Bridging India’s identity divide with a number

Enrolment of a child for an unique identity number in Delhi The unique number promises India's first unimpeachable proof of identity for its residents

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On a boiling afternoon in the city of Surat in Gujarat state, men and women are rolling into a cavernous hall in the local municipality building to sign up for India's most ambitious plan to give a definitive identity to millions of residents.

It takes all of 10 minutes for each person to have their details keyed into a laptop before they are photographed on a webcam and their fingerprints and iris are scanned in what is also the world's biggest biometric identity exercise.

Since it launched two years ago, 200 million Indians have already signed up to India's "unique identity" (UID) scheme.

By 2014, another 400 million people are expected to enrol to get a 12-digit unique identification number - also called Aadhaar or foundation - fulfilling the scheme's mandate to cover about half of India's people. The Economist magazine calls it an "astonishing outcome" in a country which struggles to meet its most fundamental challenges.

"I have no idea of how this will help me. I have heard that it will do us some good," says Neruben, a municipal sweeper, who is waiting for her turn in the municipality hall, which once served as a Mughal inn.

Faceless existence

Neruben earns 12,000 rupees ($218) a month and has a bank account, a voters' identity card and a Permanent Account Number (PAN) card from income tax authorities which helps in opening bank accounts and filing tax returns. Most Indians are not as fortunate as her.

In pictures: Who am I?


Millions are bereft of what identity scheme chief Nandan Nilekani calls "any form of acknowledged existence", which essentially ends up depriving them of their rights and pushes them into a faceless existence.

Many have no birth certificates or school certificates. About 58% of the children born in India are registered at birth, according to Unicef. Of those who are registered, not all have birth certificates.

In one of the world's fastest growing economies, some 40% of people living in villages don't have bank accounts, the number rising to three-fifths of people living in the east and north-east of India. (It is another matter that more than 40% of India's earners have no savings.) One of the main reasons why they don't have a bank account is that they have no definitive proof of who they are.

Also, identity - when available - is fickle and dubious.

There are more than a dozen documents that are variously accepted as proof of identity - a 'ration card' that enables the poor to buy cheap food and cooking fuel, a voters card which enables people to cast their ballots, a driving licence and a PAN card are only some of them.

But most of these can be obtained in a thriving black market by using fake documents and paying a hefty bribe - a ration card can be purchased for up to 60,000 rupees ($1,095), and in some slums in Mumbai I visited recently, residents openly spoke about "buying" PAN cards for 600 rupees ($11), 10 times the official rate, through agents.

Identity is also not easily movable in India.

'Cycle of documentation'

Papers that people have in villages are often of no value when they move to cities in a country which is witnessing migration on a scale never seen before. So every time a villager travels to a city to work, he is faced with the problem of securing new identification, often by paying bribes.

Sonu Yusuf Sheikh Sonu Yusuf Sheikh has no job because he does not have proof of ID

There is also what project head Nandan Nilekani calls the chokehold of the "cycle of documentation" on people. "To get a driver's licence you need a ration card, to get a ration card you need a birth certificate [and so on]," he says.

The unique identity number aims to equip people with one unimpeachable, portable national identity aimed at helping the poor to access state welfare, open bank accounts and protect them from rampant police harassment. It promises to slash corruption in India's multi-billion dollar rural jobs guarantee scheme by paying salaries through bank accounts linked to the identity number. It will also help pay pensions and salaries, as well as enabling people to obtain cooking gas and mobile phone connections.

Financial inclusion, say enthusiasts for the scheme, is one of the major ways the identity number can change India.

When the majority of people living in India's 60,000 villages have their identity number, they will be able to open bank accounts and access their money without trudging for miles to reach the nearest branch and lose out on a day's wages. (More than 80,000 commercial bank branches across India cater to only 5% of the villages.) Bank representatives - usually local people - will keep some money and use nifty mobile micro-automated teller machines to make instant small deposits and withdrawals.

But biometric identity is a contentious issue all over the world, and the unique number has also raised a number of thorny questions.

Is it an invasion of privacy? Eminent economist Jean Dreze has called it a "national security project in the garb of a social policy initiative". Will the identity database be more reliable than the existing lists of beneficiaries for welfare schemes for the poor? Don't bet on it, says Dr Dreze.

The overwhelming concern is over the danger of restricting civil liberties by creating what one critic of the scheme has called the "infrastructure of authoritarianism".

Last year a parliamentary panel echoed similar sentiments about access and misuse of personal information, surveillance, profiling and securing of confidential information by the government. Authorities insist that there are enough safeguards to ensure the data is secure and protected.

'Something good'

The real problem may be that some have begun believing that the number can be used to track down wrong-doers.

A fisherman holds an identity card in Mumbai Identity is usually not portable in India

"Why can't we use this database to detect criminals? It would be good if we could do so," Anilbhai Biscuitwala, a senior businessman in Surat from the Hindu nationalist BJP party, told me.

Surat is a city heaving with nearly five million people, half of them migrants working in the textile industry and diamond polishing factories. There is an undertow of resentment against many of the migrants, who are suspected to be illegal citizens from Bangladesh.

Again, are people who are signing up voluntarily for the number informed about it? Not many, it would seem.

