What we can learn from India’s identity card program?

Identity card programs are out of favor these days. Australia scrapped its scheme amongst heated political debate, and one of David Cameron’s early decisions was to put an end to the I.D. card program begun by his Labor predecessors in the U.K. Privacy advocates raise the specter of Big Government tracking your wherever you go and using the data to infringe on your freedom. I remember watching a movie as a child in which the hero was confronted with a demand for “Your Papers!” I don’t have any papers, I thought. How lucky I am not to have to produce “papers” at the whim of some jack-booted thug.

Which is why it was surprising to see some of the following quotes on the cover of the International Herald Tribune on Sep 2nd.

“It is as important as food to have an identity card” – Kempamma, 80, Housewife

“Once I get the I.D. card, I’m hoping to get a license” – Rajpal Baghael, 28, waiter

“It will be important for voting in the future” – Bhagyamma, 45, Farmer

These are the rural and the poor of India speaking about the current national I.D. program, Aadhaar (“foundation”), being created in India which will assign a unique 12-digit number to 1.2 billion Indian citizens.

Enroling a woman in the Indian national ID program
enrolling a woman in the Indian national ID program

The logistics of creating such a database, with fingerprints and iris recognition for all, is mind-boggling, and exciting to those of us at Gemalto that have worked successfully on similar, albeit smaller scale, programs. We have a number of national ID case studies on-line.

What these  examples of typical Indian citizens are expressing is the hope that their place in India, in society and in the world will be recognized, and with that provable form of identification comes rights: the right to vote, to get access to social services, to open a bank account and begin saving, to get a cell phone. It’s telling that the scheme is referred to by many as a social inclusion project – putting the objective of the program, not the mechanism, at its focus.

In the developed world we take many of these things for granted, and yet even in societies like the United States, despite its visceral  opposition to a national I.D. card scheme, there is a daily need to prove who we are: to write a check, to buy beer, to get a job. But the I.D. card in India promises the ability to be recognized anywhere nationally, and not just in your native village or home state. It is a chance to claim rights irrespective of social standing or caste, and without being at the whim of a bureaucrat.

The business of securely and conveniently identifying people is one we know well at Gemalto. As societies continue to evolve, and particularly in a context of growing social and economic inequality around the world, social inclusion programs built around secure digital identity are of growing societal importance. Implementing these programs effectively to empower and protect citizens takes careful planning, and we’ll be posting further thoughts in the weeks ahead on some of the key elements governments need to consider as they go down this path.

“The government is trying to help us” – Mohammad Iqbal, 37, Merchant

So are National I.D. cards necessary everywhere? Countries like Belgium and Estonia are showing how electronic ID cards can speed administrative processes, making government services more efficient. Efficiencies may be a driver for developed countries, but the Indian Aadhaar program will be closely followed to see if it truly can “reduce inequality corroding India’s economic rise by digitally linking every Indian to the growth juggernaut” (Lydia Polgreen, IHT, Sept 2nd 2011).

4 thoughts on “What we can learn from India’s identity card program?

    1. Hi there, unfortunately we can’t offer any help or advice on individual cases. This was just an opinion piece in reaction to recent coverage of the ID program in India. You would need to direct your question to the relevant ministry/authority in India. Sorry we can’t be any more help

  1. Nice post!

    How is Gemalto involved in the project? If I understand correctly, project “Aadhaar” is only going to issue unique identification numbers and not cards. Is issuing cards in the pipeline? Would these be national ID cards like in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia?

    1. Thanks, AG.
      Gemalto is not involved in the Indian ID project, so I don’t know much more than what is available in the media or online.
      I believe that you are correct : the Aadhaar project will issue unique identification numbers only. However there is a second project, as I understand it, that will enroll biometric identifiers and issue an eID card. Beyond it being an electronic ID card, I don’t know whether it will be like the other national ID cards you mention.

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