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India's biometric ID number plan divided by bureaucracy

The prime minister decides the two agencies fighting to collect and control fingerprints, retinal scans and other data will share in the duties.

January 28, 2012|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Children sleep at a hospital in Jammu, India. Many people in the country of 1.2 billion are so poor and illiterate that theres no official trace of their existence.
Children sleep at a hospital in Jammu, India. Many people in the country… (Channi Anand, Associated…)

Reporting from New Delhi —  

India'splan to issue each of its citizens a biometric identity number, an ambitious program aimed at cutting corruption, mismanagement and red tape, may yet founder on the very bureaucracy it was designed to minimize.

On Friday, after a battle between two agencies over who would collect and control the fingerprints, retinal scans and other information before issuing the 12-digit numbers,India'sprime minister resolved the issue: Both bureaucracies will collect the information "with suitable provisions to eliminate avoidable overlap."

Though the program may eventually provide some of the benefits envisioned for India's citizens, many of whom are so poor and illiterate that there's no official trace of their existence, analysts say this is hardly a promising start.

"I think the turf war … has been settled by giving 50-50," said R. Ramakumar, associate professor with Mumbai's Tata Institute of Social Sciences. "It looks more like ego massaging."

It also underscores the entrenchment and power of India's infamous bureaucrats, the systemic barriers to reform and fighting corruption.

"It's not going to end with this truce," said Charan Wadhva, an analyst and former president of Delhi's Center for Policy Research. "There are vested interests that don't want it to succeed. But at least it's one step short of open war."

On one side of the dispute is Nandan Nilekani, a billionaire who left a comfortable position as co-founder of outsource giant Infosys to head the Unique Identification Authority of India.

Sitting in his government office in New Delhi near a large flat-screen TV, Nilekani — who famously gave author Thomas Friedman the title for his 2005 bestseller, "The World is Flat" — explained why he took on this challenge: "I've made plenty of money. I wanted to do something for India."

Supporters of his ID program say it will weed out welfare fraud and duplication, deter illegal migration, boost counter-terrorism efforts and provide access to banking, telecom accounts and government agencies for India's poorest. (Barely 20% of Indians have bank accounts.)

They also believe it could spur direct government cash transfers, bypassing corrupt local officials. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi once said that only 15% of government funds reach the poor.

Partnerships between the private sector and India's rigid bureaucracy are rare, and Nilekani has ruffled feathers by ignoring protocol, moving quickly and sparring with the National Population Register, the competing agency with its own biometric ID project.

The NPR, overseen by powerful Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, has argued that data collected for Nilekani's universal ID isn't secure, costs too much at about $3 per record and should be under its control.

Under Friday's compromise, both agencies will enroll citizens to their respective programs simultaneously, with the universal ID program authorized to register up to 600 million people. The two agencies are supposed to share captured data and figure out ways to cooperate, though funding for Nilekani's program will be the topic of a separate process later.

The universal ID program has also faced critics outside the government, who argue that it undermines privacy, could see foreign governments gain access to sensitive information and uses a fingerprint recognition system that can be fooled by a bit of wax and glue.

Nilekani counters his critics with well-practiced answers: Their fears are misguided, the system is secure and interagency differences are the "usual cacophony."

The challenges, logically, technologically and socially, are huge. If every one of India's 1.2 billion citizens is registered, the system will need 10 times more data than the biggest existing biometric database covering visitors to the United States.

More than 120 million numbers have been issued under the program, with a goal of 200 million by March and 600 million by 2014 (compared with about 50,000 population registry cards). Some place the ultimate cost of India's universal ID program at $25 billion.

Unemployed worker Palash Hazara is a testament to some of the troubles that plague the program. Hazara, who migrated to New Delhi in 2007 from West Bengal state, registered late last year for his number, providing his name, gender, age, address, fingerprints, photograph and eye scan.

"For me, it's more than proving my identity for a job," he said. "It's proof that I'm an Indian."

But his hope of joining the army in Delhi, which would require him to show proper identification, have been undermined by a demanded $1,400 bribe for the job, he said. Even securing his "free" universal ID number cost him $4 in graft, he said — more than a day's wages — despite its promise to help fight fraud.

And although it's been months since he registered, the number still hasn't arrived. Now he is considering a return to his ancestral community, where he's known and doesn't need an ID number.

"I came to Delhi to earn my own livelihood, but I've been out of work for weeks," he said. "I wouldn't mind going back. This place is so expensive and people are hostile."

Vinod Kumar, a former chemistry professor and director of the civic group MotivOcean, has many concerns of his own about the program, from privacy to security to the integrity of information.

But he acknowledges the potential if Nilekani's system can track payments through officials' sticky fingers in a country that is 132 out of 183 economies in an International Finance Corp. ranking in terms of doing business, and 95 out of 182 countries in Transparency International's corruption perception index.

"We're spending all this money when nearly half the country doesn't even have access to a toilet," he said. "It's hugely expensive. But if he can pull this off, he's a god to us."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Tanvi Sharma of The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

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