Most I spoke to during my travels in Maharashtra and Gujarat said they had signed on because their friends, co-workers and family had done so, and because they were told "something good" would come of it.

But somebody like Sonu Yusuf Sheikh, 21, who lost his birth certificate when migrating from his village to a Mumbai slum in search of work, hopes that the unique number will change his life.

"I don't get work anywhere these days because I have no proof of identity and residence. I go for job interviews, but I am rejected because I don't have proof of identity.

"You are telling me about this number. Will it help me get a job?"

Soutik Biswas, Delhi correspondent Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    As a person who has a very rare eye colour that dramtically changes colour in different light conditions from sea-grey to green.

    I'm not sure I'm a fan of using IRIS recognition as part of the identity system. Retinal scans or facial recognition are just as cheap and more robust systems for an AI to spot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    the only use of my Indian PAN card so far was at a US liquor store last year. it provided the required date of birth and my mug shot ... and it worked! woo hoo!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Well ... it's an ambitious plan and ideally a useful document for Indian citizens. But my inner guts and voices whisper, it's just another scheme to hide the unaccountable black funds in the govt treasury!

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Electronic ID's like this are just the sort of thing Stalin, Hitler and others would have loved. Seems to me the world is going barking mad and is totally upside down with the tiny minority ruling the majority in a way totally against anything you would assume from 'democracy'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    "I have no idea of how this will help me. I have heard that it will do us some good" Reminds me of our ID cards plans!

    Unless people can see why they are expected to do something it's mighty hard to get them to do it. They're going to have to sell it a damn site better than they currently are.

    Finally, has demand for this come from the people, or is it something central government wants? Hmmm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I'm still not sure about the benefits of the costly "unique" ID, costing more than Rs18,000 corer! I'm not aware of any person who did not get a job solely because s/he did not have an UID. I know that such excuses are routinely used by many employers for whom they did not select/like."Opposition to the world’s biggest biometric identity scheme is growing"-

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Whenever a new form of identity proof is invented, it was claimed to be "fool poof". It only created more bureaucracy & huge opportunity for some to make money. PAN & voter ID are few such examples.
    Even a parliamentary standing committee concluded-"project is riddled with serious lacunae in its content & execution"-

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    It's a carefully created myth that "unique identity" (UID) can't be faked. It does not take much talent to understand that UID is as vulnerable as any other identity documents in a country where even original passport (using original stationary) can be purchased with fraudulent documents & bribe. Many states like Gujrat are famous for "mundu (head)-cut" passports, sold to anyone who can pay.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    BBC not publishing the comments # 29 and #30 that exposes Soutik Biswas's bias.
    BBC's editorial board already have many complaints on bias and low level journalism of Mr. Soutik.
    Time has come to revamp BBC's Indian web-section sack the editor.

  • Comment number 30.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 29.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    @No.7, its great to know that Pakistan has already implemented a comprehensive database of its residents using the state of the art technology. Did you give an ID to Osama Bin Laden during his stay as well ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I think the Indian gov should be commended for doing something which allows inclusivity of 1m+ pop.
    Reservations should be kept for how this project will evolve in future (crime, migration, etc), as it seems to be a system which could be easily abused, both by gov (and civil depts.) and criminals.
    But for now, Keep It Short & Simple and I don't think they'll go too far wrong...

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    States with the highest enrollments: Andhra Pradesh (43M), Maharashtra (33.8M) & Karnataka (13.4M), with Karnataka outperforming others in proportion of early UID adopters who are underprivileged. Aadhaar’s has optimism for UID-enabled commercial services, like ICICI & Visa.
    Overall, I believe this is an excellent and much-needed program.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    #24 Thats the whole point... that they WILL end up as just another form of ID. 70% of Indians have no ID at all. Can you imagine trying to live in the UK with no ID? No passport, no driving licence, no access to banks or healthcare. Certainly no right to vote & impossible to leave the country (no passport). You couldn't even collect a parcel from the post office without some ID.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Just like an IT project, the technology should only be seen as a tool for achieving an objective, which should be justifiable. In this case we have good technology being used on a project headed by an able person with a clear objective. What is lacking is the justification or rather a clearly defined case for how these cards will be used. Lets hope these dont end up as just another form or ID.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    MILLIONS of Indians who had no modern form of ID, now have one. I have to admit, I am impressed. 170M enrollments in just 20 mos is staggering. Program has encountered some issues = fears of overlap with National Population Register. Study said that if enrollments continue as projected, population of those attaining portable IDs for the first time would be about 300M (25% total population).

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    20. ForceCrag
    You've got an identity - you know who you are. It's no-one else's business.
    Unless you expect the other person to lend you money, give you a job, let you travel on their airline, enter their country, allow you access to weapons or pharmaceuticals, care for vulnerable children or adults etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Study looked at data from 514,000 households (chosen as representative of India). It was found fewer than 30% of Indian households have even ONE PERSON with any one form of portable ID + households with IDs have substantially higher incomes & greater likelihood of a college-educated resident. UID intended goal = bringing new segments of population into the mainstream economic system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    #15. nisha

    "The project is headed by Nandan Nilekani; therefore I am extremely optimistic that it would be completed. Who does want an identity ??"

    You've got an identity - you know who you are. It's no-one else's business.


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