ID'ing the masses may solve Indian identity crisis


MUMBAI (AP) - It's a problem of mind-boggling complexity: How do you identify 1.2 billion people without documents, who sometimes rely just on word of mouth to establish who they are?

The man tasked with solving this problem is outsourcing guru Nandan Nilekani, who rose to prominence as a founder of Infosys Technologies Ltd., India's second-largest outsourcing firm. He began work this week as director of the Unique Identification Authority of India, an ambitious new government initiative that aims to assign unique, verifiable identification numbers to every single Indian.

"It keeps me awake at night, thinking what the hell have I got into," said Nilekani, 54.

Indians of means can flash passports, driver's licenses, and credit cards to establish who they are. But the poor rely on a jumble of electricity bills, ration cards, voting cards, and letters from local officials none of which is foolproof.

That has made it harder for them to get jobs, open bank accounts and establish property rights, stymieing their ability to participate in, and in turn fuel, India's growth. It has also increased the potential for graft in India's massive social subsidy programs.

Nilekani, who has spent his first few days on the job working out of a temporary office in New Delhi in a whirlwind of meetings with government officials, has become an expert at expounding the revolutionary social potential of technology.

"Identity has become a basis for exclusion," he said over coffee in Mumbai, shortly before he started his new job. "The poor have no access to identity. Therefore all the time they are running around re-establishing their identity."

His best-selling 2008 book, "Imagining India: Ideas for the New Country," reads like a blueprint for improving governance in India though he insists that when he wrote it he wasn't plugging for public office. The book even has a section devoted to national identity cards, which he said would be "transformational" in improving the quality of government services, reducing graft, and making India's economic growth more inclusive.

"Every piece of life becomes easier," he said. "Just the simple act of saying I stand by who this person claims he is. Can you imagine the value of that?"

Unlike in the United States, top business people in India rarely enter public service. If Nilekani succeeds, he could inspire others to make the shift.

His challenge is twofold: He must get everyone including people in remote tribal areas an identification number, and he must ensure that there are no duplicates.

Nilekani plans to create a central database of names, modeled on India's electronic securities depository, and use biometrics probably some combination of fingerprint and facial identification to ensure that every Indian gets assigned one and only one number.

The first batch of IDs will come out in 12 to 18 months, he said, but declined to specify how long it might take to complete the rollout. The agency's initial budget is 1.2 billion rupees ($24.6 million), but the total cost will likely be far higher.

"It will take years and years and years," Nilekani said. "Even if it costs a bit of money, if a few hundred million poor people get better public services, it's worth its weight in gold."

Just ask Pralhad Dandekar.

A wiry 58-year-old fisherman, Dandekar has been waiting two years for the state government to issue him the fisherman identity card he is required to carry with him when he heads out to sea.

"I wait, wait, wait," he said.

The process of getting a fisherman identity card which became compulsory for fishermen after the November terror attack on Mumbai is so predictably and excruciatingly slow that at least three dozen fishermen societies in Mumbai have started issuing temporary identity cards, so people can work while they await their state government ID. Dandekar has one, and that's the only reason he's able to ply his trade and bring food home for his wife and two daughters while he waits.

The complexity does not end there.

All those cards are only good in the state of Maharashtra.

"I need a card that will work all over India," said fisherman Shiv Kumar Chinna Coundar, 38.

Every time he docks in a port in a different state, he has to get permission from the customs office. The more permissions required, the more "chai pani" literally, "tea water," a local term for bribes you have to pay, he and others say.

"If they gave us a national identity card, then I wouldn't have to pay chai pani in any state," Coundar said.

There's also the question of security. Absent a foolproof means to establish who someone is, many only hire people they know cutting off the stream of hungry migrants who pour into Mumbai from jobs.

Boat owner Laxman Hiraji Dhanur, 60, said he has become more concerned about security since last year's terror attack on Mumbai.

Dhanur lives amid a bright jumble of fishing boats, now docked for the monsoon rains, in Bhai Bhandarkar Machimar Colony the same fishing village 10 Pakistani attackers sneaked through last November before fanning out in pairs to lay siege to the city, killing 166.

Five miles off the coast of this sleepy jumble of shanties, Ajmal Kasab, the only surviving attacker, allegedly slit the throat of the navigator of a hijacked fishing boat.

Such stories send a chill through Dhanur.

He said he can never know for certain if people are who they say or even if they are really Indian citizens.

"I only hire my relatives and friends," he said. "If we had a foolproof national identity card, I wouldn't worry so much."

He said he might even hire strangers.

Writ large, that small shift in attitude could mean easier access to jobs for millions of Indians. And that would be a transformation.