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Improving Social Policy Through Innovation: India’s Biometric Program

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Roger Chin
April 2, 2018

For many people who live in developed nations, the need to prove their identity is often unnecessary, and the ease of doing so is taken for granted. However, in India, the largest democracy and the second most populous nation in the world, many residents are unable to provide identification to obtain basic goods and services. The complexities of a national identification system have come to the forefront as the country tries to streamline basic services, including social and financial programs. To address this issue, the Indian government has implemented a biometric program called Aadhaar. Aadhaar is one of the world’s most ambitious biometric identification programs with the goal of issuing identification for 1.3 billion residents. Aadhaar’s implementation is an example of collaboration among multiple sectors to build a public sector for the future. The size and scope of the project required public administrators to establish collaborations across various government agencies and with the private sector.

The Aadhaar Identification System

India did not have a nationally accepted form of identification before Aadhaar. The haphazard identification process was prone to corruption, and the standard mechanisms included obtaining a Permanent Account Number (PAN) card, a passport, ration card or a voter identification card. These numerous forms presented opportunities for the production of fake identification and the system lacked accountability. Moreover, the traditional identification system did not have a centralized database and covered only a fraction of India’s vast population. To deal with these deficiencies, Aadhaar consolidated the identification process and implemented a standardized procedure.

The government of India funds Aadhaar, making it a free and voluntary biometric technology service for all residents of India. Participants registered at an authorized enrollment agency by completing an application and submitting documents to prove their identity. Public officials were cognizant that many residents would not have the necessary records to validate their identification; therefore, applicants were allowed to apply with the assistance of an “introducer” who vouched for the enrollee.

The enrollees’ biometric data are kept in a centralized and secured database, the Central Identification Data Repository (CIDR). The collected data include a standard photograph, iris scans, demographic information, and fingerprints. To reduce the chances of identification fraud, the CIDR ensures against multiple identities for an individual. The system assigns a random 12-digit number and generates an identification card for each enrollee. This unique identification number becomes the legal document and proof of identity. Aadhaar started enrolling residents in September 2010, and as of September 2017, approximately 1.2 billion residents of India have been issued their unique Aadhaar ID numbers.

Aadhaar: Public-Private Partnership

The ambitious objectives of Aadhaar were achieved through a partnership between the public and private sectors. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was tasked with coordinating activities between the two sectors, and their cooperation and partnership enabled stakeholders to meet Aadhaar’s legal, technical, and regulatory obligations. This public-private partnership enabled the program to meet its goal: protecting information security, safeguarding confidential data and implementing a technological infrastructure to handle the large enrollment numbers. This partnership also ensured that participants would cooperate.

Aadhaar’s leadership team, led by Nandan Nilekani, focused on having a common agenda between the public and private sectors. The leadership established the expansive vision of providing identification to all the residents of India through Aadhaar and ensured that the partners shared the same goals. One of those goals was to measure collective impact. This is particularly essential when projects involve multiple partners, in which case it is sometimes necessary to measure performance across sectors. Aadhaar partners agreed on a measurement system to determine the performance levels of all collaborators. The leadership team defined “success” by the number of enrollees, verification response time and enrollment response time. The UIDAI divided the tasks based on the strengths of each of the sectors. The public sector provided fundamental support to organizations, including funding, coordination and regulatory assistance. The private sector focused on the marketing, project design, registrations and technological solutions.

Unanticipated Challenges to Overcome

Aadhaar has encountered obstacles, including attacks from the media, lack of support from some politicians, and lawsuits before India’s Supreme Court. The opponents of Aadhaar have contended that this program never conducted a proper cost-benefit analysis, never addressed privacy concerns, and did not receive legislative support. In addition, they have argued that identification numbers should not be issued to illegal immigrants. Unfortunately, the stakeholders did not anticipate these criticisms and have not been adequately prepared to respond to them. In September 2013, India’s Supreme Court reaffirmed the notion that Aadhaar is a voluntary program and that residents are not required to enroll in order to obtain government benefits. Despite the ruling, lawsuits and debates still exist about whether this program is compulsory or voluntary. Aadhaar is a worthwhile case study that can help other countries to determine whether a biometric identification system can benefit their residents. Successful delivery of services by the public sector requires not only diverse approaches but also effective collaboration across multiple organizations and sectors. The history of Aadhaar’s reception shows that planners of such programs should take care to foresee and forestall objections from the media and the public.


Author: Roger J. Chin is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science and Information Systems at Claremont Graduate University and a faculty associate at Arizona State University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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