India has created the world’s most ambitious national identification system, which uses biometric data to assign every citizen over the age of 18 a unique digital identity. Using their 12-digit number card, the 1.13 billion Indians using Aadhaar can access government services, pay taxes and open bank accounts. The system has faced opposition: critics argue that the ID program puts residents’ information at risk and deem it unconstitutional to demand that people hand over their data in order to access basic services.
Results & Impact
Around 99.5% of people over the age of 18 in India have an ID under the system, a total of around 1.13 billion people. There's an average of 15 million transactions made using the system every day - a total of about four billion since the scheme began.
Government of India, Unique Identification Authority of India (UID)
In 2006, the government committed to giving all residents a formal identity and put together a strategic vision for making that happen. In 2009, the Indian government appointed 220 agencies to take part in the process of enrolling all citizens on the Aadhaar system, creating 26,588 enrolment centres and stations where people could sign up. The data was collected by a specially created government department, the Unique Identification Authority of India. Indian entrepreneur Nandan Nikelani, founder of Infosys, was appointed head of the program. Aadhaar Payments System, which is rolling out this year, allows people to make payments using just their fingerprints.
Cost & Value
A total of $1.3 billion has been spent on the program.
Running since 2009
Aside from the challenges of scale in such a comprehensive statewide registry, the biggest problems faced by the Aadhaar system are ethical. Privacy advocates are anxious about the potential for information being hacked or abused, and fear that citizens don’t have any choice but to hand over their sensitive data to authorities. In many cases, criticisms of the program come down to a debate over whether it is constitutional to restrict citizens’ access to rights-guaranteed services – such as healthcare or free school meals – on the basis of them having an identity card.
India has created the world’s most ambitious citizen identification system with Aadhaar, a comprehensive biometric database that’s given 99.5% of the country’s adult population a registered identity.
The program assigns every resident in India a unique 12-digit identity number based on biometric data. It gives them a formal identity, which they can use to access banking, government support or to pay taxes. Since the first Aadhaar card was created in 2010, the documents have been issued to 1.13 billion people across the whole of India.
Until relatively recently there were more people in India who didn’t have a birth certificate than those who had one. That meant that many people – a significant proportion of which were the poorest in society – had no means to verify their identity, and were prevented from accessing such basic financial instruments as bank accounts or government benefits.
In 2010, only 240 million of the more than one billion people living in India had bank accounts, and only 35 million paid income taxes. A lack of access to formal finance has a significant impact on the poor: being restricted to an informal economy leaves them more vulnerable to bribes and unofficial taxes on wages, services and goods – an effect that’s known as the poverty premium.
The story of Aadhaar – which is Hindi for Foundation – began in 2006, when the government committed to giving all residents a formal identity and put together a strategic vision for making that happen. In 2009, the Indian government appointed 220 agencies to take part in the process of enrolling all citizens on the Aadhaar system in 26,588 enrolment centres and stations. The data was collected by a specially created government department, the Unique Identification Authority of India, and Indian entrepreneur Nandan Nikelani, founder of Infosys, was appointed head of the program.
86% of all Indians now hold Aadhaar cards, but the majority of those that do not are children and infants, who cannot have their fingerprint registered. About 99.5% of over 18s have an ID under the system.
Experts say that the growth of UID infrastructure will lead to new jobs and industries across the country — an estimated $20 billion market that could create 350,000 new jobs after five years, according to a report by CLS Asia Pacific Markets.
Aadhaar Payments System, which is rolling out this year, allows people to make payments using just their fingerprints. Some 377 million Aadhaar accounts are currently linked to bank accounts, and the system is linked to a database that allows companies and government agencies to check if someone is a resident in India by screening their Aadhaar number.
Other uses of the Aadhaar program have been created by the Digital India program, a government scheme that has created new products using the system. Digilocker, which was launched in 2016, allows residents to scan and save their documents to the cloud and share them when needed. It’s also used for distributing subsidies for cooking gas canisters. There’s an average of 15 million transactions made using the system every day — a total of about four billion since the scheme began.
But the program is not without its problems. Privacy advocates are anxious about the possibility that such an enormous identifying cache of data could fall into the wrong hands.
There’s also the potential for fake entries in the system — a problem critics say is enabled by poor verification structures that, in a database of more than a billion people, are difficult to avoid. There have been cases of dogs, cows, and even the Hindu Lord Hanuman being issued Aadhaar cards. The god did not claim his documents, according to reports.
An even more significant problem is what seems to be the inevitably mandatory nature of the biometric registration. If an official ID is required for citizens to access even basic services, there appears to be no way of avoiding registering one’s data with the government. Those without a card could be denied state guaranteed rights, whether that be free school meals for children or health care for elderly people. In a court decision in 2017 it was ruled that presentation of Aadhaar could be mandatory for paying taxes and setting up bank accounts, but not for claiming state benefits.