India’s 1.2 billion citizens are to be issued biometric identification cards. The cards will hold the person’s name, age, and birth date, as well as fingerprints or iris scans, though no caste or religious identification. Within the next five years a giant computer will hold the personal details of at least 600 million citizens, making this new information technology system the largest in the world. The project will cost an estimated $3.5 billion. The 600 million Indians will receive a sixteen-digit identity number by 2014 in the first phase of the project.
India’s red tape is legendary: citizens have dozens of types of identity verification, ranging from electoral rolls to ration cards, yet almost none can be used universally. The new system will be a national proof of identity, effective for everything, from welfare benefits to updating land records. Forty-two percent of India’s population is below the poverty line and citizens frequently move in search of jobs. The government believes the ID system will help citizens because they will no longer have a problem identifying themselves. The biometric identity number will be entered every time someone accesses services from government departments, driver’s license offices, and hospitals, as well as insurance, credit card, telecom, and banking companies. By bringing more people into the banking system, Indian officials also hope to raise the number of people paying income taxes; currently, less than 5 percent of the population pays income taxes.
The head of Oxfam India, Nisha Agarwal, says a lack of identity verification is a major problem, especially for urban migrants. As a result, they are excluded from dozens of government programs, which offer cheaper food, jobs, and other benefits for poor people. “They remain treated as temporary migrants and, without that piece of paper, some form of identification, they are not able to access many of these government schemes that exist now, that have large funds behind them and could actually make a huge difference in poor people’s lives.”
The scheme is the brainchild of Nandan Nilekani, one of India’s best-known software tycoons and now head of the government’s Unique Identification Authority. “We are going to have to build something on the scale of Google, but it will change the country . . . every person for first time [will] be able to prove who he or she is. . . . We are not profiling a billion people. This will provide an ID database which government can access online. There will be checks and balances to protect identities,” said Nilekani, who has also been in talks to create a personalized carbon account so that all Indians might buy “green technologies” using a government subsidy.
The government also plans to use the database to monitor bank transactions, cell phone purchases, and the movements of individuals and groups suspected of fomenting terrorism. In January 2010, the Ministry of Home Affairs began collecting biometric details of people in coastal villages to boost security; the gunmen in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed 165 people, sneaked into the country from the sea.
Critics say the project will turn India into an Orwellian police state that will spy on citizens’ private lives. “We do not want an intrusive, surveillance state in India,” said Usha Ramanathan, a lawyer who has written and lobbied against the project. “Information about people will be shared with intelligence agencies, banks and companies, and we will have no idea how our information is interpreted and used.” Civil liberty campaigners fear the ID card will become a tool of repression. Nandita Haskar, a human rights lawyer, said, “There is already no accountability in regards to violations of human and civil rights. In this atmosphere, what are the oversight mechanisms for this kind of surveillance?”
India’s plunge into biometric identification comes as countries around the globe are making similar moves. In 2006, Britain approved a mandatory national ID system with fingerprints for its citizens before public opposition prompted the government to scale back plans for a voluntary pilot program beginning in Manchester. United States senators have proposed requiring all citizens and immigrants who want to work in the country to carry a new high-tech social security card linked to fingerprints as part of an immigration overhaul.
Randeep Ramesh, “1.2 Billion People in India to be Given Biometric ID Cards,” Guardian, September 16, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/sep/16/india-population-biometric-id-cards.
Anjana Pasricha, “India Begins Project to Issue Biometric Identity Cards to All Citizens,” Voice of America News, September 24, 2009, http://www1.voanews.com/english/news/a-13-2009-09-24-voa18-68709357.html.
Corporate Media Source:
Rama Lakshmi, “Biometric Identity Project in India Aims to Provide for Poor, End Corruption,” Washington Post, March 28, 2010, A8.