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India Begins Project to Issue Biometric Identity Cards to All Citizens

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Anjana Pasricha

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 services.  

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.

Bose's plight 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 poor people.

"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."   

"Nowhere 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 Nilekani.

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.

Oxfam's 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.

She says, 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. 

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