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Big Brother Modi is Watching India's Bureaucrats

Indian Prime Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi gestures as he speaks during a public rally ahead of the Maharashtra state election in Mumbai, Oct, 4, 2014.

Narendra Modi has earned a reputation as a something of a control freak since becoming Indian prime minister, ordering bureaucrats to throw out office junk and go to work on a public holiday to clean the toilets.

Now he has taken things a step further by launching an electronic surveillance system that will track whether 100,000 government officials are showing up for work on time.

Not only is Big Brother watching the 'babus', as India's pen pushers are known, but the public can also keep track of them through a web site - - that quietly went live at the end of September.

The dashboard of the Biometric Attendance System displays a dynamic, real-time chart of how many people are at work. It is also possible to click through and check when an individual checks in and logs out of the system.

“It all started with the prime minister giving the idea,” said project coordinator Shefali Sushil Dash of India's National Informatics Center, the agency for e-government initiatives.

The system is based on the Aadhaar (Foundation) biometric identity card system launched by the last government that now covers 680 million people, and refines a pilot project launched by techno-bureaucrat Ram Sewak Sharma in the state of Jharkhand.

No sense of intrusion

Using their Aadhaar numbers, more than 50,000 government workers at 148 government bodies in the capital, New Delhi, have been enrolled in the system. The plan is to double that figure.

Staff can clock in using a fingerprint scan at the entrance of their offices. Top-ranking civil servants can do so, without queuing, with devices attached to their workstations.

Dash said there had been “no complaints” from those enrolled in the scheme that it was intrusive. “This system is meant to make people's life easier,” she told Reuters.

Based on a straw poll of his sources, Suhaib Ilyasi, editor of Bureaucracy Today - a magazine for and about Indian bureaucrats - says the response has been positive.

“People like it even though they have to be punctual,” he said. “Officers are government servants. They should be serving the people. There is no sense of intrusion.”

Bullish for India

Keeping the noses of officials to the grindstone is bullish for India, a country where even the most basic bureaucratic task can prove daunting, according to one investor.

“Modi's view is if I get the little things right, if I get the civil servants to work, to clear files, then I'm 80 percent of the way there,” said Avinash Vazirani, manager of Jupiter Asset Management's India fund.

“This is Big Brother stuff but very effective. It's not just the central government. The state governments are trying to emulate this.”

The Prime Minister's Office will also take part in the scheme, said Dash, although it was not clear whether Modi would be enrolled.

Project mastermind Sharma, who holds the rank of secretary at the government's Department of Electronics and Information Technology, could not immediately be reached for comment. The Biometric Attendance System showed he had signed in at work at 13:55:16 p.m. on Thursday.