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Identity issues in India

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

This is not the first time that India has attempted to use technology to solve the vast challenges it confronts. For instance, by opening up the mobile services to private operators, the country helped citizens leap-frog an archaic, capital-intensive fixed-wire telecommunications network. India now is now the world’s fastest growing mobile phone services market, with 400 million subscribers.

In what is viewed as a refreshing departure from well-worn practices, a leading corporate executive has been roped in by the government to head a critical project. As CEO and then co-chairman of Infosys Technologies, Nilekani has overseen billion-dollar projects for his customers which are some of the world’s largest companies. In the process, he and his co-founders have built up a company with annual revenues of $5 billion. His Infosys stock has made him a billionaire.

But even Nilekani concedes that India’s Unique ID program is complicated and challenging. The Unique Identification Authority of India, which Nilekani chairs, will have to coordinate with thousands of government agencies while battling political and bureaucratic vested interests.

Even as Nilekani gets ready to take over the project, with full autonomy and authority backed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, skeptics are questioning the wisdom of the taxpayer-funded project. “Hopefully, it will not end up like another free-for-all government scheme,” said Chintan Sharma, a worker in the non-profit sector.

Parveen Taj, meanwhile, is oblivious to the government’s grand plans as she goes about collecting documents and witnesses. Taj says she does not care about smart cards. All she wants is a smart system that will recognize that owning a color television set should not disqualify her from the government-sponsored widow’s pension scheme.

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