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May 4, 1998


A card for all seasons

Email this story to a friend. It is high time India brought an intelligent and integrated approach to this issue of smart cards

Everybody realises that information technology is the most decisive technology not only for the present but even of the coming century. This is one technology which has wide reach and affects positively every aspect of manufacturing and services.

We can see a logical co-relation between increasing use of IT, especially in
A card for all seasons
CMC promotes Java
NIIT global revenues
STP exports up
More sops for telecom
services. That's where smart cards come in.

A smart card is basically a card on which a chip has been embedded and which has immense power to store information of different types. As the transactions grow, be it in buying or selling or to help the public interact with the government, the cards can play an important role.

In developed countries like the US, a movement towards a cashless society where smart cards rule is already visible. In fact, the experience of VeriFone, a leading company in the transaction automation business, is symbolic of where India is and where the developed countries are. For VeriFone smart cards are designed in Bangalore, manufactured in Taiwan and used in the US.

So we can see India has an advantage in designing software but fall short in the use of smart cards throughout our system.

Some years ago we had an energetic chief election commissioner, T N Seshan, moving for an ID card for election purposes. Recently, we have seen Home Minister L K Advani seek a multi-purpose ID card since only the ration card provides identification in India.

India's dalliance with cards depends upon the intelligence and whims of the powers-that-be. It is high time we brought an intelligent and integrated approach to this issue of cards. A multi-purpose card for every Indian would be ideal. These are some of the purposes it serves:

  • Replaces the ration card.
  • It could act as health card, especially when the carrier needs treatment in emergencies.
  • It could help identify the carrier during the elections.
  • It would help various government organisations keep their statistics up-to-date.

So a systematic attempt has to be made to design the card and to put together the equipment to read such information. A system also has to be devised to ensure the information in the card is kept up-to-date. We need an administrative delivery system that will ensure that anybody who needs a card is given a card, and that too in a limited time.

The designing of the card and the delivery system pose interesting challenges. That we have the software design capability is shown by the VeriFone experience.

The next question is what will be the resources needed. Seshan's experiment in ID card cost about Rs one billion. Advani's card is estimated to cost Rs 20 billlion. So, we have the issue of resources on the one side as well as other administrative issues that we mention but it will be useful if we can have a national debate started first on the use and the implications of the card system and secondly go about using this.

We in this country are very good discussion and theorising. Where we lack is in action. Long ago the administration expert Paul Appeal said, the Indian administration is action-shy. We have now to move on to getting results.

Perhaps the private section can take the lead. If, for instance, we use smart cards in marketing, banking, customer service we can make it easy for the government too to think of smart cards as a means of life in India.

We hear debates about national information highway. We have the National Agenda for Governance talking about the role of IT and India emerging as a software super power. Page 46 of the BJP's election manifesto mentions the role of IT. But if you want to give a real meaning to this rhetoric, you have to see how the common man benefits.

And if you can provide him with a smart card that will as a ration card and an all-purpose ID card, including at election time, perhaps you would have made a good beginning.

Perhaps later, these cards can be designed to serve as credit and debt cards or as customer cards. The possibilities are endless. We are now lacking only in vision and, more important, an immediate action plan. I hope we will get cracking on this critical issue right away.

Previous columns: Critical mass | T.R.a.I | Santa Clause 11(2) | The Broadcasting Bill | The death of distance | S.O.S, getting the message out of the bottle | Force 7 from FICCI | Of railroads and info highways | Techno Politics | Cheating death: Ways to resurrect ITI | The HAM-handed miracle | Electronic governance | Which came first? | The four-engine design | Learning to learn | Heads 'n hands | Post-mortem | Where's the cash | Mr T S Eliot's digital wisdom | Banking on IT | R, R & R | Pots & Pans | The Changing Change | Reality check | Spectrum analysis | Global Slum | Rebooting democracy | Catalysts of change | Educational emergency

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