Islamabad: Elderly men wait patiently, carefully combing their hennaed beards, while a guitar-playing student entertains the long queue of Pakistanis lined-up to be photographed, fingerprinted and questioned inside a crowded office in the capital Islamabad.
This is the unlikely setting for possibly one of Pakistan’s few success stories — a massive increase in citizens signing up for government identity cards.
Such things rarely top the agenda of a deeply unpopular government, crippled by daily power cuts, a Taliban insurgency and massive corruption.
But bureaucrats say the successful ID registration has dramatically cut the number of ghost voters and is assisting in the distribution of cash payments for the poor and displaced.
“The database has brought a lot of transparency. We signed up so many people,” said Tariq Malik, the 44-year-old chairman of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA).
During elections five years ago, less than half of Pakistani adults had a government-issued ID. Now 91 per cent have the plastic green cards, said Malik, who previously worked as a county technology officer in Michigan in the US.
It is hard to verify such a high rate of registration as Pakistan’s census data is many years out of date.
Malik said registration spiked after the cards were required for poor Pakistanis to qualify for cash payments from the government.
However, some families, while grateful for the cash, say the flow of aid is sporadic.
“One year ago when I received a card, I got 2,000 rupees. They come after every two to three months and give a little bit of money. Now they come only after six to seven months and only give 3,000 rupees,” said Hanifa Meer Beher, 6o, who lives in Karachi’s coastal belt Kaka-pir village.
“This money is not enough and it has not made my life any better. I am a poor woman. Whenever I receive this money, I buy a little bit of flour, rice... I am grateful that I am getting something.”
International donors like the World Bank, who are using the ID database for cash distributions, say they are happy with the system.
The bank helps fund a programme where around 5.5 million poor families who have registered with NADRA get $10 (Dh36) a month.
“More countries are using cash transfers because poor families can choose what to buy and are more likely to get the money on time than aid given in other ways,” said a World Bank spokesman.
Neighbouring India helps its poor via subsidised food or fuel, but much of its aid is stolen and ends up on the black market. Recent efforts to link benefits to identity cards there have been chaotic.
Pakistan’s new ID registrations helped eliminate 37 million ghost voters and add around 44 million real people to electoral roles, said Malik, adding voters can now use their ID number to check their registration by text message. A date has not yet been set for the next election, due in the first half 2013.
In future, the ID database may also help in the fight against tax evasion, fraud and crime, but only if the government uses the information, say sceptics like tax expert Ikramul Haq.
In a country where less than one per cent of citizens pay income tax, NADRA has identified more than two million rich tax cheats, Malik said.
The federal board of revenue estimates tax evasion means as much as US$50 billion is missing from the treasury, money that could be used to upgrade crumbling schools and hospitals.
But so far, Pakistan’s wealthy tax cheats remain untouched, yet authorities, mindful of pressure from the International Monetary Fund, are making noises about cracking down.
“We have so many enemies. The rich, who are not accustomed to pay taxes, pension cartels, politicians who want their voters to get benefits they are not entitled to,” said Malik.
Registering Pakistan’s 180 million population, spread from the Indian Ocean to the Himalayas, meant sending mobile registration vans and skiers laden with bulky equipment to far-flung villages and setting up booths at fairs.
Registration drives were carried out at camps for displaced families who fled fighting along the dangerous mountain regions that border Afghanistan. But registration in the remote and troubled region has been lower than elsewhere.
In conservative towns where women in black or blue burqas scurry through ramshackle bazaars, women-only ID centres were established after the Taliban objected to men taking women’s fingerprints.
Corruption is widespread in Pakistan and its ID database registration operation has not been immune. Local newspapers carry frequent complaints that NADRA staff ask for cash to help the poor or illiterate get their benefits.
Around half of the 20 people Reuters interviewed said that cards often contain deliberate errors and corrections are costly.
“My name is Ikram Khan and they mentioned in my ID card as Ikram Gul. It was their fault but they made me suffer,” grumbled Khan as he waited in line in the frontier city of Peshawar.
In the ancient walled city of Lahore, housemaid Faiza Biti, 29, said she’d been trying for more than a year to change her place of residence but officials kept telling her to pay $50.
Several interviewees said Afghan refugees can get cards illegally by paying around $800. The daily wage for a labourer is about $2.
Malik admits corruption is a problem, but says he is working on eliminating it and has sacked corrupt employees. “We’ve already let more than 160 people go,” he said.
This year, NADRA personnel had their basic pay raised to about $150 a month, a living wage in Pakistan, and wealthy citizens can now pay $10 extra for fast “executive” service, diverting pay-offs into government coffers.
Most citizens grudgingly say NADRA isn’t too bad.
The real question is how the government will use its data. So far, there’s little indication it will force through tough reforms, said Haq, citing the government’s amnesty on tax cheats which starts this month.
Powerful politicians and businessmen continue to dodge the taxman. Police can theoretically use the database to gain information about suspects, but they often lack the training on how to take fingerprints.
Malik said it is up to the government to use NADRA’s information to change Pakistan.
“Our job is to do data analysis,” he said. “The rest of it is up to them.”