Counting the billions: India starts to empower its people

A massive scheme to give every citizen a unique identification number will create the world's largest biometric database.

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Shambhu Sharma had arrived with nothing that could prove who he was. He had no passport, no ration book, no voter identity card or anything similar. Four years ago, he said, he was pick-pocketed and everything was taken. As India goes about trying to provide a unique identity number to each of its citizens, it is people like Mr Sharma who provide officials with some of the most testing challenges. The government's scheme accepts 17 separate forms of photo identification and 32 as proof of address, but sometimes there are individuals such as Mr Sharma who genuinely have nothing.

"It creates many problems for me. I cannot open a bank account, or buy rail tickets or a gas cylinder connection. It means I have to get one on the black market," sighed Mr Sharma, who works for an non-governmental organisation. "I cannot even buy a Sim card."

The task being undertaken by the authorities is enormous. India's population currently stands at about 1.2 billion and is growing all the time. By 2030, it is predicted the country will have overtaken its Asian neighbour, China, and that its population will have reached more than 1.53 billion.

The Indian government is dedicated to giving each of its citizens a unique, 12-digit number under a scheme called Aadhaar, or Foundation. By the time it is completed it will be 10 times bigger than the world's current largest biometric database. Some estimates say it will cost a total of £18bn.

The reasoning behind the scheme is straightforward: officials believe that providing citizens with such a number will make the provision and distribution of services more efficient and help to reduce the corruption that infects Indian society. It will probably also be used to help to control and monitor illegal immigration. When the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, launched the scheme 18 months ago in a village in the state of Maharashtra – handing out ID numbers to 10 members of a tribal community – he declared: "The poor did not have any identity proof. Due to this shortcoming, they could not open bank accounts or get ration cards.

"They could not avail the benefits of government welfare programmes because of this, and many times these benefits were pocketed by others. We will give every opportunity to live a dignified life to our poor."

The man overseeing the task is Nandan Nilekani, an IT and software pioneer who made his reputation and billion-dollar fortune as a founder of the technology giant Infosys. It was Mr Nilekani who famously provided the US author Thomas Friedman with the title for his 2005 bestseller, The World is Flat. In 2009, the entrepreneur left Infosys to head the government's ID number project, working from a 1980s office complex designed by the architect Charles Correa, located at Delhi's Connaught Place. Mr Nilekani has given voice to several of the difficulties confronting the task and yet he says good progress is being made.

"We have enrolled 110 million people, we have issued 60 million numbers, " he said. "By March we will have enrolled 200 million but 600 million is the goal by 2014."

It is not just the sheer weight of numbers that Mr Nilekani is dealing with, or the technical and logical challenges. He has had to confront a legendarily slow-moving bureaucracy, reported jealously from government colleagues who covet the cabinet rank position he was given, as well as concerns from civil rights activists over privacy issues. The government will also have to prepare its various departments and service providers with the technology and know-how to make use of the number.

"For us this about empowerment. It's about people who don't have an acknowledged existence by the state, suddenly going from a world of no ID, to a world of online ID. They are leap-frogging in some sense," said Mr Nilekani.

He sees a clear parallel between what he is doing and the recent anti-corruption movement that has gathered momentum in India, led by the social activist Anna Hazare, whose demand for a national ombudsman captured the attention and the imagination of the country's middle-class.

"It's especially relevant to what you would call retail corruption, which people face in their everyday lives," said Mr Nilekani. "Using technology, you can create a portable model of benefits."

He explained that if someone was not getting good treatment from, for instance, a particular food distribution store, they could go elsewhere and use their ID number there, adding: "This is a form of empowerment."

Critics have raised concerns about the project's cost, the efficiency of the technology, the role of the government and the civil liberties implications of creating such a database. One of the most vocal has been R Ramakumar, an associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. On the issue of civil liberties, he asked: "How will the home ministry use this information?"

Enrolment is voluntary but the government has advertised heavily to promote the scheme and set up centres in villages and towns across the country. Recently, a team working out of a former factory in the north of Delhi was inputting data and taking fingerprints and retinal scans. One inputter, Rajendra Singh, said a common problem was grease or dirt on people's hands preventing the fingerprint machine from working. He said it took between two and five minutes to register someone and give them a receipt. (The actual 12-digit number gets sent in the post).

Harpreet Singh, who has a business selling old car parts, was sitting as his fingerprints and retinal scan were completed. He said he had registered eight family members and returned this afternoon to do himself. "It will make things easier because I will have just one number for everything," he said.

Another centre, near one of the city's railway stations, was equipped for dealing with the more difficult cases, when people had no real documents or paperwork. In those cases, an individual can use a photograph clipped to a letter that has been signed by an MP or local elected politician. In the case of Mr Sharma, the man who was pickpocketed, the problem was solved by a government-appointed "introducer", an individual who has already been registered themselves and who knows the person individually. For Mr Sharma, a man who worked nearby, Kersher Singh Rawat, was prepared vouch for him.

Mr Sharma sat down as a young woman entered his biographical details into a laptop computer. He then had the retinal scan and prints were taken of each of his fingers.

"I now plan to get a legal gas cylinder and pay the government price," he said, explaining how he intended to make use of his new ID. "I hope to get a voter card and a ration card."