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July 20, 2021

Data governance

LAHORE: Pakistan perhaps is one of the few countries that is sitting on a huge data mine but not benefiting from it in terms of streamlining development and resource mobilisation.

We are indifferent to available data because the common man has no idea of the revolution that data could bring in our lives and economy. The authentic information is a death knell for vested interests that benefit hugely from opaque ways. Even the elected representatives are not interested in serving their constituencies utilising the tentative data available with National Database Registration Authority (NADRA).

NADRA collects information from the applicants of Computerized National Identity Cards (CNICs) embedded with the data of each individual. The information sought includes literacy level (illiterate, matriculate, graduate, or masters). It also has information on the profession of the applicant whether he or she is a doctor, engineer, chartered accountant, architect, teacher or any other profession like plumber, hairdresser or electrician). There is a column that asks whether the applicant is employed or not. Besides blood group any ailment like heart or kidney problem is also sought in the CNIC application. Any physical handicap like deafness, muteness, blindness or mentally-challengedness of the applicant is also recorded.

This data might not be 100 percent correct as NADRA relies on the information provided by the applicant but it surely gives a general status of the population. On the basis of this data the NADRA placed records of each constituency of the National Assembly at the assembly secretariat during 2003-08 periods so that the relevant National Assembly representative could chalk out the best strategy for the development of their area. For instance in constituencies where mentally handicapped population is residing in large numbers, they could have arranged the establishment of special schools. In constituencies with a higher percentage of kidney malfunction, dialysis centers could be built.

Another NADRA initiative was to electronically register all vehicles manufactured in Pakistan. The authority demonstrated the necessity of this proposal by randomly checking 1,000 Pakistani made cars moving on Islamabad roads. It was revealed that a few dozen cars have the same engine/chassis number from the same manufacturers. The cars were registered in different provinces. Electronic chips would have eliminated this fraud. Moreover the chip could have been used to register the name of the owner and subsequent owners after each sale. The NADRA centers could collect the token taxes in each province and deposit them in their respective accounts.

This initiative of full transparency was shelved after stiff resistance from vested interests. This would have eliminated the registration of smuggled vehicles as well (these vehicles are used by the most influential).

For the last five years the state has been trying to make the CNIC number as the national tax number of each card holder. The card holders would then be required to file tax returns each year on a simple form electronically. Those eligible to pay taxes would think twice before filing a non-taxable income return. Each business premises could then be asked to prominently display its national tax number so that any citizen could check the amount of tax paid by that business house from the FBR directory of tax registered persons.

The biometric record of all criminals has been recorded in the Punjab police database. This should have made issuance of a police certificate a matter of a few minutes by checking the database. If someone has a criminal record his/her case could be further investigated but for all others the certificate should be issued promptly. In practice the police certificate might take from 24 hours to more than two weeks, depending upon the influence or ability to pay the rent. The recorded data is not used because it eliminates the graft.

It has been over a year since the government announced the electronic surveillance of manufacturing facilities of sectors suspected of short-filing production. It seems either the surveillance equipment has not been installed or it has been compromised by vested interests. This is the reason there has been no significant increase in revenues from these sectors that include cement, sugar, and beverages. That state machinery does not have the heart to promote transparency as it will deprive them of lucrative income.

It would not be possible to embark on a sustainable growth path without benefitting from authentic available data electronically available in the country it would not be possible. The available data is a low hanging fruit waiting for the ones with the nerves of steel to confront vested interests with iron hands.