Driving around Bangalore, it’s immediately clear that the infrastructure hasn’t kept up with the IT boom in this once-sleepy South Indian city. Auto rickshaws, scooters, and motorcycles squeeze into a tight phalanx at each red light and choke the air with exhaust. Construction, such as the concrete supports of the new metro rail line that looms overhead, causes detours everywhere, and in spots the entire road abruptly disintegrates into gravel.
But something miraculous happens as you make your way south, past the outer ring road. A ramp lifts a select few vehicles out of the weaving traffic and onto an elevated tollway, where you suddenly have a bird’s-eye view of the urban landscape. This is the road to Electronic City, an oasis of glass and steel high-rises overlooking pristine black asphalt paths that snake through the perfectly manicured lawns of tech companies like Wipro, IBM, and Infosys Technologies.
“If you can have such good roads in the Infosys campus, why are the roads outside so terrible?” That’s the common question foreign visitors would ask Nandan Nilekani, one of the company’s cofounders. “Politics” was his usual reply, according to Nilekani’s 2008 book, Imagining India. Now the man who has been called the Bill Gates of India has jumped into politics to try to use what he learned at the IT giant to transform the dysfunctional country that lies beyond the borders of Electronic City.
Since July 2009, Nilekani has been a cabinet minister, leading hundreds of engineers and entrepreneurs as chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). By the most conservative estimates, at least a third of the country’s 1.2 billion citizens live below the poverty line and outside the formal economy. The UIDAI is expected to connect those hundreds of millions of people to government programs, save public money, reduce fraud and corruption, and foster new business opportunities—all by creating an unprecedented biometric system.
“On the one hand, within India and across the world, people of Indian descent have done some remarkable work,” says Nilekani. “And on the other hand, here is a country that needs to solve some very basic problems. This project marries these two worlds.” UIDAI plans to use fingerprints and iris scans to assign every person in the country a unique 12-digit ID number that can be verified online. It’s one of the biggest IT projects in the world, and getting bigger: By early February, the UIDAI had issued 130 million ID numbers, and it can issue up to a million more IDs every day. The agency has set up 36 000 enrollment stations staffed by 87 000 certified enrollment operators. In India the project is called Aadhaar, which means “foundation” or “support,” because it’s meant to be a fundamental technology platform that will enable dozens of new public and private services to be created.
That’s if it all works. It’s easy to list major challenges: How exactly do you collect biometrics from every single person in the world’s second most populous country, especially those living at the margins? How do you keep bad data from getting into the database in a country rife with corruption? And how can you build the entire system around online authentication in a country where fewer than one in 20 people have access to the Internet?
The answers to these questions are getting more than the usual amount of scrutiny, because a lot of political fortunes are riding on the UIDAI.
The program has been heavily supported by the ruling Indian National Congress party; Nilekani was appointed by the prime minister himself, Manmohan Singh. But Singh and his Congress party have had a difficult time enacting many of their biggest policy goals, and the UIDAI has increasingly become the target of criticism.
Earlier this year, the whole scheme seemed in imminent danger of collapse, when a parliamentary committee killed the bill that would have given the program statutory authority, and a political turf war erupted between the UIDAI and the National Population Register, another government project collecting biometrics for the national census. But by late January the two sides had reached an agreement to share biometric data collection, and Aadhaar is once again moving full steam ahead with a new mandate and an estimated budget this year of 15 billion rupees [PDF] (about US $300 million).