Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric
History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India
How is it that the systems “there” are super simple and systems “here” so complicated and cumbersome”? It’s a question with a familiar ring for many Indians who have lived, travelled or studied abroad—and/or those who had to recently trudge through the ghetto of government regulations to deal with any form of public delivery.
The reason is simple. The system “there” is designed to serve. Seven decades after Independence, the system frequently makes the citizen feel like s/he is a subject under the regime of an occupier, a suspect unless proven innocent. Mercifully, a window of change has been wedged open this month. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his Independence Day speech, said, “‘Ease of Living’ is imperative for an Independent India and we are committed to focus on ‘Ease of Living’ and want to take it ahead.”
The promise and potential of transformation, though, requires the dismantling of the ideology of distrust. The system is riveted in the old, colonial contain and constrain psyche when the need is to enable and empower Indians and India. This calls for a glide path for change. The arc of change encompasses five radial points—mobility, simplicity, flexibility, sensitivity and accountability.
Mobility: Young Indians are mobile, upwardly and geographically. So a number of services which a citizen seeks and uses must be designed to be portable. Census reports tell us that over 450 million people in India were not born in the place they live. This is heartening for a growing economy. However, aspiration is restricted as portability and mobility are trapped in an address affliction.
Almost every government service application requires proof of address—whether it is a bank account, driving licence, passport, mobile subscription or an EPF/PPF account. Not everyone owns a house or has a ready lease agreement. Remember, the bulk of mobile subscriptions are prepaid or on ECS, bank statements are now mailed, as can EPF and PPF be. Why this addiction for address? Why not combine Aadhaar authentication and a communication address to address this affliction?
Flexibility: The saga of passport renewal or change of address is well documented—social media site Quora is flooded with questions on how to. Imagine the passport expires on December 31. Till December 31 the person is kosher, but is rendered suspect—calling for police verification et al—the moment the application is in. Technically, if the person is accused, convicted or restrained by law, it should show up on a database, and if s/he is not on the list what’s the need for the trail of verifications—why not renew online and deliver by courier?
Simplicity: Not every young person wants to be employed. Entrepreneurship, though, is daunted by regulatory friction. Suppose the person wants to register a proprietorship, say as an MSME. This necessitates a bank account. To open a bank account he must produce two government-issued documents. Why two? Why isn’t one—which would be the mandatory GSTN registration number—enough? Does one government department distrust the other?
Sensitivity: India has nearly 140 million people over the age of 60, and by 2030 this number will rise to 180 million. A large number of these senior citizens receive pensions which require them to prove that they are alive. The Jeevan Pramaan facility is a good start, but it still requires the aged person to trudge to a service centre.
What if they are immobile? Doing it at home requires an iris/fingerprint scanner which many may not have or cannot use. This is the age of home delivery economics. E-commerce sites enable trial of glasses by shooting three pics—why not use a date-time stamped camera? Why not accept a video? Other solutions may be better. The point is the need to induct technology to enable and empower people to access services —the young and those who have served generations.
Accountability: Those who access public services can be roughly divided into three segments—those who can pay to get, those who vote to get, and then there is the middle class. Good governance requires citizens to be participants in the process of policy and its implementation. What does the agitated citizen do when s/he wants to support or oppose a policy? What do they do when they want to complain or contribute?
Why not set up a 1-800-Bharat service—funding can be through MPLAD and constituency funds. The service can be IVRS-based in a chosen language as in other customer services where the person can navigate prompts and leave a complaint or suggestion for the local councillor, the MLA or the MP on an issue that s/he is concerned about. The 1-800 can automatically issue token/registration numbers for reference and follow up. The service can also be extended to connect opposition nominees for the areas. Response or lack of it will set the tone of incumbency.
These are a few thoughts. If the government is serious about making this happen, it must eschew the temptation to launch yet another ranking. It should call for a grand challenge of suggestions and solutions from across the country. As a concept, the coinage, ‘Ease of Living’, can truly be an instrument of change, for real reforms where it really matters.