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The next billion eyes
August 30, 2011 9:52 PM   Subscribe

Massive Biometric Project Gives Crores of Indians an ID: Aadhaar faces titanic physical and technical challenges: reaching millions of illiterate Indians who have never seen a computer, persuading them to have their irises scanned, ensuring that their information is accurate, and safeguarding the resulting ocean of data. This is India, after all—a country notorious for corruption and for failing to complete major public projects. And the whole idea horrifies civil libertarians. But if Aadhaar’s organizers pull it off, the initiative could boost the fortunes of India’s poorest citizens and turbocharge the already booming national economy.

That’s more than 1.2 billion people—everyone from Himalayan mountain villagers to Bangalorean call-center workers, from Rajasthani desert nomads to Mumbai street beggars—speaking more than 300 languages and dialects. The biometrics and the Aadhaar identification number will serve as a verifiable, portable, all but unfakable national ID. It is by far the biggest and most technologically complicated biometrics program ever attempted.
posted by infini (30 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
I love the word crore. (a unit of 10 million). In fact, I love that Indians weren't OK with the whole thousands millions billions thing, no! We're going with lakh and crore.
posted by msalt at 10:00 PM on August 30, 2011 [6 favorites]


Kaun Banega Crorepati?
posted by sweetkid at 10:04 PM on August 30, 2011


This is the guy who suggested to golf buddy Thomas Friedman that the world was getting flat.

I don't know why Wired thinks this is a good thing about Nandan Nilekani.
posted by vidur at 10:50 PM on August 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Seems like it could be amazing.....need to have people believe the government can do good and create infrastructure....remember, China is really one big government infrastructure build up of a semi free market economy there.
posted by skepticallypleased at 11:01 PM on August 30, 2011


golf buddy Thomas Friedman

Useless.
posted by dirigibleman at 11:12 PM on August 30, 2011


Kaun Banega Crorepati?

Not me. Main Madhuri Dixit banna chhati hoon.

But this is excellent, and yet another example of India as the Light of the World.

In my city, they just outlawed free grocery bags -- that is, stores are required to charge customers for paper grocery bags, and cannot provide plastic ones at all, in an effort to force everyone to bring their own reusable grocery bags. OMG it's the Apocalypse! This -- though the bluest county of a very blue state -- is Amurrka, not Soviet Russia, WTF?

Yeah, me, I keep it in perspective. We're only like five years behind Mumbai in our commitment to the environment. We're catching up! U.S.A! U.S.A!
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 12:22 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


msalt: "I love the word crore. (a unit of 10 million). In fact, I love that Indians weren't OK with the whole thousands millions billions thing, no! We're going with lakh and crore."

In our defence, we preemptively side-stepped a much more confusing situation.
posted by vanar sena at 12:42 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, the total population of India is only 120 crore people
posted by infini at 2:05 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


they just outlawed free grocery bags... Really? We've been paying for grocery bags since the 70s in Sweden and the plastic ones are made out of biodegradable sugar canes.
posted by dabitch at 2:24 AM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Maybe they said something about it in the article and I missed it, but is there any interference from the caste system here? If I'm not mistaken, Untouchables are supposed to be...just that? Isn't there a risk that some prejudiced techie will refuse to document them?
posted by Mooseli at 2:50 AM on August 31, 2011


Isn't there a risk that some prejudiced techie will refuse to document them?

Not in this century.

posted by infini at 3:07 AM on August 31, 2011


In fact, I love that Indians weren't OK with the whole thousands millions billions thing, no!

Per Wikipedia, "Lakh" and "crore" make an appearance in Burmese, Swahili and Chinese, among non-Indian languages. In all honesty, I hate the terms "crore" and "billion" in equal measure; usually find myself converting everything to powers of ten to appreciate large numbers.

Actually, there's something else I hate more than using "crore" or "billion", it is not using terms such as "arab" and "kharab" and so on for numbers larger than 10^9. To me, "INR 10 kharabs" is conveys meaning better than saying INR 1 lakh crore, for instance. Just me I'm sure.

Back to the multi-neel kilo gorilla in the room here, the facts are simple:

a) The Supreme Court has, on countless occasions, deemed the right to privacy was implicit in the Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

b) The Executive has _always_ shown a propensity for violating this right - examples are numerous, including "good" ones such as the Radia tapes - and I doubt it'll change its spots because of a proposed bill or two.

The bigger question here is whether the Adhaar project facilitates more focussed violations of privacy. I'm not entirely certain on that one (by which I don't mean it's not possible, merely that I haven't made up my mind), but it is certainly reasonable to both suggest that it could, and that, given that we already have multiple ID-cards, setting a common standard for all would help.
posted by the cydonian at 4:11 AM on August 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


the cydonian: "The bigger question here is whether the Adhaar project facilitates more focussed violations of privacy."

