India pursuing multi-fold expansion of citizen biometric registration scheme

October 28, 2014 - 

Demonstrating a massive reversal in policy, the coalition government led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embraced the massive, expanded use of Aadhaar.

Since taking power, the new central government has linked several new projects with the biometric identification scheme. The scheme, a landmark legacy project of India’s long ruling Congress Party, which has provided biometric identification numbers to millions of Indians, was criticized by several Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in the run-up to the national elections. Now that the BJP is in office however, analysts have said that the new government has chosen “pragmatism over politics” and has decided to maintain the system and accelerate resident registration.

After an initial examination, the national government concluded that many Indian states had made significant headway with enrolling residents in the Aadhaar system. As a result, Modi decided Aadhaar should in fact continue and not be merged with India’s census database, as previous press reports suggested would occur.

In effect, the BJP adopted a position to make the biometric registration scheme ubiquitous across myriad government programs. In a letter to all state governments, India’s Home Ministry declared that Aadhaar would facilitate “anytime, anywhere, anyhow” authentication to beneficiaries: “As more and more government services are going to be linked to Aadhaar, it will be of utility to have an Aadhaar card. Aadhaar will, hence, help the poor to take the benefits provided to them by the government that could not be accessed earlier. Aadhaar will become the simplest way of proving one’s identity.”

The Aadhaar program, governed by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), is currently used to authenticate delivery of social services including school attendance, natural gas subsidies to India’s rural poor, and direct wage payments to bank accounts. The system also provides identification to people who do not have birth certificates. After an extensive review, the new government decided to extend the use of the system to other social programs and to make Aadhaar the country’s primary national identity scheme.

As a result, the new government now wants to widen the use of the program to include mandatory biometric attendance for government officials and even prisoner identification. The new government is also reportedly exploring the use of Aadhaar to assist in the issuance of passports, mobile SIM smartphone cards, and pension payments. The scheme will also be used for India’s “Digital India” project, which is tasked with providing citizens with a “cradle-to-grave” digital identity.

Further, the Indian government also plans to use the Aadhaar database to deploy its newly proposed universal healthcare program. Under government guidance, Aadhaar will be used as a means of identification for healthcare insurance beneficiaries. As part of the new national government’s manifesto, Prime Minister Modi has promised radical reforms in healthcare with the introduction of the “National Health Assurance Mission” (NHAM) scheme. The new program’s goal is to provide accessible and affordable healthcare to every Indian citizen.

The introduction of universal healthcare to India’s citizens could arguably be the most ambitious use of the biometric database to date, though Modi’s government has also proposed the use of Aadhaar to issue bank accounts to all Indian households. According to government sources, as reported in the Indian press, the prime minister wants Aadhaar registration to be completed as soon as possible, so that its can be expanded to help deliver even more welfare initiatives and programs, including Modi’s new Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana scheme. The new program, which means “Prime Minister Scheme for People’s Wealth” aims to provide a bank account for each household in India. Financial Services Secretary G. S. Sandhu has described the scheme as an important step towards converting the Indian economy into a cashless and digital economy. Prime Minister Modi has designated the program a “national priority” with a goal of providing financial services at affordable cost to the most disadvantaged and low-income segments of Indian society.

In order to issue new bank accounts to the poor and to introduce a slew of other social programs, the national government will have to register the majority of the country’s residents. UIDAI has already enrolled about 700 million people and issued unique identification numbers to 650 million. The government’s objective is now to enroll 100 million more residents with Aadhaar.

The government’s main challenge confronting Aadhaar however might not revolve around the logistics of enrolment. To date, Aadhaar is still being run by an executive order, as the Indian Parliament has yet to pass legislation making use of the biometric database fully legitimate. As result, in 2013, India’s Supreme Court ruled that Aadhaar numbers are not mandatory in order to receive government services. Obviously, the legality issue surrounding Aadhaar will be a major item that will need to be addressed if Modi’s administration pursues multi-fold expansion of the citizen registration scheme.

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at BiometricUpdate.com and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.