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World Bank’s top economist says India’s controversial ID program should be a model for other nations

EPA/Jagadeesh NV
The magic of biometrics.
By Madhura Karnik
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

India’s unique identification number (UIN) system, Aadhaar, is a good example for the rest of the world to follow, according to Paul Romer, the World Bank’s chief economist.

“The system in India is the most sophisticated that I’ve seen,” Romer told Bloomberg. “It’s the basis for all kinds of connections that involve things like financial transactions. It could be good for the world if this became widely adopted,” the 61-year-old said.

The world’s largest biometric identity project aims to cover 1.3 billion Indians to ensure a seamless transfer of government benefits and schemes.

Earlier, too, Aadhaar has been lauded by international agencies. In 2016, a UN report (pdf) said it has “tremendous potential to foster inclusion by giving all people, including the poorest and most marginalised, an official identity.”

Romer, who also teaches at the New York University, believes Aadhaar can be a good case study for countries trying to adopt a similar standardised systems. In fact, countries such as Morocco, Russia, Algeria and Tunisia have expressed interest in adopting the Aadhaar model, in full or parts.

At present some 1.11 billion Aadhaar cards have been generated, covering 92% of the population, Ravishankar Prasad, minister of electronics, IT, law, and justice said in a Jan. 27 statement (pdf). The Narendra Modi-government has been making Aadhaar mandatory for an increasing number of government schemes. For instance, from July, more than 100 million students in government schools across the country will require Aadhaar’s 12-digit UIN to get mid-day meals. From temple rituals to defence personnel’s pension, possessing an Aadhaar card has been made compulsory for a host of other schemes.

New initiatives like AadhaarPay will even make bank payments easier, merely through the use of thumb impressions.

Meanwhile, there have been concerns over data security. Cases of illegal use of biometrics information and financial transaction data have brought to the fore issues of breach of privacy associated with Aadhaar. A group of petitioners, including a retired judge of the Karnataka High Court, told the supreme court in 2013 that the Aadhaar scheme is an “infringement” to right of privacy of citizens. “The enrolment centres are run by private operators so anyone can walk in and get one. This means that (undocumented) immigrants can get one too and that’s a clear security threat,” former justice K S Puttaswamy, told the Hindu newspaper in 2013. 

World Bank’s Romer however, says that the security issues can be resolved if there are enough checks by the government. “It should be part of the policy of the government to give individuals some control over the data that the private firms collect and some control over how that data is used,” he said.

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