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?
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."