Women queue for enrolment in Rajasthan. Half a million people are processed daily (© Reuters)
I have never met Mrs D’Souza but I’m guessing she doesn’t sport a bristly grey moustache. But Terrence D’Souza is grinning broadly: “Now I have become my wife,” he boasts.
Mr D’Souza is a moustachioed Mumbai-based technology consultant. And he’s just demonstrated how to steal his wife’s identity. He’s made a plastic copy of her fingerprint, placed it on his own finger and successfully fooled a biometric fingerprint reader that he is Mrs D’Souza. And that, he claims, shows how India’s ID scheme is fundamentally flawed.
It’s a scheme with ambitions unmatched anywhere else in the world. Called “Aadhaar” it aims to give every Indian citizen—1.2bn people—a unique identity. This will be provided by a 12-digit identity number combined with biometric data, stored on computers. That requires the scanning of 2.4bn eyeballs and the taking of 12bn fingerprints. The stats are staggering. On the day you read this, half a million people will be queuing up at numerous enrolment centres around the country to register.
D’Souza is one of many cynics. Projects of such a colossal nature would probably flop if attempted anywhere in the world. But the prospects of success always appeared even more remote in sclerotic, corrupt, chaotic India, where the state can barely get its act together to resurface a road. And yet, the Unique Identification Authority, which is organising the logistics, is defying expectations. The venture appears to be on time and on budget. So far over 300m people have been registered, making it already the world’s biggest biometric project. The organisers are on track to double this number by the end of 2014. The cost is not insignificant: $4bn. On the other hand, that is only $3 per person.
But what is this formidable effort in aid of? What’s the point? If the UK government spent $4bn, it would demand some tangible outcome, some specific benefit. Aadhaar has a different model. It was dreamt up by Nandan Nilekani, a founder of the computer giant Infosys. Nilekani wanted to create a network that would be tapped into by multiple applications, both in the private and the public sector.
In the affluent west we take for granted that we can prove our identity, with passports or driving licences. But 400m desperately poor…