World's biggest biometric ID scheme forges ahead

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Media captionIndia to complete identity number database by 2014

The world's largest biometric identity exercise, which is taking place in India, is well on its way to reaching its target of half the country's population, reports the BBC's Sanjoy Majumder.

Jahangirpuri is one of the biggest slums in the Indian capital, Delhi, home mostly to rubbish pickers and daily wage labourers.

Today many of them are lined up outside a tiny, single-room office, waiting patiently.

As each one of them goes inside, two young men and women enter their details into a computer before they are photographed and their fingerprints and iris are scanned.

'Every nook and corner'

It's a process that's being repeated at similar centres around India.

For the past two years, the Indian government has been creating the world's largest and most sophisticated database of personal identities. It's part of an ambitious project to hand over a unique identification number (UID) to each of the country's 1.2bn people.

"From the time we began this centre, we've had hundreds of people come by every day," says Col Ravinder Kumar, who manages the Jahangirpuri UID centre.

Among those in the queue is Kamala, a daily wage labourer.

Image caption UID chairman Nandan Nilekani says one million are enrolling every day

It's people like her, the poorest of the poor, who are expected to benefit the most from the UID. They have no proper identity papers and therefore no access to services such as subsidised food rations, a phone connection, even a bank account.

"It's so difficult to get anything done without a proper identity," she says. "We're often forced to pay bribes to get subsidised grains or fuel.

"With the UID I hope things will improve - we can buy cheap food and I can help educate my children."

Since its launch in 2010, nearly 200 million UIDs have been generated. The goal is to cover half the population by 2014.

Nandan Nilekani, who used to head one of India's biggest IT companies, Infosys, is now the chairman of the UID project and gives a sense of the logistical scale of the operation.

"We are enrolling at the rate of one million a day. We have over 20,000 locations across the country where this is happening."

"Now we are confident that we have built a system to scale and it's just a question of widening the reach and taking it to every nook and corner."

Furious debate

It's in Jharkhand, 1,200km east of the capital and one of the country's poorest states, that you get a sense of the potential of the UID on the ground.

Villagers line up at the local council office to collect their wages under a flagship government rural employment programme.

Only this time, their pay is being handed out against their newly acquired UID numbers, after their fingerprints are verified.

"The estimate is that the government spends some $60bn each year on welfare programmes," says Rajesh Bansal, assistant director general at the UID headquarters.

Not all of this money reaches those it is meant for. Some of it is held up by red tape, siphoned by middlemen or simply lost due to corruption.

"It makes the system much more transparent because the UID ensures that only the intended beneficiary gets the money and the whole system can easily be monitored," says Mr Bansal.

The UID has also tied up with state-owned banks to enable migrant workers to transfer money from the cities to their families in the villages, using their UID numbers.

Image caption Nearly 200 million UIDs have already been issued

But the project has also sparked a furious debate.

There are concerns over its cost, implications for national security and fears that the data could be misused.

"You say you are going to cut out corruption and leakage. Who are the people who are going to control this? The assumption is that technology is neutral and cannot be manipulated," says Usha Ramanathan, an independent law researcher who has been campaigning against the UID.

"What technology does depends on who controls it. You are saying the whole system is corrupt, so let's centralise data and hand it over to the same people. What sense does that make?"

For now the government has agreed to build in safeguards and the UID project is gathering pace.

Many see this as a potential game-changer in India, bringing the country's poorest citizens into the mainstream, reducing waste while ensuring federal welfare money reaches those who need it most.

If handled right, many believe it could change the face of India.

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