India Begins First Biometric Census

India launches the first biometric census today, reports the BBC.

“India is launching a new census in which every person aged over 15 will be photographed and fingerprinted to create a biometric national database. The government will then use the information to issue identity cards.

Officials will spend a year classifying India’s population of around 1.2 billion people according to gender, religion, occupation and education. The exercise, conducted every 10 years, faces big challenges, not least India’s vast area and diversity of cultures.

Census officials must also contend with high levels of illiteracy and millions of homeless people – as well as insurgencies by Maoists and other rebels which have left large parts of the country unsafe.
President Pratibha Patil was the first person to be listed, and appealed to fellow Indians to follow her example “for the good of the nation”. “Everyone must participate and make it successful,” she said in Delhi.

This is India’s 15th census and the first time a biometric element has been included.”

If only it were an April Fool’s prank. Unfortunately, it’s the real thing.

The master mind behind it is Nandan Nilekani, the co-founder of IT outsourcing giant Infosys, hero of the Gideon’s Bible of globalization, Thomas Friedman’s “The World Is Flat” (a book I confess I’ve given a small thrashing to), and the man who coined the irritating meme in the first place.

As this Times article points out, less than 7% of the Indian population of over a billion (that is, around 75 million) pays income taxes. There’s also rampant corruption, a thriving black market, endless bureaucracy, and documentation requirements that make cross-state travel a time-consuming burden.

The ID is supposed to end all that. What it will begin, we can only guess.

As we blogged a while back, even the UK, the Anglophone world’s police-state petri dish, crammed to the gills with CCTV and traffic cameras, managed to squash this frightening initiative when it was introduced there.

Unfortunately, Europe has taken to it, with Germany, France, Belgium, Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Spain among the 100 countries that use compulsory national identity cards.

But India, it need hardly be said, is not Europe. Besides the civil liberties dangers, the costs are heavy. In the UK, they were estimated to have been between 10-20 billion pounds. In India, they are said to be around 3 billion pounds (other figures I’ve seen are $6.6 billion and 300 billion rupees), an enormous burden on the public treasury. And the number is only an estimate, which, like all government estimates of future costs, is almost 100% certain to be over optimistic.

The other major mandate that Nilekani claims is that the new ID will help bring services and subsidies to the poor and prevent their theft or loss. This would be more reassuring if Nilekani didn’t count among former clients of Infosys such experts at combining doing good with doing well as Goldman Sachs.

The Times article describes the card thus:

“A computer chip in each card will contain personal data and proof of identity, such as fingerprint or iris scans. Criminal records and credit histories may also be included.

Mr Nilekani, who left Infosys, the outsourcing giant that he co-founded, to take up his new job, wants the cards to be linked to a “ubiquitous online database” accessible from anywhere.”

Nilekani is head of the newly-created Unique Identification Database Authority of India (IDAI) and he has received 19 bids for its first project from vendors including Tata Consultancy Services, Wipro, HCL, IBM, and his own company, Infosys.

For every rupee of IT spending on the project, industry experts estimate, around 60 per cent of this will go to hardware vendors (see Biometrics4You)


Biometrics4You lists other aspects of the initiative:

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI – the central bank of India) has announced plans to roll out new guidelines to help financial institutions use biometrics at ATMs in rural areas without access to banking. The Orwellian term for this is un-banked or under though there were some optimal level of banking every square foot of the earth should have.