Giving India an identity

June 4, 2012 12:33 pm

The UIDAI aims to get all of India formally recognised by the state

“The true democrat is he who with purely non-violent means defends his liberty and, therefore, his country’s and ultimately that of the whole of mankind.”
– Mahatma Ghandi

Despite India being the biggest democracy in the world, democracy is failing the majority of the country’s inhabitants, with a large number of Indians having no acknowledgment of formal existence by the state.

Nandan Nilekani, an Indian entrepreneur with a net worth of $1.8bn, is seeking to halt the ever-increasing gulf between the affluent classes and the lower class by introducing the largest identity database in the world containing a unique number distributed to the entire 1.2bn population of India.

He said; “These people are living in the shadow world because they don’t have an ID, they cannot keep their money safe, they cannot get a mobile connection, they can’t transfer money home, these are things that you and I take for granted.”

This identification number will finally allow all Indians to indulge in the simplest benefits of 21st century living such as opening a bank account, having a legitimate job and even just owning a mobile phone.

Mr Nilekani, chairman on Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), said, “They don’t have a birth certificate, or they don’t have a school certificate, they don’t have an address and because they have no acknowledged identity then they are denied their basic services.

“To get any service or to get anything you need to prove who you are.”

With the Indian government spending more and more of its budget on social welfare programmes, the increasing vitality of ensuring the right people become the beneficiaries of this aid requires a robust form of identity. Mr Nilekani said, “To reduce leakage and to make sure genuine people are given a foothold in the workplace we must eradicate the problem of inclusion and exclusion.
“Which is; the genuinely deserving get excluded and the undeserving get included.”

The ponderous burden of this task is clearly apparent with UIDAI targeting to enrol 600 million Indians by 2014. Completion of the largest biometric database in the world remains an enigma due to the vast scale of the project. Mr Nilekani said, “The balance (600 million) thereafter is difficult to say when it will be complete because as you reach the last few hundred million it will become more and more difficult, because of geography, remote parts, whatever.

“Basically we are saying we will get to half the population and then we think that eventually we will get to the rest.”

The biometric information captured consists of 10 finger prints, both eyes and a photograph but fears of data duplication and identity theft that would naturally come to the forefront in the western world remain firmly in the background.

Mr Nilekani said, “This has received tremendous support from the people. The fact that 18 million people have enrolled and got their numbers and that another 30 million are essentially enrolled shows that it has been very welcomed.

“I think the western example is not correct because you have numbers. Every guy in the UK has a national Insurance number, he’s got a driver’s licence number. The poor here don’t have anything. The total population is 1.2bn, passports? Maybe 5%.”
The cost of such enrolment is relatively cheap, costing between 100-150 rupees, which is the equivalent to £1.20, but multiply that by 1.2bn people and you have a significant chest of money required.

Taking fingerprints is just part of the biometric information being collected

Beginning the project in September last year UIDAI are currently enrolling 400,000 people a day, a long way off their hope of enrolling a million a day by this time next month, thus it seems the magnitude of this task is becoming apparent with arising technical issues.

Mr Nilekani said, “This hasn’t been done on this scale before, the largest biometric database is 120 million in the US.
“How do you make sure one billion people are accurate? There are lots of such technical challenges.”

Accuracy of data is critical when capturing biometrics and UIDAI’s accuracy rate has come under scrutiny, but Nilekani and his team strongly refute claims that privacy issues will be their downfall.

He said, “No no no, the worst thing that will happen is that you will get rejected the first time and then you could try again, that is all that will happen.
“This is like asking the pilot whether the plane will fly or not on your first time in a plane, so it flies and now when you fly in a plane, you don’t question if it’s going to fly every time.”

Duncan Hewitt

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