The courtyard, just off a busy street in a Delhi slum called Mongolpuri, is buzzing with people—men in plastic sandals arguing with one another, women in saris holding babies on their hips, skinny young guys chattering on cheap cell phones. New arrivals take up positions at the end of a long queue leading to the gated entry of a low cement building. Every so often, a worker opens the gate briefly and people elbow their way inside onto a dimly lit stairway, four or five on each step. Slowly they work their way upward to a second-story landing, where they are stopped again by a steel grille.
After a long wait, a lean woman in a sequined red sari, three children in tow, has finally made it to the head of the line. Her name is Kiran; like many poor Indians, she uses just one name. She and her school-age brood stare curiously through the grille at the people and machines on the other side. Eventually, an unsmiling man in a collared shirt lets them into the big open room. People crowd around mismatched tables scattered with computers, printers, and scanners. Bedsheets nailed up over the windows filter the sun but not the racket of diesel buses and clattering bicycles outside. Kiran glances at the brightly colored posters in Hindi and English on the walls. They don’t tell her much, though, since she can’t read.
A neatly dressed middle-aged man leads the children to a nearby table, and a brisk young woman in a green skirt sits Kiran down at another. The young woman takes her own seat in front of a Samsung laptop, picks up a slim gray plastic box from the cluttered tabletop, and shows Kiran how to look into the opening at one end. Kiran puts it up to her face and for a moment sees nothing but blackness. Then suddenly two bright circles of light flare out. Kiran’s eyes, blinking and uncertain, appear on the laptop screen, magnified tenfold. Click. The oversize eyes freeze on the screen. Kiran’s irises have just been captured.
Kiran has never touched or even seen a real computer, let alone an iris scanner. She thinks she’s 32, but she’s not sure exactly when she was born. Kiran has no birth certificate, or ID of any kind for that matter—no driver’s license, no voting card, nothing at all to document her existence. Eight years ago, she left her home in a destitute farming village and wound up here in Mongolpuri, a teeming warren of shabby apartment blocks and tarp-roofed shanties where grimy barefoot children, cargo bicycles, haggard dogs, goats, and cows jostle through narrow, trash-filled streets. Kiran earns about $1.50 a day sorting cast-off clothing for recycling. In short, she’s just another of India’s vast legions of anonymous poor.
Now, for the first time, her government is taking note of her. Kiran and her children are having their personal information recorded in an official database—not just any official database, but one of the biggest the world has ever seen. They are the latest among millions of enrollees in India’s Unique Identification project, also known as Aadhaar, which means “the foundation” in several Indian languages. Its goal is to issue identification numbers linked to the fingerprints and iris scans of every single person in India.
That’s more than 1.2 billion people—everyone from Himalayan mountain villagers to Bangalorean call-center workers, from Rajasthani desert nomads to Mumbai street beggars—speaking more than 300 languages and dialects. The biometrics and the Aadhaar identification number will serve as a verifiable, portable, all but unfakable national ID. It is by far the biggest and most technologically complicated biometrics program ever attempted.
Aadhaar faces titanic physical and technical challenges: reaching millions of illiterate Indians who have never seen a computer, persuading them to have their irises scanned, ensuring that their information is accurate, and safeguarding the resulting ocean of data. This is India, after all—a country notorious for corruption and for failing to complete major public projects. And the whole idea horrifies civil libertarians. But if Aadhaar’s organizers pull it off, the initiative could boost the fortunes of India’s poorest citizens and turbocharge the already booming national economy.