India's biometric ID project is back on track

The new Indian government has indicated strong support for a controversial project to require residents to have biometric IDs in order to collect government benefits, setting a target of 1 billion enrollments by 2015.

The status of the project was in doubt when a new federal government was voted in last May, as the winning Bharatiya Janata Party had said during the election campaign that it would review the program. The new target signals the new government’s backing of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which was largely seen as a project of the previous government led by the Congress party.

The biometric ID, which assigns a person a 12-digit number called the Aadhaar number, requires the collection of 10 fingerprints, iris scans and other information such as the name, date of birth and address of the individual. It has been criticized by a number of privacy groups who are concerned that the data could at some point be misused by the government.

Ruling in a fundamental rights lawsuit, India’s Supreme Court issued an interim order last September that people cannot be required to have the Aadhaar identification to collect state subsidies. This runs against the aim of the UIDAI to use the Aadhaar number for the distribution of government benefits and also as a proof of identity for a variety of services including banking.

The new enrollments to the program will come from the four states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand. About 674 million people have been allotted the numbers so far across the country.

Before the government can expand the scheme, it will have to be backed by a law passed by India’s Parliament, rather than the current executive order, according to legal experts. It will also have to get the Supreme Court to change its order. The UIDAI website still describes the Aadhaar program as voluntary.

“The UID project aims to ensure inclusive growth by providing digital, online, verifiable identity to all residents, including marginalized sections of society,” the government said in a statement Wednesday. The Aadhaar number is designed to replace traditional paper ration cards that are usually inaccurate, and misused to benefit people who do not qualify for subsidies.

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