Indian UID can resolve social ills

Country's biometric unified identification project touted as way to more accurately identify Indians in real need of help and steer government welfare away from wrong hands, resulting in millions of dollars lost.
Written by Mahesh Sharma, Correspondent

India's unified identification (UID) project, touted as the world's biggest biometrics project, is still years from completion but stakeholders are optimistic it will be a game-changer for the subcontinent.

Known as Aadhaar, the project aims to gather biometric information of the country's 1.2 billion residents and tap the credentials to efficiently deliver a wide range of services and government welfare programs.

Combining this unique identifier with mobile and payments technologies is expected to also be the foundation for an "Indian iTunes appstore", providing a marketplace of authorization-based applications that specifically target the country's social problems.

For instance, the ability for the poor to prove their identity is one way the project aims to solve widespread poverty issues, where entitlements and benefits often do not reach their intended target or are misappropriated.

A year after the first phase of the project was rolled out, over 170 million citizens have been registered in the database via 27,000 enrolment locations around India. It already eclipsed the previous biometric benchmark, the US-VISIT program, which holds the photographs and fingerprints of 120 million foreigners travelling to America.

Aadhaar is led by Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Indian IT services vendor Infosys Technologies, who said in a recent interview with Indian TV station NDTV that the project was expected to cost up to 180 billion rupees (US$3.6 billion). It encompasses a one-time enrolment of 600 million Indians, an IT system that will generate a unique number every person, as well as applications and services that will be delivered via the UID.

According to Nilekani, the system is already being used to deliver welfare services. Said the chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India: "The technology is proven and it's working. The applications have started. We have started doing NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] payments in Jharkhand, the LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) cash transfers in Mysore; we are doing mobile KYC (Know Your Customer banking services) in Hyderabad, so on and so forth."

Opening way to new applications, social solutions
And this is just the beginning. At the Aadhaar conference last June, an API (application programming interface) was released for developers to create a range of new applications such as government welfare, financial inclusion, gas distribution and telecoms.

BMC Software is one industry player that is looking to participate in the landmark project. Its Asia-Pacific CTO Suhas Kelkar leads the company's incubation lab based in Pune, India, and UID efforts.

Having evaluated the project and opportunities for IT companies, he believes UID could start a new generation of applications.

"I had the fortune of listening to [Nilekani] and he explained the UID project and the power of the project," Kelkar said in an interview with ZDNet Asia. "The way the iTunes store [operates] actually gives a way for millions of developers to create applications on the platform. Similarly, the UID will be a platform on which millions of people can build applications to solve problems. Most people missed that connection, they only think it's [about] the [person's] identity."

India's first Aadhaar-enabled village will be Tembhli, which has a population of 1,098, he said. Like hundreds of thousands living in rural communities around the country, he noted that these villagers are cut off from basic infrastructure such as banking, retail, and education.

Most villagers have to travel long distances just to access a bank branch. By combining a credential with mobile and payment technologies, however, it is possible to provide easier access to funds via micro ATMs, devices which support basic banking functions.

In a whitepaper published last month, the Indian government planning commission detailed such services as well as a range of applications for the UID, including a Aadhaar payments system--combined with a network of micro ATMs--to allow financial institutions to acquire new customers, and the introduction of "Aadhaar verified" as a standard way to confirm a person's digital identity.

The credential could also solve the problem of inflated school enrolments, for example, when one child is enrolled into multiple schools, or "ghost" students that do not exist. Ensuring more accurate data would ensure school funding flows to where they are most needed, and also allow for a uniform teacher-student ratio.

It also could have a similar benefit in public health where the Indian government could accurately track the population's well-being, budget accordingly, and deliver targeted services to counter this.

There are concerns about data security and implementation cost, but the project has overcome these hurdles, so far.

Kelkar said India is optimistic about the project's potential. "The reason they're doing it in India is because there's a huge amount of government welfare that goes into the wrong hands, [due to] people faking the identity. The numbers are staggering, millions and billions of dollars [lost].

"If they're able to pull this off, then it will be a great thing and will revolutionize the way anything gets done in India, banking, mobile, payments...these are so difficult [to support] because it's difficult to establish identity," he noted.

Mahesh Sharma is a freelance IT writer based in Sydney, Australia.

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