I've struggled with this question myself. I often wonder if the 1984 anti-Sikh riots would have been worse if the Congress had had access to more accurate lists pointing out where the Sikhs lived. So I think I have a pretty jaundiced view of giving the government more information than it needs.

On the other hand, we have kharabs of rupees being stolen from India's poorest, simply because there is no dependable traceability and record-keeping. If this goes even part of the way toward fixing that, it may well be worth it.
posted by vanar sena at 4:40 AM on August 31, 2011


Reading your comments makes me wonder if we should limit the ID to women and destitute?
posted by infini at 4:53 AM on August 31, 2011


What I'd really like is for Nandan Nilekani to show up and talk about this project...
posted by infini at 5:03 AM on August 31, 2011


Isn't there a risk that some prejudiced techie will refuse to document them?

Not in this century.


And in November 2008, American racism was banished forever!

The caste system is still a big issue in India, and will take at least two more generations to be an interesting historical relic that people get angry about being on museum placards. On the other hand, there are still plenty of people who are willing to set it aside, and the fact that some people will slip through the cracks doesn't mean you shouldn't install a floor at all.
posted by Etrigan at 5:04 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


So these millions of "unbanked" Indians are supposed to give up their personal data to the state, in return for the privilege of putting their money into bank accounts where they can be subject to bank fees and the banks have a giant new source of capital? No, thanks.
posted by yarly at 6:45 AM on August 31, 2011


Oh, and also -- if you keep your money in a bank instead of under a mattress, it's in a place where creditors can get it, and your bank account can end up overdrawn as well. In the US we have laws in place to protect social security and other federal benefit deposits from garnishment ... if they don't put something similar in place in India, expect banks to routinely allow the funds to be garnished by creditors (or to be used to pay the banks' own fees). For poor people, this can be a disaster; they end up with zero and negative bank balances quickly. And a bank account is certainly no fraud-proof device; it's easy enough put through unauthorized electronic charges to a bank account, perhaps easier than physically stealing money. Again, in the US we have special laws protecting exactly how you can authorize electronic debits from a bank account -- do they have that in India?
posted by yarly at 6:52 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love the word crore. (a unit of 10 million).

Glad I checked the comments. I stared at that word for a minute and eventually decided it had to be a typo of "scores".
posted by curious nu at 7:05 AM on August 31, 2011


Yarly, the Reserve Bank of India sets the basic savings account interest rates. It used to 5% back in the day for a regular ol' account but has now gone down to a flat 3.5%. That usually covers fees if any.

Few poor people or rural residents would use the foreign banks which usually have a lot of service charges and don't tend to have branches outside urban metros. For example the State Bank of India has separate charges per quarter (3 months) for urban and rural branches viz.,

Urban/Metro/SU-
Savings Bank
Rs 200/-per quarter
Rural Rs 100/-per quarter

Current account
At all Centers-Individual Rs 500/-per quarter


Rs 100 is ~ 2 USD or maybe 3 depending on how much its fluctuating. Most can afford that over a period of 3 months. The unbanked tend to be unbanked mostly due to lack of accessible branches and the paperwork/ID required to open accounts. There is no social security number automatically issued at birth in India.

Reasons for financial exclusion

There are a variety of reasons for financial exclusion. In remote, hilly and sparsely populated areas with poor infrastructure, physical access itself acts as a deterrent. From the demand side, lack of awareness, low incomes/assets, social exclusion, illiteracy act as barriers. From the supply side, distance from branch, branch timings, cumbersome documentation and procedures, unsuitable products, language, staff attitudes are common reasons for exclusion. All these result in higher transaction cost apart from procedural hassles. On the other hand, the ease of availability of informal credit sources makes these popular even if costlier. The requirements of independent documentary proof of identity and address can be a very important barrier in having a bank account especially for migrants and slum dwellers.

posted by infini at 7:32 AM on August 31, 2011


Also, it's not just about banking - for schemes like NREGA, the money comes out of the ministries' coffers and gets turned into cash somewhere along the chain - this will help make sure more of it gets to the people who earned it, unlike what is actually happening.
posted by vanar sena at 7:43 AM on August 31, 2011


I often wonder if the 1984 anti-Sikh riots would have been worse if the Congress had had access to more accurate lists pointing out where the Sikhs lived.

No need to wonder; as Gujarat 2002 showed, it can be worse. But that's exactly the point I'm trying to square here: Gujarat 2002 happened when the Bajrang Dal-types either made their own lists, or had access to property tax lists at the muncipal level.

I think what will be interesting is how the records are to be accessed, and what would constitute _fraudulent access_: for instance, one way to avoid this from being used in pogroms is to limit the ability to generate lists, or even, disallow lookups based on name, only on unique ID's.

In short, concerns do remain, but I think it's possible to address them effectively. The trick, though, would be to build a culture of privacy from the beginning itself.

So these millions of "unbanked" Indians are supposed to give up their personal data to the state, in return for the privilege of putting their money into bank accounts where they can be subject to bank fees and the banks have a giant new source of capital?

