Biometric national identity systems are rare in industrial democracies. Recent attempts to introduce them in the United Kingdom and the United States have been defeated by civil libertarian opponents. In both cases, the proposed identity systems were closely linked to national security and the US-led Global War on Terror. A biometric identity database is now being introduced on an unprecedented scale in the world's largest democracy: India. By 2015, 600 million Indians will be issued a Unique Identification Number (UID), a number linked to a resident's fingerprints, iris scan, and facial photograph. This time the primary motive is not national security, but rather social benefits.
The UID began life in a form similar to that of the abortive UK and US systems. In 2003, the then-ruling center-right coalition proposed the creation of a Multipurpose National Identity Card for the purpose of fighting terrorism and crime. After the coalition failed to win reelection, its successor, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), temporarily suspended the idea. The UPA's 2009 election manifesto, however, revived the notion of a biometric identity system but with a new function. The Unique ID, later branded "Aadhaar," is intended to revolutionize the nature of welfare schemes in India.
Aadhaar is the brainchild of the Unique Identification Authority of India, a new government agency headed by Nandan Nilekani, billionaire software entrepreneur and former Chairman of Infosys Technologies. The scheme has the backing of the three most important figures in the Indian government: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, and her son Rahul, and the first numbers will be issued before the end of 2010. It took the United States three decades to create a de facto identity system in the form of the Social Security number; India is attempting to do the same in biometric form in under five years.
That OECD countries do not have biometric identity schemes is a frequent criticism of Aadhaar. Yet its advocates point out that the absence of identity is a unique impediment to India's poorest, who are thereby excluded from the very welfare programs that are created to help them. For example, millions of the poorest Indians do not possess ration cards, as they are unable to pay the requisite bribe to the local panchayat (village council).
Two schemes that could be cleaned up in the short term are the Public Distribution System (PDS), which distributes food grains, and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), which provides enrollees with 100 days work at slightly more than US$2 per day. It is estimated that of the US$9 billion annual outlay for NREGS, up to US$3.6 billion is lost to mid-level corruption; enrollees consequently typically receive only 60 percent of the promised income.
By giving such concrete identity credentials to the poorest Indians, many of whom have never possessed any kind of identity proof in their lives, Aadhaar can ensure that PDS food grains reach their intended source. …