by March 1, 2000 0 comments

We’re now in the information age, where IT is finding increasing applications, especially in governance. In India’s case, one of the major areas that need attention is the management of population-related statistics or databases, which are usually huge and unwieldy. The Indian population is exploding, and the business of governance is becoming more complex–more departments, posts, institutions, and districts are being created, and legislation is rapid and at times mind-boggling. 

Even though technology is leaping ahead, retention of old methods, ledgers, and systems is common. As a result, “information confusion” seems to afflict public systems perpetually. Delays, which lead to corruption, are also by-products since those involved in the decision-making process are not clear about the rules that need to be applied or even aware of where to look for what. This is due to poor information management, the absence of databases, and the inadequacies in database maintenance and administration. Manual maintenance of such databases, apart from being costly, also leads to inaccuracies that take enormous time and effort to detect and correct.

Several departments of the government expend enormous effort and incur heavy expenditure in
conducting periodic surveys to keep their population databases updated. But one department can’t easily use the data of the other. Also, data updated by one department doesn’t automatically mean that the database of another department will be updated. So, several departments continue with their independent databases and there isn’t any overall database that would give a complete picture about a city or town. The resultant redundancies can well be imagined.

Thus, the election department maintains a database of all voters. The income tax department maintains a separate database of all IT assessees, local bodies maintain lists of property tax and profession tax assessees, trade and building licensees, and so on. The telephone and electricity departments maintain their own list of customers, so do the Water Board, and the commercial taxes department. Each of these databases are structured differently, used for different purposes, and can’t be correlated.

The experience of the income tax department last year was enlightening in this regard. Given the task of widening the assessee base using four criteria (ownership of phone, property, or vehicle, or a visit abroad), they were able to access data from different departments or sources, but it was found that the data from different sources couldn’t be simply merged or correlated. It may take several man-years of programming effort and computer time to arrive at a semblance of a database.

Accuracy is another casualty. For example, ration cards are one area where database discrepancies often exist. These translate into huge costs for the government. Sometimes, the number of ration cards even outstrips the number of households that can possibly exist in a given area.

Recently, a survey of those below the poverty line was conducted. This took several months of heavy work, even after which the results in some cases were startling to say the least. One local body reported 90 percent of families as being below the poverty line. However, when a re-survey was conducted, the figures magically dropped down to around 40 percent. This says a lot about the quality of surveys and their utility. However, even using an existing database would have its problems. Assume that the ration card data is used for this survey so that households with higher levels of income can straightaway be eliminated. However, once the survey is conducted, it may be again difficult to cross-reference between the two databases except through the ration card number. In the meantime, families may have split or shifted, and new cards may have been issued, so that it becomes difficult to pinpoint the exact household that’s referred to by a card number.

The Election Commission has computerized its electoral rolls. This perhaps is the most comprehensive population database existing. If this were required to be cross-referenced with respect to say, the civil supplies database, the only common key would be the door number of the house. However, it’s possible that the street names may not be similarly entered in the two databases–for example, Mt Road, Mount Rd, etc. Similarly, the same name (of an elector or a ration card holder) may be entered in the two databases in different ways. Since no standardized formats for data entry are currently prescribed, it would be virtually impossible to compare, correlate, and cross-reference the two databases. 

So what’s the solution? A unique number for each citizen, if it exists, can be instrumental in saving a lot of money, time and effort. Correlation between the databases maintained by different departments, which is impossible in the present setup, would be possible with such a number.

A possible new scenario
Suppose each citizen had a unique identification number–the “Citizen Identification Number” that would never again be allotted to any other citizen. Then, all the above databases maintained by different departments would carry one additional field containing the Citizen Identification Number (CIN). And it would be compulsory for this number to be quoted in all state-related transactions.

This CIN would introduce the element of correlation between various databases. Citizens would be saved the trouble of keeping track of a variety of numbers such as PAN, sales tax assessment number, passport number, bank account number, property assessment number, electricity, gas, and water connection numbers, etc.

Searching within and across databases would become much more simple, scientific, and rational. It wouldn’t matter if people mispronounced names or names got entered wrongly by the survey staff. As long as the CIN is properly quoted, all problems in respect of pinpointing individuals would vanish.

Moreover, if members of a family are registered as voters, it would be easy to check their possession of a family card. Using the birth and death registration details, it would be easy to identify those reaching the voting age and deleting the names of those dead. If one department conducts a survey using this number, other departments can access and use the details of this survey. And very important, ludicrous and laughable survey results would be a thing of the past since survey data would be verifiable (without the 5 percent or the 1 percent “super-checks” or the so-called “door-to-door” verification, which are as impractical as they’re incorrect). Thus, maintenance of databases by different departments would become synergistic and complementary. A lot of money, effort, and time would be saved. The need for frequent ab initio surveys by different departments would also vanish. 

When land ownership details are requested from the revenue department, usually the data in respect of individuals owning land in a district is available only for that district. But with increasing mobility, many people own land in more than one district. Consolidation of such data across districts is not possible at present; it would become child’s play once CIN comes into being.

If quoting the CIN is made compulsory for all government-related transactions (for a start) enormous benefit can result, apart from ensuring accuracy. No scheme can succeed unless there is an element of compulsion. For instance, unless the production of the identity card is made compulsory for certain transactions, citizens won’t come forward to get themselves registered. Then, the CIN scheme would meet the same fate as the electoral ID card where even after frequent appeals, only 60 percent of the electors have got themselves registered. 

For a start, the following departments can use the CIN for all their databases and related transactions:

  • Elections: voter registration; addition/deletion/modification; bogus voter identification
  • Census: enumeration operations
  • Civil supplies: issue of cards; bogus card identification
  • Local bodies: birth and death registration; property/profession tax assessment
  • Rural development: BPL survey; selection of beneficiaries under IRDP (Integrated Rural

Development Programme), TRYSEM (Training of Rural Youth for Self Employment), DWCRA (Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas)

  • Urban development: BPL survey; selection of beneficiaries under SJSRY
  • Economics and statistics: Periodic economic surveys; occupation
  • Revenue department: ownership of land; community certificate; nativity certificate; income certificate
  • Motor Vehicles department: vehicle registration
  • Commercial taxes department: sales tax assessment and collection
  • Income tax department: Income tax assessment and collection
  • However, this list is only indicative and not exhaustive.

The grammar for such a number or code should be carefully designed to be useful and effective. Though a kind of beginning has been made with the Electronic Photo Identity Card (EPIC) number, which will more or less act as a unique CIN, while contemplating its use, some design and practical issues will have to be addressed. First, the number should be such that it can’t change with space or time. For instance, if a person were to move to Delhi from Chennai permanently, his EPIC number would also change. A permanent citizen number, therefore, shouldn’t be linked to the voting constituency.

Even if a single CIN existed, to access data about a citizen, one would still have to access several databases. This would make analysis for all purposes—whether it’s for policy formulation or for implementation of schemes—difficult. All such problems would vanish if there was a single unified database. This would mean that all departments use and have access to the same database.
In conclusion, it must be stated that with the speed with which information technology is penetrating government at all levels, the day is perhaps not far off when a unified database would become a reality and accurate information would become much more accessible. But before that, we must make a start with

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