Counting the billions: India starts to empower its people


Andrew Buncombe@AndrewBuncombe
Monday 16 January 2012 11:00
A woman undergoes the data collection process for the identity project
A woman undergoes the data collection process for the identity project

Shambhu Sharma has no passport, no ration book, no voter identity card or anything similar. Four years ago, he said, he was pick-pocketed.

As India tries to provide a unique identity number all of its citizens, it is people like Mr Sharma who provide officials with some of the most testing challenges.

"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. "I cannot even buy a Sim card." The task being undertaken by the authorities is enormous. India's population stands at about 1.2 billion. By 2030, it is predicted the country will have overtaken its Asian neighbour, China, and its population will have reached more than 1.53 billion.

The 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. But officials believe providing citizens with such a number will make the provision and distribution of services more efficient and help to reduce corruption. It will probably also be used to help to control and monitor immigration.

The man overseeing the task is Nandan Nilekani, left, an IT and software pioneer who made his reputation and billion-dollar fortune as a founder of the technology giant Infosys. In 2009, he left Infosys to head the government's ID number project. "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 deals with. He has had to confront a legendarily slow-moving bureaucracy, reported jealousy from government colleagues who covet the cabinet position he was given and concerns from civil rights activists over privacy issues.

Mr Nilekani 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. "This is a form of empowerment," said Mr Nilekani.

Enrolment is voluntary, but the government has advertised heavily to promote the scheme and set up centres in villages and towns across the country.

One centre, near one of Delhi'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 pick-pocketed, 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 to 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."

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