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India Organizes One of Largest Citizen Registration Drives Ever to Issue IDs

February 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Indian authorities aim to issue all national citizens an official biometric identification card and number in order to combat crime and corruption. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro examines the effectiveness of this effort as part of our Agents for Change series.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: to one of the largest registration drives of all time. It’s taking place in India, where authorities are mounting an effort to give every resident an official biometric identification card and number.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro filed this story as part of our Agents for Change series.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Across India, in community centers and schools like this one in New Delhi, people line up for hours. Patience, like application forms they seek, is often in short supply. It seems like a big deal over a rather mundane prize: a new government-issued I.D. But the man behind it all calls this the largest social inclusion project in history.

NANDAN NILEKANI, Retired Software Billionaire: We still have a large number of residents of India who don’t have a birth certificate or any other form of official I.D. And in the old days, when they lived their entire life in a single village, it maybe didn’t matter, but now, with the highly mobile and aspirational society, you need some kind of an I.D.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Nandan Nilekani says an I.D. is the first step to better account for hundreds of millions of people in this vast nation of 1.2 billion. The government asked Nilekani, a 58-year-old retired software billionaire, to head the massive undertaking. He says it will greatly improve the way it serves the poor.

NANDAN NILEKANI: It will make it more effective, efficient, and equitable. This will play a huge role in reducing corruption and harassment for the common man. The government wants to make sure that benefits go electronically and directly to the genuine beneficiary.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The new identifications are electronic, online, and designed to be foolproof.

The unique identification project, called UID, goes much farther than the usual mug shot or even fingerprints. Each applicant also looks into a viewfinder through which the irises of both eyes are scanned. From these so-called biometrics, an online identification is generated with a unique 12-digit number, which is delivered on a card a few weeks later by mail.

People in India do have other cards that serve as I.D.s. The majority of poor and middle-class families have ration cards that allow them to buy basic foods at subsidized prices in special ration shops.

This lady has shown me the one for her family. She says she receives four kilos of rice, which is about 10 pounds of rice. She’s also eligible for cooking and heating oil, but rarely gets them. Items are frequently out of stock. Corruption, mainly through diverted commodities and fake I.D.s, is widely blamed.

The government hopes to change all this by opening and linking bank accounts with the new more secure I.D.s. Instead of food grants, assistance would come in direct deposits, and recipients would have cash to shop in regular stores.

Vijay Kumar, waiting to enroll for his new I.D., likes the idea.

VIJAY KUMAR, India: There are a lot of benefits from government programs, but middlemen steal from them. I don’t come from a well-to-do family. There are 12 people, and many depend on assistance. Maybe they will be able to benefit from this card.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Just a few dozen people here in Bangalore manage the avalanche of data from 30,000 enrollment centers across the country. One of the few tasks at this center that requires a human hand is here.

About two percent of all applications are flagged because there appear to be similar biometrics like fingerprints between often very different people.

MAN: The photograph clearly says that these are two different people.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: There usually is a simple explanation, says manager Kiran Chowbene, like a fingerprint screen with remnants of a previous impression.

I can see that the screen looks it’s pretty dirty, hasn’t been wiped clean.

KIRAN CHOWBENE, Manager: Yes. Yes.  

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: What percentage are adjudicated successfully here?

KIRAN CHOWBENE: Everything.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Every single one?

KIRAN CHOWBENE: Yes, everything goes through.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: There’s no mysteries at the end of this process?

KIRAN CHOWBENE: No.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Chowbene and almost all of the 100,000 workers on the I.D. project work for private companies contracted by the government. They are paid for each person successfully enrolled, an incentive system that’s brought speed unusual for a government project.

A quarter of a billion people have been signed up or scanned in, in just two years. Already, India’s unique I.D. project has the largest biometric database in the world. It’s fast becoming twice as large as the second biggest one, which is at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But there are critics concerned about privacy who say it’s all too rushed. They worry about abusive surveillance, particularly of political, ethnic, or religious minorities.

Social activist Gopal Krishna notes Britain scrapped a national I.D. program in 2010 after years of debates. Here, he says, the project headed by Nilekani has not been debated, and the government is only beginning to draft a privacy law.

GOPAL KRISHNA, Social Activist: Nilekani has mastered the art of putting the cart before the horse. If privacy is a concern, shouldn’t a privacy bill come first, and then UID database?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Other critics say the new I.D.s won’t reduce corruption, merely create new middlemen to replace the old in banks, instead of ration shops, for example.

Usha Ramanathan, a lawyer and human rights activist, is also skeptical about the program’s stated objective.

USHA RAMANATHAN, Human Rights Activist: The agenda is not in providing identity to the poor, so that the poor can get everything and become un-poor. That’s been — I need to be really gullible to believe that. And I’m not that.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: She says the real agenda is to privatize poverty and welfare programs for all but the very poorest people, who would remain in the public distribution system. Right now, the system protects all recipients from the worst effects of market swings and escalating food costs.

USHA RAMANATHAN: There is a desire to do a certain kind of social sorting, where we — where the state will identify those who they cannot not deliver things to. You just have to do it because they are so extremely poor that you don’t want an image of yourself as being a country where people are dying of starvation.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For his part, Nilekani says he has no problem with market-based reforms, which will empower many people to assert their rights as citizens and consumers. He insists the universal I.D. database is secure, that privacy can be safeguarded. That said, Nilekani adds the very nature of privacy is being redefined.

NANDAN NILEKANI: I think the privacy and convenience are opposites. It’s always a tradeoff. When you go and buy things at an e-commerce site, that e-commerce organization knows exactly what you’re buying. So, you know, it works both ways.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The I.D. project may well be subjected to court challenges. It will likely be debated as it comes up for renewal in 2014. By then, the program, at an officially estimated cost of $3.5 billion dollars, expects to have enrolled 600 million people, half of all Indians and a 10th of all humanity.

RAY SUAREZ: Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota.