One of the complexities was that, in order to hand over the NID service to the security services division, a proposal to amend the relevant sections of the 1996 rules of business was sent to the law ministry for amendment. The law ministry, however, did not acquiesce because this would entail an amendment of the National Registration Act 2010 and this would require cabinet approval before being passed in the national parliament. Once passed by the parliament, the initiative could be implemented.
The government had taken a similar initiative in 2009-10, but then too it did not take off due to legal and practical problems. The initiative was taken up afresh in May this year, but the response in the media revealed that it did not have public support. A readers' survey conducted by Prothom Alo indicated that 90 per cent of the respondents were against the initiative.
The election commission has said that over the past two months the number of applications for NID cards has increased significantly. The people want to get their NID cards before the service is handed over. In other words, the people want the process to carry on as present. They apprehend a rigmarole if the service goes to the security services division.
The people have misgivings about the election commission and have many complaints too. But there are not many complaints against the NID wing. It began providing NID cards with photographs from 2007-2008 under the army supervision and has continued to work in a disciplined and organised manner.
Till 2020, the database of 120 million (12 crore) citizens has been updated and NID cards issued. Then when smart cards were introduced, this massive task was also carried out smoothly. There was a shortage of manpower in the wing, with 30 of the 80 to 85 posts remaining vacant. A number of army officers have been working on deputation since 2008 with the NID programme. But despite the various limitations, the work is progressing well and has won people's confidence.
This wing provides NID services to 156 government and private organisations, including mobile phone companies, banks and various government agencies. This support plays an important role in scrutinising various information and data.
And if the voter database is actually more or less accurate and the NID cards are being produced fairly well, then why is this initiative being taken needlessly?
There have been all sorts of serious allegations regarding the past few national and local elections, but not much complaint over the voter database. The database is made in such a way that any complaints can be taken into cognizance and there is less room for error.
The NID cards are made on the basis of this database and the election commission does both the tasks. If the security services division takes charge of providing the NID service, they will have to rely on the database created by the election commission. This will inevitably give rise to two questions. Taken that the election commission's database is accurate, perhaps there are serious errors in preparing the NID card, in the scrutiny or in the distribution of the cards. Why else is this responsibility changing hands? Then again, if the preparation of the NID cards is fine, then there may be problems in the database. That means the security services division, that is, the home ministry, must create the database afresh. Can the home ministry carry out this task?
And if the voter database is actually more or less accurate and the NID cards are being produced fairly well, then why is this initiative being taken needlessly? If the details of the voters have been taken by going from house to house and the database created accordingly, and based on this if the NID cards are made with biometric data and photographs, and there are no significant complaints in this regard, then why is this initiative being undertaken?
A large number of citizens have direct involvement in the process. Their opinion needs to be taken too before such a decision is taken. Prothom Alo ran a survey on this, no matter how limited. The results of the survey are clear.
One of the legal complications is that according to the constitution, only the election commission can create the database. So the security services division will have to collect all the data and information from the election commission. They will also have to use the existing infrastructure and manpower of the election commission to make the ID cards. So the election commission's ID wing can simply carry on the work they are already doing so well. If manpower has to be created anew, that will be time consuming and will also require funds. Who will guarantee the security of the data being passed back and forth between two organisations?
Various licences have been bought for the software being used for the voter registration and other software, and these can be used by the election commission only. Further expenditure will be incurred if the security services division has to purchase those licences again, which will be a sheer waste.
The election commission has said if the ID service is handed over to the security services division, there will be problems in voting by means of the Electronic Voting Machine or EVM. That means the Tk 40 billion (Tk 4000 crore) spent on this equipment will simply go to waste. Many political parties had objected to the use of EVM, but even so the machines were purchased. All this money will go to waste and further funds will be wasted on new tests and trials.
People undoubtedly do have complaints about the NID card service. If there are errors in the ID cards, it is a hassle to get the errors corrected. This is because of the lack of manpower in the NID service wing. The election commission has said that from April 2020 till July 2021, a total of 9.1 million (91 lakh) people registered for NID cards. Around 250,000 applied for replacement of their lost cards and 700,000 for amendments.
The government can increase the manpower and provide the necessary training to accelerate the whole process. If the government's objective is to increase the quality of service, it can be done in this way.
The government should shelve the initiative to handover the service or clearly state why this decision is being adopted. But in absence of any such explanations, the commentaries, analysis and columns in the media express concern that there are political motives behind the move.
People want improved service, whether it is for buying train tickets online, for vaccines, passports or NID cards. The government can provide all support to the organisation that has been providing the NID service so well for so long, so it can improve its service further. Instead of that, if it gives the responsibility to a different organisation anew, is there any guarantee that the quality of service will improve?
* Syed Manzoorul Islam is a writer and former professor of the English department at Dhaka University
* This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir