ON 7 JANUARY 2011, a group of science students staged a silent protest as Nandan Nilekani began delivering a lecture on ‘Adhaar’s role in the transformation of public service’ at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore. The students were holding printed posters that read: “Secure electronic archive is a myth.”
Nilekani, a husky man in his mid-50s, left his company, Infosys, in 2009 to take up a new role as the chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), a government agency charged with creating an identification number for every resident of India. The project, known as Aadhar—meaning “foundation” or “basis”—aims to create a universal database, backed with biometric data such as fingerprints and retinal scans, capable of verifying the identity of every Indian. The goal, as Nilekani has said, is to establish “one single, non-duplicate way of identifying a person.” The project’s supporters argue that UID will simplify registrations and transactions for rural or poor Indians, eliminate fraud and corruption in the distribution of public funds and goods, and bolster national security against illegal immigration and terrorist threats.
But as the protestors in Bangalore demonstrate, the initiative remains hotly controversial: its cost has been estimated at 1.5 trillion rupees, and it aims to cover a population of 1.3 billion people—likely the largest numbering process in human history. Activists have raised a series of further questions about the programme. Can the security of the central database, containing personal information, be guaranteed? Will this storehouse of personal information be misused by police or intelligence agencies? Will those who fail to enrol—in what has been advertised as a voluntary programme—be excluded from government services or benefits?