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NARROW WINDOW

Nandan Nilekani is a man of action; he has achieved much in life. In a moment of weakness, he decided to serve the nation; at the prime ministerís behest he took on the challenge of attaching a number to every man, woman and child in India. The prime minister had forgotten that his government attaches to every human not just a number, but a name, age, sex, religion, occupation and other attributes once a decade. He could have made Mr Nilekani registrar general of India and asked him to turn the decennial census into a rolling minute-by-minute record. Since he did not, the minister of population was bound to think that Mr Nilekani was encroaching upon his territory and violating his monopoly of power. He also threw doubt on the fledgling organizationís competence: how could it distinguish between legitimate registrables and hominids or terrorists? As is his wont, the prime minister brought the two sides together and made them work out a compromise; once the confrontation subsided, he transferred the home minister to finance.

He also kept control of direct cash transfers, which provide the official rationale for the Unique Identification Authority of India. Once Mr Nilekani overcame official obstacles, UIDAI proceeded with dispatch; he now claims that direct cash transfers will be rolled out in 51 districts on New Yearís day, in 18 states on April Foolís Day, and in the entire country by the following April Foolís Day, which will probably be just a few days before the next general election. His burst of speed has spread panic amongst the traditional progressives; they cannot trust technology, which has enriched Mr Nilekani and millions of others, to serve the poor. Thus Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sansthan has predicted that cash transfers will have a disastrous effect on those dependent upon subsidized foodgrains and other subsidies.

However, Aruna Roy and her followers have a point: it is not cash transfers that the government is going to make, it is bank transfers. While Mr Nilekani may nail down the last man in India by 2014 and give him a number, he cannot give him a bank account. Government bankers do not enjoy giving bank accounts to common men, who have little money, know even less what to do with it, and do not make transactions that might bring banks fat commissions. So they have resolutely dragged their feet when asked to make banking inclusive. And as their guardian and protector, the Reserve Bank has put off giving licences to new banks. Between them, they have sabotaged the other half of the prime ministerís grand scheme. He has endured the filibuster with his characteristic patience. But patience is also another name for inaction, for which he has become unjustly famous. He still has a chance, but the window of opportunity is getting smaller. He could do worse than to make Mr Nilekani governor of the Reserve Bank of India.