Mumbai, April, 29 : As the country gears up to build the largest biometric database in the world with the aim of providing most of its 1.2 billion citizens a Unique Identification (UID), perhaps the biggest challenge is smudged fingerprints.
The UID Authority of India will issue the first UIDs linked to a person's demographic and biometric information between August and February, and issue about 600 million such IDs over the next five years to help verify citizens quickly and cheaply. It will be a boon for companies and government agencies alike.
It would give millions of people the means to open a bank account, buy a mobile phone, and access welfare services easily, while saving companies and government agencies the expensive and time-consuming process of verifying and establishing identities.
The project, which has drawn the interest of mobile services firms and technology giants including Tata Consultancy Services, Microsoft and Google, is expected to better target and reduce waste in welfare schemes, including pensions.
"There is a concern that a lot of the welfare benefits that the government provides don't reach the intended beneficiaries because you can't correctly identify them," said Ajit Ranande, chief economist of the Aditya Birla Group, in Mumbai.
"The UID will hopefully enable better targeting, identification of beneficiaries, and plug leakages. If you can improve targeting by even 5-10 percent, it would be a big deal."
The UID project, named "Aadhar", is estimated to cost some .2-.4 billion to implement, but will bring in an equal amount in savings annually from the elimination of duplicate and false identities, said Samiran Chakraborty, head of research at Standard Chartered.
"The programme may have a significant positive impact on India's growth and fiscal health in the years to come," he said.
But with an estimated 75 million people homeless and millions others criss-crossing the country as migrant workers with little or no documentation, the UIDAI has its work cut out.
UIDAI is working with Census 2011 survey, as well as local government bodies and NGOs to reach millions, including an estimated 410 million people living on less than .25 a day, a blot on India's otherwise compelling growth story.
"It all boils down to a lack of proper identity, and the exclusion is debilitating," said Nandan Nilekani, UIDAI chief.
"At the same time, India is clocking 8 percent growth. So it is clearly creating a huge divide; if we want people to be included in the growth story, we need to recognise the people the system doesn't recognise," said Nilekani.
The average Indian typically has multiple identity cards, including a voter ID, a tax ID, a ration card, passport, driving licence and others. Yet there is no central database, which has created "phantoms" on voter lists and welfare schemes.
Duplicates and fake identities abound, and millions of the poor have no identification at all, which could deny them "a basic right to an acknowledged existence", says Nilekani.
Nilekani, the former chief of No. 2 software firm Infosys Technologies, was handpicked by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to head up UIDAI after he wrote extensively on the need for a unique ID in his book, Imagining India, published in 2008.
"Acknowledging the existence of every single citizen automatically compels the state to improve the quality of services, and immediately gives the citizen a fairer, more equitable access to services," said Nilekani.
"This recognition creates a deep awareness of rights, entitlements and duties," he said.
Beyond developing the smart cards, the challenge is making the back-end infrastructure secure and scalable, ensuring privacy and integrating agents who issue the numbers, said Nilekani.
Among the biggest challenges is securing "clean" fingerprints as part of the biometric identification that will also include an image of the face and of the two irises, in the dusty conditions of rural India, where nearly two-thirds of the population lives.
Frequent power outages are another hurdle, said Sreeni Tripuraneni, chief executive of 4G Identity Solutions, which is conducting pilot tests in Andhra Pradesh.
"Most biometric technology was developed for clean, air-conditioned environments, but dust is a big problem in the villages and we sometimes get multiple impressions, or residue."
"We also have to carry our own generators for power," said Tripuraneni, whose firm developed an algorithm to remove "noise" from the images, and modified the software for use in India.
Operators have also been trained to deal with labourers with deeply calloused hands, for example, or women wearing burqas, said Tripuraneni, who calls the UID "the mother of all databases".
The biggest risk is losing political steam, said Ranade, which would pull the plug on resources and crucial support.
"But perhaps we shouldn't be so sceptical about it. In this case, we have not lived in a world where every Indian has a unique ID, so we can only imagine what that would be like."
Chandra, a maid servant in Mumbai who gives her earnings to her employer for safekeeping, is already imagining that world.
"I can finally get a cell phone and open a bank account in my name. It will make a big difference to me," she said.