India’s Ambitious National Identification Program

The Unique Identification Authority of India has been charged with implementing a nationwide program to register and assign a unique 12-digit ID to every Indian resident—some 1.2 billion people—by 2020. In a new case, Professor Tarun Khanna and HBS India Research Center Executive Director Anjali Raina discuss the complexities of this massive data management project.
by Dina Gerdeman

In a hugely ambitious project, the Unique Identification Authority of India has been charged with implementing a nationwide program to register and assign a one-of-a-kind ID number to every Indian resident—some 1.2 billion people—by 2020 and to meet an interim goal of issuing 600 million IDs by 2014.

The program involves linking a 12-digit randomly assigned number to a person's biometric data-a photograph, all 10 fingerprints, and iris scans of both eyes--as well as to demographic information, including name, address, date of birth, and gender.

“You are basically denied almost everything if you can't prove who you are.”

The scope and scale of the project, and its progress so far in already enrolling 200 million people, make this the largest-scale project of its kind in the world, says Harvard Business School Professor Tarun Khanna, an expert on working with entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

Delivering on the ultimate goal, reaching and successfully identifying each and every Indian resident, is a daunting prospect. "This project is hugely audacious and has never been achieved anywhere before," says Khanna. "There is nothing in the United States or Europe that even comes close to this. They are far from the finish line, but it sure is an amazing start!"

The UIDAI project provides an interesting lesson for companies that are intent on reaching an enormous, diverse population, says Khanna, who has co-written a case on the project, "Aadhaar: India's Unique Identification System," with Anjali Raina (HBS AMP 174, 2008), executive director of the HBS India Research Center in Mumbai.

"Any company that wants to operate in emerging markets that are large and populous, like China, India, Indonesia, or Brazil, has to grapple with this question: How do you reach the person on the street?" says Khanna, who was raised in India and still visits the country several times a year. "The case is a pretty dramatic illustration of the difficulties in doing that, but it also makes clear what it takes to get something like this done."

India's economy is enjoying robust growth with an expanding middle class. But the country, which has 22 official languages, also has its share of huge challenges: widespread poverty with 75 million homeless people, insufficient access to quality education, rampant corruption, and the largest illiterate population in the world.

Additionally, India has no nationally accepted means of verifying residents' identities. For example, even though registration of births and deaths became mandatory in 1969, only 55 percent of births and 46 percent of deaths in India were registered in 2001.

Many residents have no identifying documents at all, and yet multiple documents are required to access government services, such as ration cards for subsidized food. Indians without the necessary documents are often denied services or resort to bribing corrupt officials to access services that they are legally entitled to receive. The case includes the story of one widow who couldn't cash a government check; she was unable to open a bank account because she lacked the proper documentation.

"You are basically denied almost everything if you can't prove who you are," Khanna says. "Imagine walking around town without a photo ID or a driver's license. You can't buy certain things; you can't go to the police and verify who you are. It is a surreal nonexistence."

On the flip side, some residents assume fake identities to collect subsidized food and fuel or even draw fraudulently on other people's pensions-widespread corruption that has led to huge financial losses for the government each year.

The Creation Of Aadhaar

Aadhaar, which means "foundation" in Hindi, is the brand name used to describe the 12-digit unique number issued by UIDAI. The intent is to facilitate the distribution of public goods to their intended recipients. Fans hope that it will do much more, skeptics worry that it might be overhyped.

"Aadhaar was created to guarantee only identity, not benefits or entitlements, yet the UIDAI team did push for one particular application—that is, to tie Aadhaar to the creation of bank accounts," Raina explains. "It is envisaged that Aadhaar will be used in a variety of other ways to reduce criminal diversion of government subsidies, lessen the burden on taxpayers, and open up food and other services to the people who are entitled to receive them."

In July 2009, the Indian government invited Nandan Nilekani, cofounder and cochairman OR cofounder and former CEO of the global technology services firm Infosys and a champion of private-sector entrepreneurship, to lead the effort as chairman of UIDAI. Nilekani enthusiastically accepted. "What UIDAI is creating is a road, a road that connects every individual to the state," Nilekani said in the case. "How each one of us uses that road, how far we travel along it, is up to each one of us."

Under Nilekani's wing, the UIDAI project has attracted a large number of workers from both the private sector and the government-an unusual partnership in a country that has rarely seen the two sectors mix. "The private sector and the government have traditionally kept each other at arm's length," Khanna says. "The private sector is suspicious of government, and people in the bureaucracy and government sometimes look askance at the private sector, believing them to be pursuing purely private gain."

