Indian biometric ID scheme poverty alleviation mission gathers pace

The explosion of IT companies in India has done little to alleviate extreme poverty within the sub continent, but could the biometric ID card programme currently being implemented create real change?

Last year I wrote about the project. I did so following the news that tier-two Indian IT services provider MindTree was awarded a software development and maintenance contract to support the complex software that will authenticate every Indian citizen using biometric technology.
I caught up with MindTree’s IT services CEO Anjan Lahiri, who I interviewed last year, and he gave me an update. He also described how the ID scheme will change the lives of hundreds of millions of people, in a positive way.

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Lahiri said the software from MindTree is the most visible IT in the scheme, but is probably the smallest component.

MindTree’s software has now enrolled a total of 6 million people. This process sees citizens visit an enrolment centre. Give their details as well as have their identities biometrically recorded. They are then given an identification number.

Lahiri said the pace of enrolment is soon to increase to one million citizens per day.

– The biometric ID card scheme in India will see all 1.3 billion Indian citizens receive an ID card that authenticates their identity through biometric checks.

– It will sign 600million people up in total.

– Each person registered will have an estimated 5 megabytes of data and the datacentre that will hold the information will have 4 Terabytes of data coming into it every day during peak enrolment periods. This will be about the biggest non commercial datacenter in the world.

Lahiri told me last year that the project will succeed in India, where the UK failed, because it is about alleviating poverty rather than privacy.

He described how giving people an identity will allow them to get a bank account. The cornerstone of life these days.

But he went further and explained how the ID scheme will support a cashless society. He said all vendors will have a biometric reader and citizens can pay for things with a fingerprint scan. Even a bag of rice.

He said mobile phones have already transformed life for millions in India. He told me a story of how mobiles have changed the lives of fishermen as an example.

A fishing boat has just made its catch. The captain checks his net and wonders where to dock to sell it. A few phone calls later he goes to the dock that is demanding supplies. This way he sells everything at the best price.
When I was at university I studied India a lot in my degree which was Development Geography. Actually it was Third World Development Studies, but “third world” has negative connotations and let’s face it India is in the space race now.

At the time I wouldn’t have believed what a difference IT could make to India. It was never really something we discussed. Hard to believe that.

But today as a journalist at Computer Weekly I find myself writing about India every day.