Speaking at a recent event in Washington, D.C., World Bank president Jim Yong Kim praised India’s new Aadhaar ID cards as a shining example of technology being used to advance social welfare. The Indian government has launched an ambitious initiative to eradicate poverty in India by the year 2030, and the cards are being touted as an important instrument for that project.
Aadhaar is a 12-digit number being issued to all Indians by Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). The card stores identification and biometric data for holders, whose photograph, eye scan, and 10 finger prints will be stored in a national database. Health information will eventually be stored as well, with a view to better management of patient care. One third of Indians will have the cards by the end of 2013, and half of them by 2014, according to Nandan Nilekani, head of the UIDAI, the organization charged with spearheading the effort since 2009.
The Indian government and the World Bank president believe that the new card and database will help eradicate Indian poverty by bringing the previously marginalized poor closer to the resources already available to them. Nilekani describes the card as a kind of “internal passport and gateway” ensuring all Indians the proper identification that they need to be able to receive social services such as health, education, and welfare benefits in a “quick and hassle-free” way. The current system of benefit distribution has been plagued by corruption, with many people collecting benefits because of duplicate or false identities. By improving record-keeping, the Aadhaar ID cards are supposed to help eliminate that problem as well.
The card is not without its critics, however. Some charge that it amounts to excessive government surveillance. Others have noted that the Indian government has two large databases in which to capture biometric information, the one for Aadhaar, and another for the National Population Register. It is not yet clear if or how the two databases could be used in complementary ways for the benefit of India’s people.
India is home to approximately 312,000,000 poor people, the largest concentration of poor people in the world. An estimated 100,000,000 Indians do not receive government benefits because they have few or no official personal identification documents. Identifying each of these people by assigning them a national ID card is seen by many Indian and international officials as a way to bring them into the government system in order to extend some of the benefits that have accrued as a result of the country’s economic growth in recent decades. The entire Aadhaar project is expected to cost one billion US dollars.
– Délice Williams