Bridging the “identity divide”: A quiet revolution in India

Published on Monday, 16 September 2013

Published by Indu Bhushan on Monday, 16 September 2013

I do not have a birth certificate. Even though I was born in the capital city of the biggest province in India, my birth was never registered. Luckily, I went to school where they recorded my date of birth and my high school certificate gave me an identity. Now, I also have a passport and I can prove who I am.

However, hundreds of millions of my compatriots are not so lucky. They do not have any legal proof that they exist!

There is a great divide in India between identity-haves and identity-have-nots.  Those without an identity are barred from exercising basic rights and face severe constraints in accessing productive employment, social benefits and the justice system. It also denies them recognition as full citizens and the right to political participation. Electoral rolls in some parts of India can be full of ‘ghost’ voters, while a large number of citizens are denied the basic right to vote.

The “identify divide” is very costly for the Government of India as well. 

Without the means to identify real beneficiaries, the government often resorts to providing mass subsidies without targeting. For example, it heavily subsidizes certain petroleum products, since diesel is a key ingredient for agriculture and rural transport, and kerosene is used by the poor for cooking. However, while subsidies benefit the poor, they also benefit people who run luxury cars fueled by diesel. By some estimates, most of the benefits of the $30 billion petroleum subsidy are being pocketed by the non-poor. 

Even when the government seeks to target subsidies so they reach the right groups, the “digital divide” results in most of the resources being stolen or wasted before they get to the intended beneficiaries. One Indian Prime Minister famously acknowledged that only 15% of the money reached the intended beneficiaries. The beneficiary lists for many welfare programs are full of ’ghost’ names.

However, all this is going to change very soon.

The government has taken up the challenge of providing a unique biometric identity to each of its 1.2 billion citizens over the next few years. More than 400 million people have already received this unique identity card—called AadhaarAadhaar will provide its holder with an identification which will be recognized by all government and non-government agencies throughout the country. Aadhaar will become the simplest way of proving one’s identity. Since Aadhaar is based on the biometric information of an individual, it eliminates the possibility of any misrepresentation or fraud. A person’s Aadhaar number can be used while opening a bank account, receiving subsidies, and applying for jobs, and at many other places where there is a need to provide proof of identity. 

The initiative is, of course, a monumental logistical exercise. Reaching, documenting, collecting biometric information, and issuing cards to 1.2 billion people is a daunting task. If done effectively however, it will reap huge dividends both for the Government of India and the country’s poor. It would allow the government to provide more targeted subsidies instead of relying mainly on generalized subsidies. It could also improve the efficiency of the current targeted welfare programs by  transferring resources directly to intended beneficiaries’ bank accounts, avoiding the bureaucratic snarl-ups, where most of the resources currently get stuck, stolen or are left unspent.

Providing foolproof identities to all citizens on this scale is nothing less than a revolution for India. If the country manages to successfully pull it off, this initiative will be a great model for others in the region and beyond, especially in countries where governments are currently struggling with poverty reduction efforts.  We should all closely follow the progress of this silent Indian revolution as it moves forward.

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