For India's Undocumented Citizens, An ID At Last

Mar 1, 2012
Originally published on March 1, 2012 12:18 pm

Some 75,000 babies are born every day in India. The total population is 1.2 billion and climbing. That's a lot of people to keep track of, and the Indian government has struggled to keep up.

Many Indians, especially the poor, don't have any ID, which makes it increasingly difficult for them to be full participants in a society that is rapidly modernizing. But a new project aims to fix that.

"We still have a large number of people in India who don't have any acknowledgment of existence by the state," says Nandan Nilekani, who heads a project that is part of the Unique Identification Authority. "And because they don't have any piece of paper or documents which says who they are, they get left out [and] can't get entitlements."

In 2010, India launched its program to give every citizen a biometric ID number. Armed with laptops, iris scanners and touch pads to record fingerprints, thousands of workers began scouring the country recording individuals' data.

The idea is that if every person's biometric data was collected and linked online, then with the swipe of a thumb, a farmer in rural India or a domestic worker in Mumbai could be properly identified. For many poor people, this could determine whether or not they get government assistance.

The goal is to make everyone more accountable, Nilekani says.

"This project is driven by development considerations. The government is spending billions of dollars on entitlement programs," he says. "This will help it reach the genuine people and reduces diversion and waste in the system."

Registering Millions

At its peak, one million people were registered each day. The program, which is completely voluntary, is set to break its initial target of 200 million by the end of this month.

Despite the progress, there was opposition when the project came up for renewal of its funding. Opponents question the cost of the project. And they highlighted a potential duplication of effort — another branch of the government is simultaneously using biometrics as a way of counting the country's population

But after agreement was reached to share information between the two initiatives, the unique project was extended to reach another 400 million people.

One of those already enrolled is Gulab Chand Sharma. He works at a homeless shelter in New Delhi as a handyman. He also stays at the shelter. He is one of 30 migrant laborers living there who have signed up.

Sharma says he already feels more secure knowing he can identify himself if the police stop him. Also, since he has enrolled to get an ID, he has been able to get a mobile phone, which he couldn't get without one.

"I get many, many more jobs than before. Now people can call me if they need a driver, a mechanic or someone to serve at parties," Sharma says.

Despite the potential benefits, there are privacy and security concerns about the collection and use of biometric data.

Usha Ramanathan, a legal expert in New Delhi, also questions whether this universal ID system is being seen as a magic bullet for all of the problems of India's poor.

"It's being pushed to say that if you get yourself an [ID], maybe you can even get entitlements," she says. "There are no guarantees of services, and they're asking for a re-engineering of all systems to fit in with the UID because the UID has become a solution."

But the head of the project, Nilekani, says at a minimum the ID provides a basic form of personal identification. It will hopefully also provide the infrastructure for more benefits in the future.

"We have designed this identity program as an open platform where applications can be built on this," he says. "But the important thing is now you have a foundation on which you can do that. So we think this will spawn a lot of uses which we can't even comprehend."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As India modernizes at high speed, a lot of its citizens face a fundamental obstacle to enjoying the advantages of progress, especially the poor, many of whom don't have any form of ID. And it's something they need to access government benefits and services. Elliot Hannon reports from New Delhi on an effort to change that.

ELLIOT HANNON, BYLINE: In India, some 75,000 babies are born each day. And the population is 1.2 billion. It's a lot to keep track of and the Indian government has struggled to keep up.

NANDAN NILEKANI: We still have a large number of people in India who don't have any acknowledgment of existence by the state. And because they don't have any piece of paper or document which says who they are, they get left out of anything because they can't get entitlements.

HANNON: That's Nandan Nilekani. He's the head of the Unique ID Project in India that is aiming to fix that. In 2010, India launched its program to give every citizen a biometric ID number. Armed with laptops, iris scanners and touch pads to record fingerprints, thousands of workers began scouring the country recording individual's data.

The idea was if every individual's biometric data was collected and linked online, with the swipe of a thumb a farmer in rural India could be sure to get all of the government assistance he or she is entitled to. The goal is to make everyone more accountable, says Nilekani.

NILEKANI: This project is driven by development considerations. The government is spending billions of dollars on entitlement programs, and this will help to make sure it reaches the genuine people and reduces the diversion and waste in the system.

HANNON: At its peak, one million people were registered each day. And the program, which is completely voluntary, is set to break its initial target of 200 million by this month. Despite the progress, there was opposition when the project came up for renewal of its funding. Opponents questioned the cost and exact aims of the project and they highlighted a potential duplication of effort. Another branch of the government is simultaneously using biometric data as a way of counting the country's population.

But after an agreement was reached to share information between the two initiatives, the Unique ID Project was extended to reach another 400 million people. One of those already enrolled is Gulab Chand Sharma. He works at a homeless shelter in New Delhi as a handyman. Sharma says he already feels more secure knowing he can identify himself if the police stop him. More importantly, since he's enrolled to get an ID, he's also been able to get a mobile phone, which he couldn't get without one.

GULAB CHAND SHARMA: (Through translator) I get many, many more jobs than before. Now people can call me if they need a driver, a mechanic, or someone to serve at parties. Then I go.

HANNON: Despite the potential benefits, there are privacy and security concerns about the collection and use of biometric data. Usha Ramanathan, a legal expert in New Delhi, also questions whether the universal ID is being seen as a magic bullet for all of the problems of India's poor.

USHA RAMANATHAN: It's being pushed to say that if you get yourself an ID today, maybe you can even get entitlements. There are no guarantees of services. And they're asking for a reengineering of all systems to fit in with the UID, because the UID has become a solution and then we have to redefine our problem to suit this solution.

HANNON: But the head of the project, Nandan Nilekani, says at a minimum the ID provides a basic form of personal identification. And it will hopefully provide the infrastructure for more benefits in the future.

NILEKANI: We have designed this identity platform as an open platform where applications can be built on this. But the important thing is now you have a foundation on which you can do that, so we think that this will spawn a lot of uses which we can't even comprehend.

HANNON: For NPR News, I'm Elliot Hannon in New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.