuals.”


Secondly, an interesting aspect of the discussion in India is the level of technological determinism on display. It would appear that the problem of citizenship can be fixed by the use of technology. The fact that the UIA is to be headed by a technocrat like Nilekani, and not a demographer, is evidence to this biased view of the government. The problems of enumeration in a society like India’s, marked by illegal immigration as well as internal migration, especially of people from poor labour households, are too enormous to be handled effectively by a technocrat. It is intriguing that the duties of the Census Registrar and the UIA Chairperson have been demarcated, and that the UIA Chairperson has been placed as a Cabinet Minister above the Census Registrar.

Such technological determinism has been a feature of efforts to introduce ID cards in other countries too, such as the U.K. The rhetorical confidence of the U.K. government in the scheme has always sat uncomfortably with its own technological uncertainty regarding the project. Critics pointed out that a slight failure in any of the technological components may immediately affect underlying confidence of people in the scheme as a whole. For instance, the LSE report noted:


Shiv Kumar Chinna Coundar in Mumbai with a temporary ID card issued by a fishermen’s society that allows him to work while waiting for a state-issued ID card, which became compulsory for all fishermen on the open seas after the November 2008 terror attack on Mumbai. The origins of the ID card project can be traced to the Kargil Review Committee report, which noted that immediate steps were needed to issue ID cards to villagers in border districts, pending its extension to other parts of the country.

“The technology envisioned for this scheme is, to a large extent, untested and unreliable. No scheme on this scale has been undertaken anywhere in the world. Smaller and less ambitious systems have encountered substantial technological and operational problems that are likely to be amplified in a large-scale, national system. The proposed system unnecessarily introduces, at a national level, a new tier of technological and organisational infrastructure that will carry associated risks of failure. A fully integrated national system of this complexity and importance will be technologically precarious and could itself become a target for attacks by terrorists or others.”

Blair, nevertheless, was an ardent advocate of the ID card scheme. In an article in The Daily Telegraph, he argued that ID cards were required to secure U.K’s borders and ease modern life, and that “the case for ID cards is a case not about liberty but about the modern world”. Responding to the invocation of modernity, Edgar A. Whitley, Reader at LSE and a member of its research team, noted that “intellectually, technological determinism seemed to us to reduce the intimate intertwining of society and technology to a simple cause-and-effect sequence.”

Thirdly, would the ID card scheme result in an increase in the efficiency of the government’s poverty alleviation schemes? According to Nilekani, the ID card “will help address the widespread embezzlement that affects subsidies and poverty alleviation programmes”. However, it is difficult to foresee any major shift in the efficiency frontiers of poverty alleviation programmes if ID cards are introduced. The poor efficiency of government schemes in India is not because of the absence of technological monitoring. The reasons are structural, and these structural barriers cannot be transcended by using ID cards.


Take one claim – unique ID cards would lead to “better targeting of government’s development schemes”. Here is where the thinking behind the ID cards fails to comprehend the social realities that reduce the access of needy sections to welfare schemes. If we apply the argument to the Public Distribution System (PDS), it would imply that the government could ensure that only BPL households benefit from the scheme. But the most important problem with the PDS in India is not that non-BPL households benefit from it but that large sections are not classified as BPL in the first place.

Further, there are major problems associated with having a classification of households as BPL or APL based on a survey conducted in one year, and then following the same classification for many years. Incomes of rural households, especially rural labour households, fluctuate considerably. A household may be non-poor in the year of survey, but may become poor the next year because of uncertainties in the labour market. How will an ID card solve this most important barrier to efficiency in the PDS?

Yet another claim is that a simple cash-transfer scheme, which can replace existing poverty alleviation programmes, will become possible if ID cards are introduced. To begin with, cash-transfer schemes have not been found to be efficient substitutes for public works schemes in any part of the developing world. In addition, for the same reasons discussed in the context of the PDS, a cash-transfer scheme would also lead to the exclusion of a large number of needy from cash benefits. An ID card cannot be of any help in such scenarios.

Also, the case of BPL cards cited above cannot be considered as a special case. Given that the BPL population has special privileges in many social welfare provisions, this would also be a larger and persistent problem in the use of ID cards for any purpose in the social sector.

Fourthly, the costs involved in such a project are always enormous and have to be weighed against the limited benefits that are likely to follow. In India, the cost estimated by the government itself is a whopping Rs.1.5 lakh crore. Even after the commitment of such levels of expenditures, the uncertainty over the technological options and ultimate viability of the scheme remains. In addition, it is unclear whether recurring costs for maintaining a networked system necessary for ID cards to function effectively have been accounted for by the government.

In the case of the U.K., the LSE report noted that the costs of the scheme were significantly underestimated by the government. The critique of the LSE group on the costing exercise of the U.K. government is a good case study of why the costs of such schemes are typically underestimated. The LSE group estimated that the costs would lie between £10.6 billion and £19.2 billion, excluding public or private sector integration costs. This was considerably higher than the estimate of the U.K. government.

Apart from the reasons discussed above, there are other simple questions for which answers are not easily forthcoming. Suppose a poor household, which has been regularly using the ID card, loses the card. Would that mean that all the benefits to the household will cease until a new card is provided (that is surely to take many weeks in the Indian context)? Why cannot we think of other options, such as providing separate electronic cards for some of the very important schemes? What happens to the use of ID cards in villages that do not even have electricity, leave alone Internet connections?


In conclusion, the ID card project of the UPA government, which is the continuation of a hawkish idea of the NDA, appears to be missing the grade on most criteria. There is no reason to disbelieve the argument that the centralised database of citizens could be misused to profile citizens in undesirable and dangerous ways.

The scheme is extraordinarily expensive. There is an unrealistic assumption behind the project that technology can be used to fix the ills of social inefficiencies. The benefits from the project, in terms of raising the efficiency of government schemes, appear to be limited.

This is not to argue against any form of electronic management of data or provision of services. It may certainly be useful to have an identity card for citizens, which can be made use of in any part of the country for identification as well as for availing themselves of certain minimum benefits. At present, roughly 80 per cent of India’s citizens have an election ID card. The use of this ID card can be easily expanded, with some innovation, to convert it into a master card for a specified set of purposes.

But what is the social benefit of centralising all information and access to welfare schemes into one smart card? Unfortunately, the UPA government has skipped public debate around criticisms and alternative suggestions. •

R. Ramakumar is with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

%d bloggers like this: