India Tries to Connect Poor to Growth by Scanning 2.4 Billion Eyes

The New York Times recently published an article on what will become the world’s largest biometric database – made in India. Hundreds of Indians are volunteering to have their fingerprints and irises scanned and their names, birth year and address registered. After this process, they are assigned a 12-digit number – the first proof that they exist. The new number-based system, known as Aadhaar, or foundation, will be used to verify the identity of any Indian anywhere in the country within eight seconds, using inexpensive hand-held devices linked to the mobile phone network. The motivation behind this mega project that will eventually collect 1.2 billion identities, is to reduce the inequality corroding India’s economic rise by digitally linking every one of India’s people to the country’s growth juggernaut. Most of India’s poorest citizens are trapped in a system of village-based identity proof that has had the perverse effect of making migration, which is essential to any growing economy, much harder. The identity project also has the potential to reduce the kind of corruption that has led to mass demonstrations in recent weeks. By allowing electronic transmission and verification of many government services, the identity system would make it much harder for corrupt bureaucrats to steal citizens’ benefits.

To many people, this large-scale project might seem like a dystopian nightmare. In a country that lacks robust laws to protect privacy, there is a fear that the government will use the information to track citizens, which is “a serious concern in a country where the government carries out extensive wiretapping and surveillance to track potential terrorists”. To minimize the risk of infringement on privacy, the database has been designed to contain as little information as possible – only a name, date of birth, sex and address. When anyone tries to confirm a person’s identity using the number, the database will supply only a yes-or-no answer.

There are high expectations in the system. One example of a person who hopes to benefit from this project is Mr. Jalil, a homeless rickshaw driver from Uttar Pradesh. When coming to Delhi two decades ago, he was hoping to find a better way to make a living. But the lack of identity documents has been a fundamental hurdle. “When I first came to Delhi I thought I would earn big money, build a house in my village and educate my children,” he said. But he has no bank account, making it hard to save money. When one of his children got sick, he took a loan from a moneylender at an onerous interest rate. Poor people like him are entitled to subsidies for food, housing and health care, but he has no access to them.  Mr. Jalil hopes Aadhaar will allow him to open a bank account. He could get a driver’s license and a cellphone.

“That will give me an identity,” he said, gesturing at the computer station where he had just completed his enrollment. “It will show that I am a human being, that I am alive, that I live on this planet. It will prove I am an Indian.”

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About CTED

CTED, as part of the New York University Abu Dhabi Research Grant, is a multidisciplinary research lab that focuses on combining economic principles, technological advances, and human-centric design to create innovative solutions for the problems experienced in emerging regions.
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