India has embarked on an ambitious project to give biometric identity
cards to its 1.2 billion citizens. If implemented, the
project could help millions of poor people gain easier access to public
Forty-two-year-old Renu Bose came to New
Delhi from her village in West Bengal state to work as a house maid,
two years ago. She wants to put some of her meager savings in a bank
to take back to the village when she returns, but she has been unable
to open an account.
Bose says the bank wants her to produce some
proof of identity, but she has none to offer. She cannot authenticate
her address, because she lives in an illegal slum.
is familiar to millions of poor people, especially urban migrants who
pour into the country's big cities every year, in search of work.
India recognizes many proofs of identity such as driving licenses,
passports, birth certificates and ration cards - but many poor people
have none of these. Even if they do have a proof of identity, none are
recognized across the country.
The head of Oxfam India, Nisha
Agarwal, says a lack of identity is a major problem, especially for
urban migrants. As a result, they are excluded from dozens of
government programs which offer cheaper food, jobs or other benefits to
"They remain treated as temporary migrants and,
without that piece of paper, some form of identification, they are not
able to access many of these government schemes that exist now, that
have large funds behind them and could actually make a huge difference
in poor people's lives," said Agarwal.
The government has
embarked on a massive project to address their problems. In the next
four years, it plans to provide all its citizens with a national
identity number. The unique number will be put on an identity card
which will have biometric authentication, such as fingerprints and
photographs. The data will be stored online, creating the biggest such
national database in the world.
One of the country's best know
information technology tycoons, has taken charge of the Unique
Identification Authority of India, which will implement the project.
Nandan Nilekani, a cofounder of one of India's biggest technology
companies, Infosys, calls it an "unprecedented project."
in the world has a database of a billion people been created with
biometrics, and no duplicates. So we are going to be fighting a huge
number of technology challenges. Then there is the whole scale issue.
How do you scale this whole thing up to a billion people," said
The project's main aim is to help improve the delivery
of inefficient public services and cut corruption, which the government
admits results in siphoning off benefits intended for the
underprivileged. For example, fake identity cards are sometimes used
to take away subsidized food grains meant for the poor and which are
then sold for profit.
The first identity cards are expected to be issued in about 18 months.
Nisha Agarwal says the project could be a powerful way of introducing
transparency, reducing bureaucracy and reaching the poor effectively.
But she cautions that it must be implemented in a manner in which
nobody is left out.
"It is very important it is done in an
inclusive manner. Otherwise it will have the opposite effect of
excluding large chunks of poor people and they could become even worse
off than they are today," said Agarwal.
Most poor people, like
housemaid Renu Bose, are unaware that such a project is being
implemented. But when told about it, she sounds happy.
whenever she has tried to get some proof of identity in Delhi, she has
been told she is too old and nothing can be done. She hopes a unique
identity number may change that.