Nilekani is intent on keeping the UIDAI organization lean and mean, taking in only about 200 workers because "my own experience is that the more people you have, the more time you spend on HR problems rather than doing things," he stated in the case. Yet enthusiasm for the project is strong, and many have offered assistance as unpaid volunteers.

"Skilled people are leaving jobs and careers and are saying they will help with this project for free. People are signing up just for the experience," Khanna says. "That's never happened before for a government position."

Reaching More Than A Billion People

Almost every decision about building and executing the system has boiled down to one simple statement-how to make it work for more than a billion people. Workers have brought laptops with all the necessary equipment to remote villages in the country, places with no electricity or connectivity. If residents do not have documentation, individuals who who have already been assigned unique identification numbers can introduce residents and validate their information. If residents cannot prove their date of birth, the date they choose is considered the official date.

After the team collects all the necessary information from a person, the biometric data is compared across the extensive database, and when no prior match is discovered, only then is a new number assigned.

The demand for Aadhaar has been huge, creating long lines at enrollment stations. Within three months of the initial rollout of the UIDAI program in September 2010, 100,000 people were enrolled; at this point, about 200 million people are registered.

Other countries, including Australia and Indonesia, are studying the UIDAI system with thoughts of potentially pursuing similar programs of their own. And the impressive scale of the project has attracted the attention of entrepreneurs worldwide, who are eyeing the program with the possibility of basing future applications on the UIDAI system, Khanna says.

"Once the system is in place, people in India will be able to provide their 12-digit number, show fingerprints and iris scans, and immediately a central database will be able to authenticate that they are who they say they are," Khanna says. "That's not something you can do anywhere else in the world."

About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge
    • Captain Charles Koryang Lepera
    • Director /Chief Executive Officer, Success Pomotions Limited
    This is absolutely a brilliant project and hope it gets successfully implemented and other countries can learn from it . its my desire to see it properly adopt what i can call : Inclusive business model for all its linkages ( Backward & Forward ) to enable the entrepreneurial class get businesses that enables them make money and also attain the MDG vision . Call this Virtual Business Solution to societal development .
    • Mukesh Kamath
    • Asst. Prof, City Engineering College
    For someone like me who has been tracking each and every news item about the project this write up looks like an outsiders view. I expect myself to be enrolled within a few months while enrolments have presently been on hold. There is no mention of the opposition to the project. There is no mention of any bickering within the government. A recent report suggests 5-15% failure to authenticate and 0.14% failure to enrol. There are reports of fraud by enrolment agencies. There are lots of misgivings of people who have enrolled. Many who have enrolled have not got their letter. The silly Scof report also is not mentioned.
    • Anonymous
    Imagine the data falling into unscrupulous hands and scenario's, viz a vie the Gujarat muslim and Delhi sikh pogroms in the 1990's and 1980's respectively
    • Anonymous
    It is unbelievable that anyone would think giving any government all this information is a good thing.
    • Shyamsunder Panchavati
    • Chief Facilitator, Capacity Building & Development
    "Adhaar" project is a dream of Dr. Manmohan Singh. India's only Intellectual Prime Minister and the father of Economic reforms that has made India the global economic power.

    Nandan Nilekeni is a genius, who along with Dr. Narain Murthy created the global IT powerhouse Infoyss.

    When these two dynamites come together, the explosion created has global repercussion.

    And that is what the success of Adhaar project is bringing about throughout the world.

    Once the project is successfully completed and delivered,It will see the replication of it through out the world.

    Well done and best of luck,

    Nandan Nilekeni, & Dr. Singh

    • Malcolm Harper
    • Various, Various (HBS 1961)
    Many thanks for bringing this to the attention of the HBS community; yet another example of 'technological leapfrogging' such as the use of mobile phones for banking in Kenya and Somaliland (the latter being not the same as Somalia, and a great deal safer than Kenya or New York).

    I met a 'rickshaw puller' in Orissa (India's poorest stae, and that is saying something) a while ago, he was complaining about the price of rice. I asked him why he was not getting his ration of heavily subsidised rice.

    'I am too poor to be poor', he explained, he could not afford the bribe to get an official 'below poverty line' ration card. This system should begin to solve these problems.
    • manisha
    • lecturer, enterpreneur
    the scope of UID is enormous as well as the hope of Indians with it, the implementation part is yet to be seen.
    With such a huge population and corruption at almost every step, the faith lies with the proven efficiency of mr. Nandan Nilekani. Sometimes just think why this huge investment? couldn't it have been diverted to education of the country. couldn't on fighting terrorism ? still couldn't weigh the need of UID above all that.
    • Sarah Ou
    • Business Development Manager, Applied Analytics
    It is a huge, brilliant and important project. With it in place, people will at least officially let others know who they are and have a mark in a system.

