July 3rd, 2012
05:11 PM ET

A project to fingerprint 1.2 billion people

Imagine creating a system to track 1.2 billion people, photographing them, fingerprinting them, cataloging them and giving them all IDs.

Nandan Nilekani is not just imagining that system. He is tasked with making it a reality in India.

Nilekani is the chairman of India's Unique Identification Authority. Nilekani's previous claim to fame was as one of the founders of Infosys, India's pioneering technology firm. He recently talked to Fareed Zakaria on Sunday's "Fareed Zakaria GPS" show. Here’s an edited version of their conversation, which can also be viewed by downloading the entire show on iTunes.

ZAKARIA: So explain how does one even think about this. There are so many parts to it, but let's just first start with the technical things. So you are taking India's entire population, which previously had rarely been counted, and you are going to try and give every single person a biometric ID.

NILEKANI: That's right. We have enrolled 200 million people in the last three years since the project began. And we are using the biometrics to give them a unique number so that they don't end up having more than one number. But what's most important is that this is a digital online ID. So we're taking people, many of whom have no ID whatsoever, and taking them to the digital world. So it's like a leapfrogging of identity.

ZAKARIA: So why is this so important for India? What one hears about it is that these people are supposed to get loans, or grants or various things from the government. And most of it never gets to them. And I remember the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi saying that of the one dollar that we spend on poor people, on average the poor person receives 10 cents.

NILEKANI: Fifteen I think. Well it should be fifteen.

ZAKARIA: And the middle men take up all the rest of the money.

NILEKANI: Well actually, there are two primary drivers for this. One is that we still have millions of people who don't have a formal identity or acknowledgement of their existence by the state. And unless you have a formal acknowledgement or existence you can't get a bank account or a loan. You can't get a mobile phone. You can't get your entitlements. You can't get a job. You can't rent a house.

So everything is linked to your basic identity. So this in some sense you can think of as a massive inclusion program to get the poor, and the marginalized and the identity-less into the formal economy. So that's one part of it.

The other part is that the Indian government spends something like $60 billion a year on entitlements and benefits to millions of people. And they need to make sure it reaches the right beneficiaries. So by having this ID system we can make sure that people's scholarships, pensions, employment guarantee schemes all direct to the right person, either into the bank account or whatever account. So it both makes government expenditure more efficient, effective and equitable, and it's a massive inclusion exercise.

ZAKARIA: How difficult is it? You were an entrepreneur in a space in India that is famously free of regulation because the Indian government basically didn't realize it existed: the high-tech space. ... Now you're in the heart of government. How much more difficult is it to deal with the bureaucracies? Or which is worse, the bureaucratic obstacles or political obstacles?

NILEKANI: Well, I think the way I see it simply is in the private sector, the number of people you're to come into is much less. You convince your management team, your board, your investors, your analysts and you go and do something, go in new election, buy a company, whatever.

In the public space, you are answerable to a lot more stakeholders: the government, parliament, bureaucracy, activists, journalists, the judicial system, the investigators. So I think what I learned is the amount of time you are to invest in evangelizing and consensus building is hugely more in the public space. And crafting a strategy which is sort of acceptable to everybody really takes a great deal of time. And that's where the big difference to me between the two worlds.

Related: What happened to 'Incredible India'?

Post by:
Topics: Economy • India

soundoff (246 Responses)
  1. GenericMan

    We tag animals to keep track of them too.

    July 9, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • GenericMan

      I didn't mean that to sound like an insult to Indian people.

      July 9, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
      • Ashok K

        Of course you didn't, we consider this a compliment. Here is the other cheek.

        July 9, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  2. Easy E

    History has shown that the only time a government wants a unique identifier for every person in its charge is to either incarcerate them, enslave them, or send them off to a death camp.

    July 9, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • DBA

      We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.
      — George Bernard Shaw

      July 10, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  3. Gina Swan

    YES THIS IS CALLED 666!!!! Revelation 13 YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN!

    July 9, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Bina Suan

      Do you think Muslims’ hatred for Jews is only because of the Palestinian conflict? Think again. What Muslim scholars do not want you or ordinary Muslims to know is that a Jewish woman carried out a plan that eliminated Prophet Muhammad because he had terrorized her people.

      Full Text:

      July 9, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
      • Ashok K

        Didn't she cut the elephant's snout and put it on Hanuman to make it give it a phallic look? L'chaim !

