Worlds Biggest Biometric Scheme Promises to Help India’s Poor

Originally published at One India News

India. Before we think of call centres, a thriving economy should come into mind. India is a cost effective and labor intensive economy with a strong manufacturing and export orientated industrial framework. The U.N has predicted a 7.7 per cent growth rate in 2012 which is good bearing in mind the challenges pressing the global economy at the moment. But how does a country with such a name for its economic growth harbour one quarter of the worlds hungry population? Unicef once declared the country to have some of the worst rates of child survival in the world. In 2006 at the same time its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) was 10 per cent, twenty-six percent of India’s population was officially classed as poor.

Poverty in India is rampant and it is surprising to some. Economics professor in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jayati Ghosh expresses that “People tend to forget that in all this talk of India Shining, our development project is still very incomplete”. She is right. However it is not so much that the development project is incomplete as it has been flawed. India sorely lacks a viable identity system for the poor who possess no driving licence, passport  or proof of address. They may live in a village where ten other people share the same name as them. Their lack of identity not only excludes them from the modern economy but may be the strongest argument as to why the government has been unable lift them out of poverty. Enter genial ex-tycoon, Nandan Nilekani.

Launched in 2010, Nilekani’s “unique identity (UID) scheme is  the worlds largest, most advanced, biometric database of personal identities. It may be more than appropriate to have the word “hallelujah” resinating in your thoughts at this point. The unique identity scheme will enrol its two hundred millionth member by the end of this month and by the end of the year could stand at four hundred million, a third of all Indians.

A pilot project that has just begun in Jharkhand, an eastern state, will link new identities to individuals bank accounts. If you’re wondering what this means to the poor, you only have to look at the queues of people who are waiting to have their fingerprints and irises scanned whilst innocently unaware that their relationship with the modern world will never be the same again. The scheme in which any resident who wants can volunteer for, combines work by central and state governments and a number of other partners- largely technology firms that capture and process individuals’ data. The goal, says Mr Nilekani, is to help India cope with the past decades expansion of welfare provision. A mother of three need no longer go through the tedious process of travelling for hours to  distant towns or bribing officials to obtain paperwork. Instead the money which she is owed by the government will transfer electronically to her bank account or at a village shop.

Further “hallelujahs” may appear at the idea of thieving middlemen being cut out of the picture by the UID. Poor Indians with an identity number are much harder to rob. Ghost labourers staffing public-work schemes and any among India’s twenty million government employees, should disappear and the middlemen who steal billions should be caught as they are obliged to deliver grain, not to the poor, but rather to named individuals who could confirm receipt by scanning their fingerprints. India will be able to transform its welfare state and send out the message that designing such a scheme as a platform for government services rather than security keeps the costs down and bolsters the benefits.

Home minister Palaniappan Chidambaram may have blocked the new mandate on worries of national security and India may require enhanced data protection laws to facilitate this scheme however, UID has given many hope, a sentiment seldom felt when thinking of the state of poverty in India. With the cost of enrolling each person being a little over a hundred rupees ($2), India will set the example for other poor countries to follow. Who knows what country could be next? Certainly, poverty has many causes and no simple cure. But do is the UID the answer to India’s staggering poor population? No. But it opens a door that binds them to a modern economy from which they have been so longly been closed out from.

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