    It is amazing to see a billion people have ration cards. HBS did a great job to bring this social issue up. We should get updated about its process and even contribute to building the system.
    • Tathagat Varma
    • Blogger,
    No doubt, Aadhar has been a bold initiative by the current government. Given our history, what has been delivered so far is already an achievement (and I got my id a few weeks back), but the far bigger issue is how to operationalize it? In this bureaucracy-thirsty nation of ours, we love having multiple sources of identity and hence, until we figure out how to resolve among multiple sources of identifies, this won't be a true success. We already have a plethora of ids - PAN Card, Voter Id, Ration Card, Senior Citizen Card, and so on. The final success will be in creating that system that gets rid of all other alternate ids and just focuses on one single true identify for all seasons and all reasons. Anything short of that is only a mediocre success.
    • Srinivasan
    • Director, HP
    This article just talks of what a mammoth project this one is. Hopefully in the next several quarters we will know if we have allowed it to succeed.

    Like any change which will always have an opposing view, this one has it too... As long as it's done in the right spirit - it's good and democratic and will propel the working of this system.
    The privacy advocates have a reason for chipping it - but in a country where everything about everyone is public, don't quite understand why this targetting of this system alone.
    In a country where there's adequate errors/ leakages in every system (where a 80% success would be considered good) - why are people looking at the 97.5% success rate as an issue is interesting. I am not stating that the system has to be improved and should go well beyond the 97.5% success...

    But the biggest challenge is going to be - whether successive governments and politicians will put it to use for its potential.

    The biggest potential of this project will be to ensure that the right person gets the subsidy; and that the ghosts who corner the current subsidy - no longer get it...

    Will it succeed... Let's hope.
    • Bukekile
    • Economist, Private
    Amazing! Lots of potential commercial advantages with sudden formalisation of phenominal numbers in the population. Hope social budget will be sufficient to cater for the formalised beneficiaries, notwithstanding the savings from current criminal diversions!

    Hope this comes with improved local government structures to sustain the programme
    • arslan ali
    • student, m.a.j.u
    a good project
    • Anonymous
    The lofty objectives of Aadhar - like reaching with help to the needy poor is welcome. At the same time , the fact that this information is a double edged sword, cannot be ignored. Who can guarantee that the same information will not be used for advertising and selling to people. What stops people from exploiting the poor, once they know that the poor in question is defenceless?
    • Prof. K Ravindran
    • Faculty - Business Studies, Edgewater College
    There is no doubt, its an ambitious project, one of its kind in the world. I will be interested to know the implementation gaps and other problems being encountered in the process, which I feel, would be a great lesson and a once-in-a-life opportunityfor everyone to learn while executing such a massive projects anywhere in the world. Thanks HBS for the update.
    • Lakshmi
    • Vice President, Calibre Financial Services Ltd
    Best Wishes to Nandan and his team.

    Would like to know the time frame and the extant of his coverage.
    • Darshan KS
    • Mindteck
    A true example of "Information Technology" - IT being an enabler.

    We hear about IT changing lives of people. This project is a perfect example of IT can affect the way we do things. This project gives an "IT" way of tackling corruption.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Despite cmplex teething troubles, Nilekeni led project is progressing. While it may be completed in 2014 or around as targeted, one cannot vouchsafe its total accuracy. This because of absence of verifiable basic data/records which are not created at all by many. Further, the inclusion of some un-eligibles cannot also be ruled that.
    What this can lead to is better left to imagination at this stage.
    • Suersh Panday
    • Founder, Basic Ideas
    UID number may become greatest tool for fighting corruption. Allot UID to every Indian, create UID code for each property and link all real estate properties, financial tools (bank accounts, demat accounts etc.) with UID. Make mandatory Annual disclosure of Assets by each person.
    and seize all undeclared assets.
    • Sanjeev Vaid
    Does India have enough resources to keep this data updated? As per the article, 45% of births are not even registred. These birth regirstrations require minimum infrastructure; where as registration under UID will require some additional infrastructre (a computer with biometric sensors/recorder withe connectivity to national database) in each and every village. In a country where all the villages do not have electricity, how are we going to keep the births and deaths uploaded on the national database on regular basis.
    The excersice might end up with one time database for all and an updated database for 'not so poor' people.
    • Dr.Ferose
    • HOD, Dept of Technical Education
    Idea is good.
    The basic issue is how is it will help full to grass root level of the society?
    how this can be used to proverty eradication and upliftment of the people?
    Howthis data can be used for to education and enpowerment ?
    How to avoide possibility of misuse of the data?
    In the absents of proper home work of above cited issues,it will be only a fancy perject with out proper outcome.
    • karun Vashisht
    • Project Assistant, CII
    Mr Khanna forgot to mention how Disabled people will be able to apply, for a UIDAI.