You'll have to forgive me if I find this a strange comment; I suppose the real story here is how much America's banks have fucked people over.

So India's largest bank, which also happens to be the bank with the largest number of branches, the (state-owned) State Bank of India requires that customers in rural areas maintain a minimum balance of INR 100 == USD 2.18 per quarter, or face a penalty of INR 37.50 per annum for not doing so.

This is at a "middle-class"-isque bank; I suppose low-income folk would perhaps open a savings account at the Post Office for a minimum balance of INR 50. All this for schemes where people could be paid INR 120 / day, which is INR 20 more than the minimum daily wage in India, INR 100.

As far as I can see, neither the Post Office nor the State Bank are really that bothered about bank fees.
posted by the cydonian at 7:44 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


You'll have to forgive me if I find this a strange comment; I suppose the real story here is how much America's banks have fucked people over.

My view is that bank logic is the same worldwide ... if there's money to be made, they will make it. Once poor Indians are turned into "consumers" by being mainstreamed into the formal economy with bank accounts, then they become a source of capital for a million economic interests who now have access to their money. I have no knowledge of Indian banking regulations or consumer protection regulations, so maybe this problem has already been accounted for -- my only point is that there could be unintended consequences, and it may be wrong to believe that the informal, local banking system already in place is in all ways inferior to formal, corporate or state-run banking system.
posted by yarly at 7:49 AM on August 31, 2011


yarly: "informal, local banking system already in place is in all ways inferior to formal, corporate or state-run banking system."

It's inferior in most ways - access to reasonable credit (extremely important for farmers), access to any kind of interest accrual, access to non-usurious remittance services for migrant workers... it's hard to think of upsides. Seriously, the only benefit we got out of 40 years of nationalized banking is that there are decent services for poor people. Only if they have access though.
posted by vanar sena at 7:58 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


My view is that bank logic is the same worldwide ... if there's money to be made, they will make it.

This is perhaps not always the optimum perspective, imho, when considering infrastructural systems in various cultures/nations/regions.

In many ways, the local informal banking systems are indeed superior to formal banking systems - in that, they're usually local moneylenders in villages and credit is often granted based on your own family history and personal references.

However, banking is not a private for profit industry (or at least not for the state run banks). India has a heritage of socialism and from the beginning banking was percieved as a service to the masses rather than profit oriented corporate enterprise.

Deposits in banks then become reserves for the state rather than a means to make money.

On preview, I don't disagree with vanar sena on reasons why its inferior but have linked to my reasons where its superior to existing banking infrastructure. If only MPesa or other mobile banking system could finally take off in India...
posted by infini at 8:02 AM on August 31, 2011


the plastic ones are made out of biodegradable sugar canes.

I've been waiting 3 years for my only time ever purchase of biodegradable plastic compost bin bags to break down in my composters. Tree branches break down quicker. In fact I can't even tell if they are different from plastic. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming...
posted by srboisvert at 8:20 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Much of this discussion seems by the by. People have a right to an identity - to be recognised by the state. It's wonderful that India is (finally) doing this. However easy it may be to abuse people's civil rights when you have information about them, it is even easier to do so when they don't officially exist.

It is unfortunate however and reveals much that India's civil service is so disfunctional as to be incapable of doing this itself (hence the outsourcing). In fact, one of the aims of this scheme (and others like NREGA - a right to work programme) is for high level technocrats to drive improvements by directly connecting with citizens and giving them the resources to demand their rights from the government apparatus.
posted by Philosopher's Beard at 1:17 PM on August 31, 2011


vanar sena: In our defence, we preemptively side-stepped a much more confusing situation.

Wow, that is amazing, thanks. I had no idea.

I love especially how in Canada, "billion" means 109 in English but 1012 in French. And how in Long Scale countries (e.g. continental Europe), "billiard" means what we would call "quadrillion" (1015). That sets up an excellent practical joke at the local pool hall.
posted by msalt at 3:04 PM on August 31, 2011


A village woman applies for a loan extension. She negotiates with the loan officer, but ultimately rejects the offered terms. You don't need subtitles here.

So yeah, there's what Americans think of as predatory lending, which has *also* become a problem in India as well, but this is added to issues with traditional forms of credit.

It is fascinating to think what could come from this ID scheme, if it were successful in reaching the whole 120 crore, give or take. From what I understand, many, many areas of Indian life would be impacted -- voting, banking, school enrollment, driver's licensing, social entitlements, on and on -- which are currently inextricably mired in corruption.

Tangential but timely -- today, Anna Hazare was released from the hospital after ending his hunger-strike to force consideration of a sweeping anti-corruption bill (pdf)

So positive ID for all citizens + the political will to punish corruption = a corruption-free India in our time?
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 4:02 PM on August 31, 2011


Anna needs an FPP
posted by infini at 7:54 PM on August 31, 2011


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