FEATURE-An identity for all: India ID project fights dust, doubt

(Corrects spelling of surname in paragraph 5)

By Rina Chandran

MUMBAI, April 29 (BestGrowthStock) – As India gears up to build the
largest biometric database in the world with the aim of
providing most of its 1.2 billion citizens a Unique
Identification (UID), perhaps the biggest challenge is smudged
fingerprints.

The UID Authority of India will issue the first UIDs linked
to a person’s demographic and biometric information between
August and February, and issue about 600 million such IDs over
the next five years to help verify citizens quickly and
cheaply. It will be a boon for companies and government
agencies alike.

It would give millions of Indians the means to open a bank
account, buy a mobile phone, and access welfare services
easily, while saving companies and government agencies the
expensive and time-consuming process of verifying and
establishing identities.

The project, which has drawn the interest of mobile
services firms and technology giants including Tata Consultancy
Services (TCS.BO: ), Microsoft (MSFT.O: ) and Google (GOOG.O: ), is
expected to better target and reduce waste in India’s
multi-billion dollar welfare schemes, including pensions.

“There is a concern that a lot of the welfare benefits that
the government provides don’t reach the intended beneficiaries
because you can’t correctly identify them,” said Ajit Ranade,
chief economist of the Aditya Birla Group in Mumbai.

“The UID will hopefully enable better targeting,
identification of beneficiaries, and plug leakages. If you can
improve targeting by even 5-10 percent, it would be a big
deal.”

Previous governments have also considered creating unique
ID numbers. Yet it is the left-leaning Congress government,
with its focus on inclusive growth, that has pushed the
envelope by setting up the UIDAI office and allocating some
$444 million to the UID project.

The UID project, named “Aadhar”, is estimated to cost some
$2.2-$4.4 billion to implement, but will bring in an equal
amount in savings annually from the elimination of duplicate
and false identities, said Samiran Chakraborty, head of
research at Standard Chartered.

“The programme may have a significant positive impact on
India’s growth and fiscal health in the years to come,” he
said.

But with an estimated 75 million people homeless and
millions others criss-crossing the country as migrant workers
with little or no documentation, the UIDAI has its work cut
out.

UIDAI is working with Census 2011 survey, as well as local
government bodies and NGOs to reach millions, including an
estimated 410 million people living on less than $1.25 a day, a
blot on India’s otherwise compelling growth story.

“It all boils down to a lack of proper identity, and the
exclusion is debilitating,” said Nandan Nilekani, UIDAI chief.

“At the same time, India is clocking 8 percent growth. So
it is clearly creating a huge divide; if we want people to be
included in the growth story, we need to recognise the people
the system doesn’t recognise,” said Nilekani.

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For a video interview with Nilekani, click here:
http://blogs.reuters.com/india/2010/04/27/interview-nandan-nilek
ani-on-indias-uid-project/
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CALLUSES, BURQAS

The average Indian citizen typically has multiple identity
cards, including a voter ID, a tax ID, a ration card, passport,
driving licence and others. Yet there is no central database,
which has created “phantoms” on voter lists and welfare
schemes.

Duplicates and fake identities abound, and millions of the
poor have no identification at all, which could deny them “a
basic right to an acknowledged existence”, says Nilekani.

Nilekani, the former chief of No. 2 software firm Infosys
Technologies (INFY.BO: ), was handpicked by Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh to head up UIDAI after he wrote extensively on
the need for a unique ID in his book, ‘Imagining India’,
published in 2008.

“Acknowledging the existence of every single citizen
automatically compels the state to improve the quality of
services, and immediately gives the citizen a fairer, more
equitable access to services,” said Nilekani.

“This recognition creates a deep awareness of rights,
entitlements and duties,” he said.

Beyond developing the smart cards, the challenge is making
the back-end infrastructure secure and scalable, ensuring
privacy and integrating agents who issue the numbers, said
Nilekani, who has the rank of a cabinet minister.

Among the biggest challenges is securing “clean”
fingerprints as part of the biometric identification that will
also include an image of the face and of the two irises, in the
dusty conditions of rural India, where nearly two-thirds of the
population lives.

Frequent power outages are another hurdle, said Sreeni
Tripuraneni, chief executive of 4G Identity Solutions, which is
conducting pilot tests in the southern state of Andhra
Pradesh.
“Most biometric technology was developed for clean,
air-conditioned environments, but dust is a big problem in the
villages and we sometimes get multiple impressions, or
residue.”

“We also have to carry our own generators for power,” said
Tripuraneni, whose firm developed an algorithm to remove
“noise” from the images, and modified the software for use in
India.

Operators have also been trained to deal with labourers
with deeply calloused hands, for example, or women wearing
burqas, said Tripuraneni, who calls the UID “the mother of all
databases”.

The biggest risk is losing political steam, said Ranade,
which would pull the plug on resources and crucial support.

“But perhaps we shouldn’t be so sceptical about it. In this
case, we have not lived in a world where every Indian has a
unique ID, so we can only imagine what that would be like.”

Chandra, a maid servant in Mumbai who gives her earnings to
her employer for safekeeping, is already imagining that world.

“I can finally get a cell phone and open a bank account in
my name. It will make a big difference to me,” she said.

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FEATURE-An identity for all: India ID project fights dust, doubt