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India's ID project catches fancy of US lawmakers

By Lalit K Jha in Washington
Last updated on: July 23, 2009 19:48 IST
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With work poised to begin on providing unique identification cards to all Indians, the ambitious project has already caught the attention in the US, with lawmakers asking the government why it could not implement a similar project here.

"So they (India) are taking on a humongous scale something that we have been struggling with for 20 years," John Cornyn, the Republican Senator from Texas, said this week during a Congressional hearing on the country's employment verification system.

Ex-Infosys Chairman Nandan Nilekani has taken over as head of an authority that will work on the project of giving unique identification numbers and cards to all citizens.

"The predicted cost is three billion pounds for 1.2 billion citizens and will replace what right now is 20 different proofs of identity that are available and require in

the words of the gentleman who's been appointed to head up this project a ubiquitous online database, and that will have to be impregnable to protect against loss of information," Cornyn said. He is also the Co-Chair of the Friends of India Caucus in the Senate. 

Senator Cornyn went on to ask Lynden Melmed, former Chief Counsel, US Citizenship and Immigration Services: "Why is it that we've been struggling for 20 years to do this, Mr Melmed? Do you think it's because we lack the knowledge, or is it a lack of political will?"

Testifying before the Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Melmed said it is partly due to lack of technological capabilities and partly due to reluctance on the part of the people to accept it.

"I think there are two limitations over the past 20 years. The first is technological. "The capabilities that the government has today are far superior than it had 20 years ago, and even the discussion about the issue of an identification document when I have looked at the Congressional testimony from the 1986 debate surrounding a national ID card, it is a different environment and I think Americans are much more comfortable with the use of identification throughout their lives," Melmed said.

"So I think it's a mix of both technological developments and social acceptance of the use of technology. I think more recently, however, it's just a challenge of coordinating employment verification with the other issues related to immigration reform and the recognition that dealing with the workplace with illegal workers in the workplace is inextricably tied to fixing the legal side of the immigration system," Melmed noted. 

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Lalit K Jha in Washington
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