Since the Unique Identification Authority of India embarked on itsunique identification project (UIDAI) in 2010, an estimated 200 million people have voluntarily enrolled. As discussed in a previous blog, the UIDAI aims to administer some 1.2 billion unique identification numbers by the end of this decade. The 12-digit online number, also referred to as Aadhaar (“foundation” in Hindi), is issued upon completion of demographic and biometric information by the enrollees. The number will give millions of Indian residents, previously excluded from the formal economy, the opportunity to access a range of benefits and services, such as banking, mobile, education, and healthcare. The UIDAI specifically aims to extend social and financial services to the poor, remove corrupt practices plaguing existing welfare databases, eliminate duplicate and fake identities, and hold government officials accountable.
According to a recent study, the UIDAI is on the right track in “bringing entirely new segments of the population into the mainstream economy”. The data shows that more than 56% of the enrollees did not previously carry a formal identification, “and 87% of those households have an annual income below $2,000 a year”. The study, led by Professor Arun Sundararajan of NYU Stern and Professor Ravi Bapna of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, with support from the Indian School of Business, is an ongoing multi-year national survey carried out by India’s National Council for Applied Economic Research and will measure socioeconomic impact over the next decade. The professors predict that if enrollments continue in its current pace, 300 million citizens will be enrolled by the end of this year. They believe that progress so far “is an extremely important first step towards tackling India’s persistent socioeconomic inequalities and bringing the country’s recent progress to the masses.”
While the UIDAI has made great progress in enrolling residents, challenges persist. The legislation that would have enforced the Aadhaar on all Indian residents was rejected by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance in December, 2011. It was rejected due to a number of reasons, including: lack of clarity, security of data, enrollment of illegal immigrants, identity theft, duplication of efforts in collecting biometric information, lack of coordination among government agencies, and difference of opinion on Aadhaar within the government (for the full report, click here). While the Committee asked for a “new fresh” legislation, the UIDAI has continued implementing Aadahaar. It’s not clear what the status of a new bill is and what steps the UIDAI is taking in addressing some of the issues raised by the Committee. However, they have worked with the National Population Register to minimize duplication in collecting data.
The UIDAI has sparked a lot of controversy in the public space from various groups. This has not stopped the project’s leader, Mr. Nandan Nilecani, who is determined to make a change and to better the lives of the poor. His perseverance must be admired. The project’s communication strategy (“Aahdaar – Communicating to a billion”) has clearly been effective considering the high enrolment rate in a very short period of time and the fact that it’s reaching intended segments of the population. However, one can’t help but speculate whether some of the challenges and concerns raised by opposing groups could have been minimized had the UIDAI conducted a sound analysis of the political economy and stakeholders before implementation. In a recent interview by Fareed Zakaria, Mr. Nilekani addressed dealing with political obstacles. As opposed to the private sector, in which Nilekani used to work, he recognizes that there are far many more stakeholder groups to respond to in the public space, and the amount of time it takes to craft a strategy that reflects everyone’s views. Also, while opposition to any change is a fact, Nilekani is focused on building alliances with those supporting the change. For example, the UIDAI has signed a Memo of Understanding (MoU) with a number of states, banks, and other partners. However, for Nilekani the greatest allies are the people themselves, as they see their lives improving with access to financial and social services.
The UID is a fascinating story, and one to watch in the years to come. There will certainly be many lessons to learn from this program and the outcome could be monumental.
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