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

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 28, 2010; A08

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.

About 600 million Indians will receive a 16-digit identity number by 2014 in the first phase of the project, officials say. The entire project, which includes fingerprints and iris scans, is expected to be finished in eight years.

Officials expect the government will save $4 billion a year by preventing the theft of public funds.

"It has the potential to plug the hole in the leaking bucket that delivers government services and benefits to the poor," said Bibek Debroy, an economist at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "The current identity databases are not clean and have many fake names and addresses and duplication."

Officials also say that existing databases -- for voting, welfare, income tax and passports -- are held by different departments and that there is little information-sharing or verification.

The biometric identity number will be entered every time someone accesses services from government departments, driver's license offices and hospitals, as well as insurance, credit card, telecom and banking companies.

The government also plans to use the database to monitor bank transactions, cellphone purchases, and the movements of individuals and groups suspected of fomenting terrorism. In January, the Ministry of Home Affairs began collecting biometric details of people in coastal villages to boost security because the gunmen in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed 165 people, sneaked into the country from the sea.

Critics say the project will turn India into an Orwellian police state that will spy on citizens' private lives.

"We do not want an intrusive, surveillance state in India," said Usha Ramanathan, a lawyer who has written and lobbied against the project. "Information about people will be shared with intelligence agencies, banks and companies, and we will have no idea how our information is interpreted and used."

People testing the technology say implementing the project is difficult. India lacks a standardized structure for names and addresses -- Indian names can be a single word or even five words long, depending on the region, caste and religion. And in rural areas, addresses are not well defined and many poor workers, like farmers, have lost the ridges and grooves of their fingers after years of manual labor.

"We have large groups of people living deep inside forests with no electricity," said Ram Sewak Sharma, the project's chief executive. "It is a challenge to reach all these people for enrollment and store such a huge database."

Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu in Washington contributed to this report.

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