Backward Bihar goes for the smartest cards

India has launched its first high-tech census. Citizens will be photographed and give 10 fingerprints each. The resultant database will be used to issue identity cards, and later smart cards, to all.

All Indians will welcome high-tech smart cards. Yet the technological lead has been taken not by the Census Commissioner but, astonishingly, by Bihar. This state has just completed a pilot project for smart cards in Patna district, called e-shakti (meaning power from electronic governance). These cards use not just fingerprints but biometric matching of the human iris, which is state-of-the-art technology.

E-shakti has covered 13.5 lakh people in Patna district. It is now being expanded to cover the whole state. This bids fair to be the biggest biometric card scheme in the world.

It may seem crazy that such a high-tech project is being launched in one of India’s most backward states. Yet administrative standards in Bihar are so abysmal that no mere tinkering can check corruption. Only a revolutionary new technology that bypasses traditional avenues of corruption can deliver the goods in Bihar.

In early 2007, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar worried that corruption and bogus muster rolls were jeopardizing his political gamble, to stake his future on bringing development to Bihar. Fellow Biharis were using every trick in the book to evade his anti-corruption measures.

Then he heard that an e-governance consultant based in Chennai, had devised a biometric card that could establish identities beyond all doubt, and thus thwart bogus muster rolls. Clearly such high technology would face challenges in a state where electricity was scarce in the capital and non-existent in most rural areas. Nevertheless, the consultant was invited to Patna to demonstrate his new technology, and he convinced even old cynics.

It was essential to first test the new technology in actual field conditions, learn lessons from the many glitches that would inevitable arise, and work out ways to overcome the glitches. Only them would it make sense to scale the project up to cover the whole state.

So, a pilot project was launched in Patna district. Its immediate aim was to create corruption-proof electronic muster rolls and job cards. At a later stage the smart cards could be used for cash transfers of all sorts of government payments to beneficiaries, from pensions to subsidies. For this, all beneficiaries would need bank accounts. Problem: vast stretches of rural Bihar had no banks. But the RBI had approved a scheme for village shopkeepers to act as business correspondents of banks. So, the shopkeepers could act as mini-branches, providing banks accounts for every household that could be accessed by swiping a smart card.

The pilot project revealed many glitches. It proved imperative to launch awareness campaigns using all possible tools, including radio and TV, to sensitise people to the importance and potential benefits of smart cards. Only after such sensitisation did all residents of a village attend camps to get registered. Cynicism about past failed schemes had to be overcome.

In many countries, including the US, the passport authorities scan only two thumbprints per person. But in notorious Bihar, such a system could enable crooks to use their ten fingers to create five separate identities for themselves, and claim multiple benefits. Hence e-shakti was designed to take 10 fingerprints from all people.

Not even this would have deterred innovative crooks. So e-shakti opted for biometric iris detection. This would raise costs and take much more time, but could be truly corruption proof. Ten fingerpints and two irises are hard to fake, even for the most ingenious Bihari contractors.

The machines initially used for scanning fingerprints were very slow, and the quality of images left something to be desired. The equipment and software had to be improved substantially. Speed improvement is an ongoing need.

The software of e-shakti proved to be poorly synchronised with the software of banks. Software improvements were required to overcome the problem.

Initially, experts thought that a memory of 32 kb would be enough for the smart cards. Experience showed otherwise. The memory has now been upgraded to 64 kb, with a provision for further expansion to 80 kb. This increases the cost per card, but is essential for good service delivery.

Fortunately this is an industry marked by falling costs and rising scale. The Bihar government estimates that the cost of smart cards for the whole state will be Rs 400 crore, which is peanuts for such a large population. This drives home the lesson that, when crafted properly, high technology is not just fast and effective but cheap too. It can benefit the poor and needy no less than software millionnaires in Bengalluru.

What do you think?