Ambitious Indian ID scheme faces uphill struggle

India duly launched its ID scheme yesterday – Aadhar –  in an attempt to log its 1.2 billion citizens that live in the sub-continent.

The Indian government claims it is creating the biggest database in the world that will be used to “improve” the benefits that it doesn’t dole out to its citizens. It claims that all of its citizens will be given a 12 digit ID in the next four years.

There are some problems here, of course.  There are wide gaps in literacy and numeracy in the sub-continent. Although the country is a democracy, literacy in some areas is so low that symbols are used by voters, rather than the names of the parties.

Elections are managed by the equivalent of zaminders who woo people to vote in a particular way by offering them bribes including saris, bottles of whisky and in one notorious case, colour TVs.

Poverty is grinding for the vast majority of India’s population and clean water, basic sewage facilities and food are far greater needs for many than a neat little 12 digit number, linked to biometric information,  that some won’t be able to read. People applying for the ID number get their irises scanned, their fingerprints and photos taken, and the ID number is posted to them. Presuming they have a postal address, that is.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (pictured) claimed at the launch of the project in a small village in Maharashtra that the scheme is for the welfare of the common people. Sonia Gandhi tipped up to endorse the scheme, too.

So why is the Indian government doing this?

The deeply cynical might think that the whole project is an attempt to line the pockets of those who are perhaps already rather too good at the numbers game. Any immediate benefits for the population of India don’t seem very clear, as there is really no safety net for the majority of the people in the country.

It’s also a matter of face. India presents itself to the rest of the world as a modern, technological country, ready to put men on the Moon and connected by up-to-date highways and tech infrastructure. Singh claimed that this is the first time that technology has been used in such a big fashion. The cost of Aadhar will be measured in kotis, rather than crores or lakhs.  The benefits to the common people might be counted in paise.