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India's new identification scheme will mean help reaches the poor

There are over 700 million food-insecure people in India, despite the country’s 22 programmes to alleviate hunger and poverty.

These programmes include a national scheme to distribute low-cost food to the poor, which has recently been extended by the Indian government to cover more people. This change met with some scepticism, since in the past, much of the subsidised grain has never reached the poorest. Up to two-thirds was siphoned off by corrupt merchants or officials. In May last year, a World Bank report therefore concluded that India’s programmes to feed the poor were simply not working.

Now a new government scheme offers real hope of changing that situation. This month, the country’s unique identity (UID) scheme will sign up its 200 millionth Indian (a year ago practically no one was registered) and looks set to double that number in 2012. The computerised scheme takes the fingerprints and iris scans of each individual and records their identity on the world’s largest biometric database. Poor Indians are queuing up to have their biometric details taken.

It’s easy to see why the masses are so enthusiastic about the UID system. The benefits to the poor are clear. There will be records for each individual entitled to subsidised grain and by scanning their fingerprints, confirmation of receipt. And since each person has a unique identity number, it will make theft of supplies by middlemen much harder.

With identification, poor Indians will also now have proof of who they are and where they live. This will open up the possibility for many millions to have bank accounts for the first time. And when they are accepted on government welfare programmes, such as the ‘make-work’ scheme for the rural poor, a computerised record of each worker will be available for inspectors. Previously, much of the scheme’s money (around 8 billion annually) ended up in the pockets of dishonest local officials who invented imaginary workers.

The creators of the new technology believe UID will transform social welfare in India. And they envisage it being extended into all areas of state provision, such as health and education. Other countries are watching the scheme closely, impressed with its security and low costs. According to an article in The Economist, the UID system was designed by a collaborative team of people in both the public and private sectors and the cost of enrolling each person is just 2 dollars. This makes it affordable for poor nations. Of course, citizens in some countries worry about data protection issues. But for poor hungry Indians who feel they have lost out for too long to greedy and corrupt middlemen, such concerns are trivial. The important thing for India’s poor is to have food on the table.

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