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India’s 1.2 billion citizens are to be issued biometric identification cards.
The cards will hold the person’s name, age, and birth date, as well as fingerprints or iris scans, though no caste or religious identification. Within the next five years a giant computer will hold the personal details of at least 600 million citizens, making this new information technology system the largest in the world. The project will cost an estimated $3.5 billion.
The 600 million Indians will receive a sixteen-digit identity
number by 2014 in the first phase of the project.
The new system will be a national proof of identity, effective for everything, from welfare benefits to updating land records. Forty-two percent of India’s population is below the poverty line and citizens frequently move in search of jobs.
The government believes the ID system will help citizens because they will no longer have a problem identifying themselves. The biometric identity number will be entered every time someone accesses services from government departments, driver’s license offices, and hospitals, as well as insurance, credit card, telecom, and banking companies.
By bringing more people into the banking system, Indian
officials also hope to raise the number of people paying income taxes;
currently, less than 5 percent of the population pays income taxes.
As a result, they are excluded from dozens of government programs, which offer cheaper food, jobs, and other benefits for poor people.
The scheme is the brainchild of Nandan Nilekani, one of India’s best-known software tycoons and now head of the government’s Unique Identification Authority.
The government also plans to use the database to monitor bank transactions, cell phone purchases, and the movements of individuals and groups suspected of fomenting terrorism.
In January 2010, the Ministry of Home Affairs began
collecting biometric details of people in coastal villages to boost
security; the gunmen in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed 165 people,
sneaked into the country from the sea.
Civil liberty campaigners fear the ID card will become a tool of repression.
Nandita Haskar, a human rights lawyer, said,
India’s plunge into biometric identification comes as countries around the globe are making similar moves.
In 2006, Britain approved a mandatory national ID system with fingerprints for its citizens before public opposition prompted the government to scale back plans for a voluntary pilot program beginning in Manchester.
United States senators have proposed requiring all citizens and immigrants who want to work in the country to carry a new high-tech social security card linked to fingerprints as part of an immigration overhaul.