India's new antipoverty measure: national ID card
The card's introduction, one of the largest IT projects in the world, will eliminate a patchwork of local IDs and is meant to improve the delivery of social services to the poor.
Rasmu is happy she moved to New Delhi, where she and her five small children live in a tarpaulin-and-cardboard shack. Back home in rural Madhya Pradesh, central India, she was unemployed; in the Indian capital she has become a road-builder, earning 2,500 rupees ($52) a month.Skip to next paragraph
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Besides her parents, there is one thing she misses, however, from home: the cut-price rice, wheat, and oil she was entitled to there. Like millions of migrants to India's cities, Rasmu has found her identification documents mean nothing outside her native state. The Below Poverty Line (BPL) card that once helped her children eat is now just a scrap of paper.
It is cases like this that have led India's government to introduce an ambitious new project: a new national identity card that will be issued to every one of the billion-plus population.
Unlike India's other innumerable forms of ID – from birth certificates to tax codes – the new card will be recognized everywhere in the country. It will feature biometric details that will quickly enable identity checks. It will link to a vast database, accessible by numerous government agencies. And its introduction will constitute one of the world's biggest IT projects.
Unlike most government initiatives designed to tackle poverty, the ID card scheme has won near universal approval.
"This is long overdue and much, much, much needed to improve the delivery of public services, something we have been particularly deficient at," says Surjit Bhalla, an economist.
Failures of antipoverty programs lead to skepticism
Poverty reduction is one of the big promises of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who returned to power for a second term in May. But antipoverty schemes are almost always greeted with skepticism here because of the vast quantities of cash that never make it to the intended recipients. While the government spends a tenth of its budget on subsidies, economists reckon more than half miss the target.
Take Mehender Kumar, a father of three who earns 3,000 rupees ($63) a month rifling through heaps of rubbish in New Delhi for plastic bottles he can sell. He says he has applied for a BPL card three times – to no avail. Yet he knows several shopkeepers, he says, who earn several times his salary and possess a BPL card.
The new ID card will make it easy to stop such fraud. "At the moment, leakage [of money intended for the poor] is around 60 percent but the ID card could bring it down to 10 percent," says Mr. Bhalla. "This represents huge savings for the government, but much more important, it means getting subsidies to the poor people who really need them."