        July 9, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
    • Maya

      Take your meds.

      July 10, 2012 at 12:49 am |
  4. JeffinIL

    I thought this would be an article about the US prison system.

    July 9, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Ashok K

      Similar to what Hitler did in germany

      July 9, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
      • Instead... Put a bullet in me

        With the help of a popular computer company.

        July 9, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
  5. Instead... Put a bullet in me

    Since I have never broken the law, you will have to put a bullet in me before you will get one bit of biometric data from moi.

    July 9, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • meh

      bullet with a microchip will do? sir?
      or your social security card?

      July 10, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  6. tokencode

    What is Zakaria not questioning whether this SHOULD be done? Whatever the benfits, biometric universal government identication sounds like tool for repression.

    July 10, 2012 at 12:15 am |
  7. HenryMiller

    "Imagine creating a system to track 1.2 billion people, photographing them, fingerprinting them, cataloging them and giving them all IDs."

    What next? Tattoo serial numbers on their arms?

    July 10, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  8. jim

    They already did imagine that in a book called 1984. They have implemented that book in every Western society with America being the biggest offender of privacy and peoples rights to remain anonymous from their corrupt and controlling governments. It is a very short time until we all are mandated by law to have chip implants, and the ability of government to follow our every move and shut off our chip and access to money and conveniences at their whim. Every person who takes the place of power of the previous fascist oligarchs further pushes the agenda hoping they will be the one who is in control when no one is able to escape the technology. King and God forever over all.

    July 10, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  9. Steve

    Glad to see many other people find this disturbing.

    July 10, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Kirk

      Disturbing is an understatement. This is sickening.

      July 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  10. Lou Cypher

    This article was funded in part by the Patriot Act.

    July 10, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
  11. solutions777

    India is now a police state. Fingerprinting everybody is a sure indicator of an evil police state.

    The mechanics are very easy.

    If Nilekani wants/needs help, email solutions@etorigo.net

    The facts no one wants to read.

    July 10, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
  12. JustBackfromBharat

    Will this card have to be shown to get chai?
    What about to buy food?
    Enter temples?
    Travel the Delhi Metro?
    How many rupees will this "project" cost?
    Where would they store the info?
    I'm just thinking about the Secretariat fire that happened in mumbai 3 weeks ago.

    July 10, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  13. mmklwek

    project to put fingerprints on butts of 1.2 billions people

    July 10, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • Kirk

      Similar to branding of cattle during wild west days

      July 11, 2012 at 10:01 am |
      • JasonMBA

        Let's call it the "Rebranding of India". ROFL !!!

        July 11, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  14. Steven Schultz

    So, are we to believe that "what is good for India is good for the U.S.A.?" Screw your stupid "one size fits all" story, CNN! If I wanted to live like an Indian, I would have moved to India a long time ago, and that sure as hell isn't happening anytime soon.

    July 11, 2012 at 1:22 am |
    • Kirk

      First off, it is an insult comparing USA to India .... like comparing heaven to hell. Second, the thought of moving to India? (where did that come from?)...even thinking of it is repulsive. India ain't no Mexico where you may even consider moving to. Beware of this tribe:::if you see them, tell them you don't know me !!!

      The Aghori or Aghouri is a Hindu cult that is considered to have split off from the Kapalika order in the fourteenth century AD. They have cannibalistic rituals. The streets of northern Indian cities are littered with followers of this cult carrying a kapala, which is a cup made from a skull! These bizarre people will eat anything from rotten food to animal faeces. In order to achieve the highest citadel of enlightenment, the Aghori will perform horrendously crude rituals. The finality of their rituals is attained from eating the decaying flesh of a human.

      July 11, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  15. Bishop Steel

    This is the most succinct report articulating the launch and implimentation of what will be the 'Mark'Lord of the Beast and is truly newsworthy.
    The EU is helping fund a similar project in Africa affecting about 1/2 billion, mostly children, and a global implementation will solve travel problems, tax evasions, money laundering, drug trade profits and on and on, not to mention controlling expensive health care on every individual, especially 'undesirables.'
    Interesting that 'this' development coincides with Mayan predictions, Islam's anticipation of their 12thown Imam Mahdi, the Christian's hope of Christ's soon return, and the coming of the Jewish Messiah.
    For me, the pieces have finally come together.

    July 14, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
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    Hi! The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, but I actually thought youd have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could fix if you werent too busy looking for attention.


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