CHENNAI, India — The Unique Identification (UID) system is one of the most enterprising social programs in India today -- and probably the most controversial. In a country that lacks a comprehensive identification system, more than 400 million mostly rural Indians have no way of authenticating who they are. This leaves them locked out of public services like banking, social benefits, and even recognition of citizenship. By providing a nationally recognized identity for every citizen and resident, the UID system, known as Aadhaar, is taking a major step forward by establishing a foundation for inclusive institutions that India's bloated bureaucracy is seriously lacking.
Supporters of the program see special use for UID as an efficient tool for the government to distribute established social services like cash transfers, subsidized food, and kerosene to poor citizens. They say that UID's technology is necessary to ensure that aid actually reaches the needy. But owing to the prevalence of the same corruption that aid workers are trying to combat, there are strong concerns over privacy and the potential for fraudulence.
The program works by assigning a 12-digit number to each of the country's 1.2 billion people. Connected to the number are a photograph and two biometric indicators: fingerprints and iris scans. The innovation of using biometric indicators helps by not only creating a truly unique identity, but because it also serves the many illiterate people who never obtained other forms of ID like the PAN Card used for taxes, or a driver's license. Since rolling out the July 2009 pilot project in the state of Uttar Pradesh, UID has enrolled over 380 million people nationwide and plans to bring that number up to 600 million by the end of 2014.
More from Democracy Lab
- The Ukrainian President's Big Broken Promise
- The Heretical Pope Francis vs. Rush Limbaugh
- A Deeper Shade of Orange
As enrollment increases, state governments intend to primarily use UID as the linchpin of India's highly expensive and suspiciously leaky social safety net system. It is intended to improve programs like the Fair Price Shops (FPS) ration card system. In this arrangement, low-income Indians have access to FPS locations in their respective districts to purchase food and goods that the government subsidizes well below market prices. Under the current system, ration cards are given to families living below the poverty line. The cards are intended to entitle these families to FPS benefits, but they can also be used (often fraudulently) as identification cards.
Apart from the likelihood that politicians themselves abuse and indulge in these corrupt activities, the FPS ration card system has a number of other problems. On one hand, many eligible families are not enrolled; on the other, there is a sea of fake cards floating around which middle-class (and even rich) families use to buy cheap goods. The bogus cards are a drain on the system and reduce the amounts of food and kerosene available for the intended recipients. FPS owners are also known to siphon off their heavily subsidized inventory to make a killing on the black market.
Once UID is introduced, Indians who visit an FPS will have to provide their UID number before collecting their allocated quota of subsidized goods. Not only will this create an accountable inventory and offer a new method for collecting secure data on the demographics and needs of the poor, the high bar of personal information required to make purchase should help to prevent the leakage that is estimated to make up as much as 35 percent of the Public Distribution System (PDS) budget. Changing this could have a profoundly positive effect on India's endemic corruption.
Critics of the UID program, however, question its legitimacy on many counts. Research conducted by New York University Professor Arun Sundararajan and University of Maryland-Baltimore Professor Ravi Bapna seems to validate the effectiveness of the UID program in targeting needy people, but stops short of saying whether it will actually reduce corruption by the significant margin that the organization behind UID, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), seems to promise.