    For Mr Nilekani's information - According to the Census 2001, there are 2.19 crore people with disabilities in India who constitute 2.13 per cent of the total population. This includes persons with visual, hearing, speech, locomotor and mental disabilities.

    Seventy five per cent of persons with disabilities live in rural areas, 49 per cent of disabled population is literate and only 34 per cent are employed. The earlier emphasis on medical rehabilitation has now been replaced by an emphasis on social rehabilitation.

    I would like to know what Mr nilekani would be doing under the shadow of the government to overcome these kind of hurdles.
    • Gaurav
    • Editor, My Aadhaar Card
    Aadhar is a very good initiative from the Indian govt. especially when it comes with the intention of providing benefits to the poor people of the country. I do appreciate these efforts but Aadhaar needs some improvement to make it a nation-wide success.
    • Rahul
    • Cheif Editor,
    Aadhaar Unique ID project uses Bio metrics such as finger print and Iris scan which ensures the correct identity of the person, also uploading it to a central database help in verifying a persons identity at the real time. The project is still in initial phase and will speed up soon. Since its a dream project of Government, we can see the efforts of government and how serious it is to complete it on time which is really a good signal.
    • Rehan Ahmed Khan
    I like this idea of govt....we are in support in this program
    • Sanjeev
    • IT Head, Ekam Technologies
    AADHAAR card is indeed a great initiative by the government, but the system still needs to be improved overall.

    One of the main concern right now is that AADHAAR card is not delivered to the people on time. Some people loose their AADHAAR card and enrollment receipt. They are not able to print duplicate AADHAAR card, as it holds Enrollment no. and date and time which are required to get copy online.

    AADHAAR card lost there are many people who are facing this issue and no solution is provided as of now, even after writing to UID.

    The system needs to be simplified so that people can easily access their AADHAAR online using their data, which they can easily remember.
    • Ashok Malik
    • Consultant, M & A Consultants
    No doubt that UIDAI is a massive exercise with more than one benefit as on date which may increase if it is found that UIDAI is delivering efficiently what it was designed for. Enrolling all citizens and thereafter making it available to all is a real big challenge.
    Despite all the benefits and speed of execution one wonders why the same set of people were not employed to improve already existing systems? We have more than enough ID cards available in the system. You have NPR, PAN, VOTER ID, BPL CARD, RATION CARD, DRIVING LICENCE, PASSPORT, SCHOOL CERTIFICATE, GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENT ID CARDS and maybe more. If we can achieve UIDAI success what stops us from improving the existing systems which probably could have been done at much cheaper costs?
    I fully agree with Prof Tarun that one must support anything new rather than not doing anything. But I wonder does INDIA has so much to experiment?
    • Samir Sahu
    • CEO
    Yes Right as Mr Khanna forgot to mention how Disabled people will be able to apply, for a UIDAI Aadhaar status.

    For Mr Nilekani's information - According to the Census 2001, there are 2.19 crore people with disabilities in India who constitute 2.13 per cent of the total population. This includes persons with visual, hearing, speech, locomotor and mental disabilities.
    • Prashant
    • Admin,

    I have been writing a lot about aadhar on my aadhar blog . So far Indian government did well by introducing new and new schemes like Direct benefits transfer with the help of aadhaar which will help them in reducing corruption at the lower level of the system from the social welfare schemes. But there are few issues like :

    1) Lots of cards are lost and a lot more have wrong information like wrong name and details (the root cause is poorly trained people who enter data at enrollment center).

    2) Lack of enrollment centers. There are very few enrollment centers so very long waiting list is there infront of every center. People usually dont enroll after watching so many people in waiting line.

    Still this project is very useful for India if implemented correctly.
    • Sai Suresh
    • Administrator, TheWebEagles
    This is one of the best project started by the Indian Government and hope it will be successful in the coming years and helps the people for having a better life and its mainly for providing unique identity for the citizens by providing an aadhaar card status check.
    • Rohini Kumar D
    • Adminstrator RecruitmentnResult,
    Nice project.. helps to unite the country.