How to Count One-Sixth of the World's Population

A software billionaire and his monumental task: create a database of the more than one billion people living in India

There are 1.2 billion people living in India. Less than three percent -- 33 million people -- pay income taxes and only 60 million have passports. Many, if not most, of the remainder -- hundreds of millions of people -- are, for practical purposes, invisible to the state. They have no social security numbers, no birth certificates, and no driver's licenses. Who are they?
Tech 2020 Answering that question, person by person, is not an abstract matter of existential recognition, a nicety of becoming a modern state. India has trouble delivering social services to people it cannot track, and many funds designated for the poorest members of Indian society end up in bureaucrats' pockets. In the private sector, people without IDs cannot open bank accounts.

So, how do you find and catalog a sixth of the world's population? That problem is the job of Nandan Nilekani, a billionaire cofounder of the outsourcing company Infosys, and the subject of a profile by Ian Parker in the newest issue of the New Yorker. In the summer of 2009, Nilekhani left Infosys to chair the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), also known as Aadhaar, the government agency tasked with creating the world's largest biometric database. Parker writes:

The intention of Aadhaar, as described by Nilekani, is to improve the efficiency of government services, "and all that stuff," while giving people the means "to ask for what they deserve," no matter where they are in India, even if they are far from where they were born. "The notion that an Indian lives and dies in his village is passe," Nilekani said, His task is to assign everyone in India a random twelve-digit number that is unique to him or her -- nobody gets more than one number -- and to link the person to the number with a photograph, fingerprints, and iris scans. Though many countries have long traditions of people-listing -- in records connected to baptism, taxation, or conscription -- India does not. Nikelani's digital effort is what he calls "leapfrogging stuff." If the project is successful, India would abruptly find itself at the forefront of citizen-identification technology, outperforming Social Security and other non-biometric, and not full randomized systems.

Nilekani's project marries the two typically non-overlapping spheres of India's governmental bureaucracy, based in Delhi, and its tech sector, based in Bangalore. Nilekani told Parker: "We're good at IT, and we're bad at governance, and we can use one to improve the other."

Enrollment in the database (which includes a photograph, fingerprints, and iris scans) is completely voluntary and available to all residents of India. There are no ID cards, just numbers. Parker explains:

A card, carrying a photograph and other biometric information, can confirm identity offline; it's a database of one. But cards can suggest authoritarianism, and they create a market, for they can be bought and sold. Moreover, and Sriram Raghavan put it recently, "Everything should be in the cloud, right?" Indian cell-phone connectivity was already good enough for Aadhaar's planners to imagine almost universal online access to a national registry. A cell phone connected to a cheap fingerprint reader could authenticate identity anywhere, and could even become the basis for a simple ATM, allowing banks to expand into the countryside. Nilekani called Aadhaar's decision not to release cards an "epiphanic moment."

The database is expected to take some four to eight years to build, and "we're talking seven days a week, twenty-four hours, computers, thousands and thousands of them, just crunching," said Srikanth Nadhamuni, UIDAI's head of technology.  Currently, some 33 million numbers have been issued, but not all the data has been processed. Last winter, the agency was adding some 40,000 people per day, and by 2014 that number may be as high as one million.

Of course there are privacy concerns and questions about the effects that merely having such a database could have on Indian social policies; there always will be. To the critics, Nilekani says, "Whatever public service you want, your name has to be on a list. If you don't have any form of identity, if you don't have any acknowledgement of your fundamental existence, then you're essentially shut out of the system. You become a nonperson. ... Come up with a faster, better, cheaper solution and we'll implement that, yes?"

Image: Reuters.