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Can biometric technology reign in India’s corruption?


Biometrics technology is expected to reign in India’s rampant corruption, especially where poor laborers and migrant workers are concerned. A study conducted by CLSA, an investment group, found that over 40 percent of India’s $250 billion social service subsidy never makes it to its intended beneficiaries. Much of that money is channeled to predatory middlemen and bribes.

The Indian government is completing its Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) program that employs biometrics in an effort to identify the nation’s 1.2 billion residents. Under the program, which started in 2010, each man, woman and child will have their fingerprints and irises scanned. Information gathered will be embedded in Aadhaar, a 12-digit identification card.

For the poor, Aadhaar promises to end the vicious cycle of corruption and dole-outs. Through the use of an Aadhaar number, multiple databases from various sources are unified to eliminate duplications and ghost transactions. The system also replaces the cash and goods distribution system with electronic transfers, where a person’s identity can be verified in just a matter of seconds, anywhere in India.

Biometric identification has never been used on such a large scale. The system will have to account for major constraints, such as: India’s extreme weather, difficult geography, multiple separatist movements, lack of reliable electricity and Internet connectivity. Developers have to find means to distribute high quality information across tens of thousands of enrollment centers.

If the Indian government can surmount that, it can showcase to the world how biometrics technology is able to turn around a nation, curtail corruption and improve government services.

Moreover, the use of an Aadhaar number is not just limited in transferring benefits but it can also create an economy based on mobile transactions considering the billions of Indians with mobile phones. Entrepreneurs can build their own applications and use them to tackle the country’s multitude of issues, including health insurance.

There are downsides that the government needs to be aware of and work on, such as mass surveillance and the potential for digitized discrimination. They need to update privacy laws to make the system more responsive and effective, while at the same time protecting citizens. As of now, the personal information of residents are stored and accessed by different government agencies which makes it susceptible for abuse.

But using biometric technology in India is much cheaper. UIDAI collected residents’ information for about $3 per person compared to the UK, where biometric capture costs $150 per person. This shows how economies of scale have made a dent on the price of biometric technology.

In your opinion, can biometric technologies help in curtailing graft and corruption in India?

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