First of 1.2 billion ID cards issued in India

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India began the massive task yesterday of issuing unique identification numbers to its 1.2 billion people, many of whom lack documents establishing their identity.

Ten people from India's remote tribal areas received the first identification numbers from the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, and governing Congress Party chief, Sonia Gandhi, in western Maharashtra state.

Without any proof of identity, impoverished people are often unable to open bank accounts or receive benefits, Mr Singh said.

The poor in India do not have passports, driver's licenses or credit cards to prove their identity and are forced to rely on electricity bills, ration cards, voting cards or letters from officials.

The government has not said how long it might take to complete the task. The agency responsible has an initial budget of 1.2bn rupees (£15.5m), but the total cost is expected to be far higher.