Connect to share and comment

Identity issues in India

Can an Infosys co-founder solve a Kafkaesque paperwork problem with technology? 1.2 billion people hope so.

A betel vendor waits for the customers as he squats on a pavement in the old quarters of Delhi, June 21, 2009. Millions of Indians like him will benefit from the new Unique ID system being launched. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

BANGALORE — For the past several weeks, Parveen Taj, 34, has been running around in circles trying to get a bank loan to buy a scooter.

In order to get a loan Taj, who works as a household helper in Bangalore’s Bannerghatta Road neighborhood, must first open a bank account. For that, she must furnish proof of address and income.

“I’m busy lining up witnesses to sign on the forms,” said the illiterate Taj. The mountainous paperwork has depleted her patience and killed some of the sweet anticipation of owning a new scooter and climbing another rung on the social ladder.

For millions like Taj in populous, teeming India, the struggle of establishing one’s identity or proving a simple truth like work experience or residential address may be a thing of the past if the government’s ambitious Unique Identification project takes off.

The grand mission that might out-rival the United States’ Social Security Number in scale and sophistication is already off to a determined start. The Manmohan Singh government has drafted Nandan Nilekani, 54, the much-admired co-chairman of India’s second largest outsourcing firm Infosys Technologies to head the project.

Nilekani will get started on July 9 as chairman of the project after exiting Infosys. If all goes according to plan, in two years millions of India’s 1.2 billion population will start getting a Unique ID tagged to their pictures, and fingerprints and other biometric information in a nation-wide database.

The project spells a big move for India where ordinary citizens are befuddled by a jumble of government-provided identities such as the ration card, which facilitates access to subsidized supplies for the needy, a PAN card that identifies tax-paying citizens, and a Voter card that has recently become mandatory to participate in elections.

But beyond merely helping tether all individual information to one identity, the government wants its Unique ID program to help plug massive leaks in government-sponsored social welfare programs. In notoriously corrupt India, it is well-documented that only 5 percent of the subsidies trickle down to the people they are meant for.

The Unique ID may well be the government’s stealth weapon to weed out fraud and bribery. Nilekani admitted as much in an interview. “The ID project will help cut out corruption, which is the mother of all problems,” he said.

The Unique ID project will also allow companies to make health insurance and pension schemes portable, help the government check the influx of illegal immigrants across the border and help official agencies fight terrorism.