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India Requires Citizens to Register for Biometric Identity Number

An Indian Sikh (C) looks through an optical biometric reader, which scans and individual's iris patterns, during registration for Aadhaar cards or Unique Identification (UID) cards in Amritsar, (File May 24, 2011).

In India, 37 million people have been given biometric identity numbers as part of a gigantic project to provide what is called a unique identification to the country’s one billion plus citizens. The project, which will create a mammoth online database, aims at ensuring that poor people have better access to government and financial services from which they are often excluded.

Ambitious project

Until some months ago, a resident of a poor neighborhood in New Delhi, college student Ashok Kumar, 21, faced a problem. With no identification such as a passport or a driving license, mobile phone operators refused to give him a number.

That changed when Kumar was issued a 12-digit number as part of an ambitious project to give every Indian citizen a biometric identity.

He says with this number as proof of his identity, he was issued a mobile phone number. He has opened a bank account. And when he traveled to Bangalore recently, he showed his biometric number when asked to prove his identity.

Millions of poor people, particularly migrant laborers, face similar problems. Living in slums, on construction sites or even on streets, they have no documents such as residence addresses, passports or income tax certificates to prove who they are. As a result they find it difficult to open bank accounts, get insurance policies or mobile phone numbers.

Registration process

That is changing. One year after launching the gigantic enrollment process, 37 million people have been issued biometric identity numbers. 60 million others have enrolled and will be given the numbers shortly. And starting next month, one million people are expected to register every day for the biometric ID.

The Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, Nandan Nilekeni, calls it “good progress”. He says the long term project of giving 1.2 billion people an identity number is well underway.

It is a gigantic project whose scale is unmatched anywhere in the world. The database created will store the fingerprints and iris scans of all citizens.

Nilekani says the biometric numbers will revolutionize the lives of India’s poor.

“This is really about transformation, it is about giving people who have no identity an identity…it is about building a platform for financial inclusion and micro payments, it is about making access to services easier…at the end of the day our mission is to include the excluded,” he said.

Nilekani says the ID numbers will, for example, make it easier for migrant laborers to send money back to their villages. That apparently simple task poses a challenge for millions of people excluded from the formal financial system.

ID theft

The project is also expected to give officials a new weapon to reduce fraud in India’s multi-billion dollar welfare schemes. Corrupt officials are often accused of putting fake names as beneficiaries of such projects and siphoning off subsidized food or pensions meant for the poor. The biometric numbers will make that difficult.

Challenges in implementing the new identity system remain. The sophisticated biometric technology will have to reach remote dusty villages, tribes living in forests, and insurgent areas before the task of creating the gigantic national database is over.