Aadhaar is the world’s largest biometric identification system. Introduced in 2009, its roots go back a decade earlier to 1999, when issuing identification documents to citizens in areas near India’s frontiers was one of the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee on national security, set up after the Kargil war. The following year, the Rangarajan Commission recommended the foundation of a centralised database of citizens, each assigned a unique identification number.
Yet things really got going when the idea was taken up by Nandan Nilekani, a billionaire co-founder of outsourcing company Infosys. He convinced the then-ruling Congress Party to give a formal fraud-proof identity to the hundreds of millions of Indians who did not have one, and thus were often ignored by the authorities and as a result deprived of benefits to which they were entitled.
While identity cards were hardly a new idea, India’s system was the first to attempt a single biometric method of identification. Given the nation’s population of nearly 1.4bn its scale is unprecedented. As of January 2017, 1.1bn Aadhaar cards had been issued.
There have been teething troubles, including some that led to reforms to improve its privacy protections. Whilst it has helped reduce corruption by paying government benefits directly into digital bank accounts supported by the ID, it has yet to reach its ultimate goal of enabling a single system to cover voting, income tax, passports, ration cards, driving licenses and birth and education certificates.
Yet its ambition and scale promise enormous efficiency improvements. Crucially for India, it has been adopted by governments of both the Congress and BJP parties. It is increasingly looked to for lessons and inspiration by governments around the world planning to introduce something similar.