MUMBAI: India’s prime minister was to hand out the first unique identification numbers to villagers on Wednesday, launching a huge scheme aimed at cutting fraud and improving access to state benefits.
Manmohan Singh, accompanied by the ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, was to issue the 12-digit numbers to people in western Maharahstra state, kickstarting the roll-out of the system nationwide.
The government plans to give every Indian a number in the coming years after they submit their personal details, including fingerprints, an iris scan and photograph, to a vast Internet database.
The project is hailed as the world's first ID scheme using biometric-based data on a national scale and is overseen by Nandan M. Nilekani, the former co-chairman of India's second-largest software exporters Infosys Technologies.
Announcing the launch on Wednesday, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) said the scheme would provide “a cost-effective, ubiquitous authentification infrastructure to easily verify... identities online and in real-time”.
“Today there are a large number of residents, especially the poorest and the most marginalised, who face challenges in accessing various public benefit programmes due to he lack of possessing a clear identity proof,” it added.
“The 'Aadhaar' (base) number will ease these difficulties in identification, by providing a nationally valid and verifiable single source of identity proof.” Fingerprints and iris recognition “will help agencies and service providers across India clean out duplicates and fakes from their databases”, the agency added.
Singh and Gandhi are launching the scheme in the impoverished tribal village of Tembhli, more than 200 miles (320 kilometres) northeast of the state capital Mumbai, near the border with neighbouring Gujarat.
India media said the ID scheme would benefit local people, the majority of whom are illiterate, daily-wage labourers who often miss out on state benefits like subsidised food due to lack of identity proof.
The Economic Times newspaper quoted one villager as saying: “It will help our children when getting them admitted to the village school. It will help us in getting ration anywhere we go. It will also help use get employment.” A 100-rupee (2.2-dollar) incentive was on offer for people to sign up for the scheme.
Financial newspaper Mint quoted an unnamed UIDAI official as saying: “We have been enrolling around 300 to 350 people every day since September 20 and until now around 1,500 people's biometric data has been recorded.” Supporters of the scheme say the 12-digit number will be a one-stop proof to establish identity, eliminating the current need to produce multiple personal documents even for something as simple as getting a pre-paid mobile phone.
Much official business in India is still carried out using triplicate, hand-written forms rather than computers, causing frustration, confusion, errors and delays.
Critics have questioned whether the government will be able to compile an accurate, updated record of India's growing 1.2 billion population and fear the misuse of personal information by officials and individuals. – AFP