Biometric identity project in India aims to provide for poor, end corruption

Millions of Indians, including many migrant workers, lack the proper identification required to access government and financial services.
Millions of Indians, including many migrant workers, lack the proper identification required to access government and financial services. (Rakesh Kumar)
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 28, 2010

In this country of 1.2 billion people, Inderjit Chaurasia could not prove his identity.

When the migrant worker tried to open his first bank account in New Delhi, he was turned away because he had only a driver's license for identification. Then he applied for a government food-subsidy card but was rejected for the same reason.

"Everywhere I go, they ask me for proof of residence and income tax that I do not have," said Chaurasia, 32, adding that he has never voted or paid taxes. "We are migrant workers. We go where the job takes us. Where do we find identity papers?"

Millions of Indians like Chaurasia are unable to tap into government and financial services because they lack proper identification. And, many here say that corrupt officials routinely stuff welfare databases with fake names and steal money meant for the poor.

But a mammoth project underway aims to address that problem by assigning all Indians a unique identity number backed by their biometric details and storing that information in a gigantic online database. The government says the new system -- which its creator calls a "turbocharged version" of the Social Security number -- will cut fraud and ensure that people who need assistance can get it.

By bringing more people into the banking system, Indian officials also hope to raise the number of people paying income taxes, which currently stands at 5 percent.

"A large number of Indians do not have bank accounts. They have no identity papers to establish who they are," said Nandan Nilekani, who was a successful software entrepreneur before joining the government to launch the identity project. "The unique identity will bring in financial inclusion and will also help national security in the long term."

India's plunge into biometric identification comes as countries around the globe are making similar moves.

In 2006, Britain approved a mandatory national ID system with fingerprints for its citizens before public opposition prompted the government to scale back plans to a voluntary pilot program beginning in Manchester.

U.S. senators have proposed requiring all citizens and immigrants who want to work in the country to carry a new high-tech Social Security card linked to fingerprints as part of an immigration overhaul.

Many countries are phasing in passports with computer chips linked to digital photographs or fingerprints, or both, and adopting the U.S. practice of keeping a fingerprint database on all foreign visitors.

But the effort in India might be notable for trying to move the furthest fastest.

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