Solving The I.D. Problem In The 21st Century
On June 20, 2012, 6:10 PM by Savannah Cox
India’s new biometric-based national ID system hopes to bring growth to all. What can the US learn from that?
Tunni Rai is a 65-year-old man living in Patna, India. Decades of manual labor have etched deep lines in his face, but he continues to do so because he must support his family. Though the already backbreaking task is made that much more difficult when, in the eyes of the Indian government, he does not exist. At least until recently.
Born in 1947 (or so Rai thinks; he never received a birth certificate from his parents and the voter identification card eventually administered to him was full of errors), Rai has spent his entire life without an official identity. The toll has been absolutely devastating: when Rai took his grandson to the hospital after he had been bitten by a stray dog, doctors refused to treat the boy since Rai could not provide proof of his own identity. On another occasion, a wire thief was electrocuted on Rai’s farm and police authorities soon accused Rai of murder. When he sought legal counsel, he had yet another door slammed in his face due to a lack of identity. Consequently, Rai had no representation during the trial and was subsequently sent to jail.
So at the age of 62, Rai had to rebuild himself entirely. The pride he once took in farming was ripped from his hands and in its place now rests a menial $92 a month security guard job. A job that still leaves him greatly indebted to others, but one that he has thanks only to the benevolence of a relative who didn’t ask for proof of identity before hiring him.
Because Rai lacks an official identity, he is confined to a subhuman existence—and through no fault of his own. Rai cannot vote. He cannot open a bank account. He cannot receive the welfare he needs. Worst of all, Rai is not alone.
Currently, only 58% of children born in India are registered at birth, partly because many families simply don’t know about the need for a birth certificate. While it’s true that there are many avenues through which Indians may prove their existence (driver’s licenses, ration cards, etc.), they are often village-specific and share a single point of origin: possessing a valid birth certificate. And so, as India’s economy emerges, many of those who have contributed largest to its boom—the vast class of laborers—have not just been left behind; in the eyes of their government they’ve never even existed.
As this faceless population has continued to grow, so has the difficulty of ignoring it. That’s why in 2010, in want of “giving back” to the same country that helped him succeed, Indian billionaire Nandan Nilekani’s technological firm Infosys joined forces with the Indian government to hammer out biometric-based identity codes for over one billion Indians. Although it would easily appear to be a costly, Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare, it’s received formidable success thus far. As Nilekani’s voluntary system is not contractually bound to a single software or device provider, costs remain low. But more importantly, over 200 million Indians like Rai are now registered within the system and they expect nearly half of India’s population to be registered by 2014. The goal? According to Nilekani, a national smart ID would compel the state to “improve the quality of services provided, give citizens better access to welfare schemes, and create deeper awareness of rights and services.”
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