ISLAMABAD - Around 30 million cell phone users having SIMs still unverified due to their unclear thumb impressions in Nadra records will have to get new CNICs to keep their phones working.

This was revealed by PTA Chairman Dr Ismail Shah during a lunch hosted by mobile phone companies. “All the SIM owners whose thumb impressions in the Nadra records are not clear would have to get new identity cards; there is apparently no other option, Shah who is an IT expert by profession said.

Shah said 70 million SIMs had been biometrically verified against 54 million computerised national identity cards while 11 million had been blocked. The government is embarking on a major biometric data collection effort to fight terrorism.

The move was initiated by the government under the National Action Plan after the Peshawar Army Public School Massacre in December last, when security forces found that the SIMs used by the terrorists for communication were issued to other citizens while one SIM belonged to a woman residing in a far-flung village.  On the recommendation of top spy agencies, the Interior Ministry geared up the biometric verification of the SIMs. According to Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), there are 136 million cell-phone users in the country. After the start of biometric campaign, new SIMs were issued after biometric verification, however, around 103 million old SiMs required verification.

The phone companies, on the directions of the Interior Ministry, arranged 80,000 machines, each costing $ 400 to read the thumb impressions of users. But retailers started charging from the citizens up to Rs 250 against the officially fixed fee of Rs 10 per verification. Dr Shah seemed helpless when asked who was fleecing the general public. “It is unfortunate that some retailers are charging exorbitant prices; it has nothing to do with the mobile operators, we received many complaints, but we have very limited resources as compared to the magnitude of the population,” he told media persons.

Shah, at a standing committee meeting had justified the overcharging by stating that Rs 20 were going direct to Nadra for the data sharing. But this claim was refuted by Nadra, saying they were only charging Rs 3 per SIM verification.

When asked if Nadra was charging only Rs 3 where the money was going, Shah could not clearly answer the repeated questions of media persons, but admitted Nadra was not charging Rs 20. “I said that earlier; later, Nadra charges were reduced. Those who are overcharging are committing a crime,” he said.

Shah made it clear that there would be no extension in the deadline and after April 12 all unverified SIMs would be blocked. There would be no extension; after expiry of the deadline, all unverified SIMs would be blocked, Shah said.

PTA has been giving the figures of 70 million for more than last one week, strengthening the fears of Nadra that the verification process had been halted due to due to poor quality of machines. And around 20-30 million SIMs could not be verified on account of faulty record of Nadra or defective reading of China-made low-quality machinesbeing used by retailers all over the country.

The mobile operators present at the event denied the machines were faulty. “We are conducting about 1-2 million transactions per day. On account of a heavy load, the machines stop working and need repair. We have procured the best possible machines,” said a top official of the telecom operator.

A large number of media persons and top leaders of all five cellular companies of the country – Mobilink, Telenor, Zong, Ufone and Warid – attended the meeting.