A Discussion Regarding Mr Nilekani’s Public Project

In response to my “Nandan Nilekani’s Nonsensical Numbering”,

Friendly Critic says:

I don’t think registering everyone in the country is such a bad idea. It may be difficult. But the post office reaches letters to anyone in the country, even the homeless. I don’t think it is doing anything wrong.

I replied:

The post office reaches letters to those with an address.

Friendly Critic replied:

You are mistaken. It reaches letters to beggars, addressed to the nearest pan shop. To repeat, I do not think it is wrong to register all residents; there are some good uses for it. If it is all right to enumerate residents once every ten years, there is nothing wrong in maintaining a continuous inventory. Only the British have an aversion to doing so, on grounds of piracy. But even their electoral registers are based on enumeration. And to attack Nilekani simply because he has taken on a job offered seems excessive to me.

I replied:

Thanks for this correspondence.  We may be slightly at cross-purposes and there may be some miscomprehension.  Of course if a beggar has a pan-shop as an address, that is an address.   But we are not talking about the efficiency or lack thereof of our postal services.

We are talking about the viability and utility of trying to attach a number, as an identification tag, to every Indian — for the declared purposes of (a) battling absolute poverty (of the worst kind); and(b) battling terrorism and crime.

Many Indians have passports, driving licenses, Voter cards,  PAN numbers, mobile numbers etc.    I am sure giving them a Nandan Nilekani Number will be easy.  It will be, incidentally, lucrative for the IT industry.

It will also be pointless to the extent that these people, who may number into the hundreds of millions, are already adequately identifiable by one or two other forms of photo id-cards.   (By way of analogy incidentally, Americans used to cash cheques at supermarkets using one or two photo ids — but the Social Security Card or number was not allowed to be one of them as it had no photo.)

Neither of the two declared objectives will have been explicitly served by giving Nandan Nilekani Numbers to those already adequately identifiable.

My point about incentive-compatibility is that the intended beneficiaries in any program of this kind (namely the anonymous absolute poor) need to have clear natural incentives to participate in order to make it work.  Here there are none.  Taking the very poorest people off the streets or out of their hamlets to be interrogated, photographed, fingerprinted and enumerated against their will, when they may have many more valuable things to be doing with their time in order to survive, is a violation of their freedom, privacy and dignity.   Even if they submit to all this voluntarily, there are no obvious tangible benefits accruing to them as individuals as a result of this number (that many will not be able to read).

If those already adequately identifiable easily get an NNN (at low cost and without violation of indvidual freedom or dignity), while those who are the intended beneficiaries do not do so (except at high cost and with violations of individual freedom and dignity), that would enhance inequality.

Because such obvious points have failed to be accounted ab initio in this Big Business scheme paid for by public money, I have had to call it nonsensical.

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