BANGALORE, India -- A billion Indians are soon expected to have biometrics-linked unique identity numbers, which could help provide hitherto unavailable financial products and services to the country's poor, despite disquiet about privacy issues.

The five-year old project is the brainchild of Nandan Nilekani, the former CEO of India’s No. 2 IT services company Infosys Ltd. Nilekani quit his company and joined the federal government as chairman of the Unique ID Authority of India, but left the project in 2014 to run for political office in India’s lower house, but lost in the elections. However, India’s new government has backed the project vigorously, which at the current rate of enrollment, could cover most of the country’s entire population in the next two to three years.

“This was a project aimed at giving every resident Indian a unique identity number and this project began in July 2009 when I joined the government. When I left the government in March 2014, it had crossed 600 million people having the Aadhaar (as the project is also known) number and today it’s about 750 million people having the number,” Nilekani said, at an event on social entrepreneurship in Bangalore on Saturday.

Aadhaar means basis or foundation in the Indian language of Hindi. It reflects the idea that a multitude of government services could be effectively and efficiently provided to its citizens on the basis of a unique ID for every individual. The ID number requires capturing biometrics data, including fingerprints and iris scans, for which the government and various agencies have run enrolment camps across tens of thousands of locations in the country, adding as many as a million people a day to the database. 

“I expect that the way it is going, with the kind of commitment that it has from the current government, it will cross a billion people by the end of the year, and hopefully the entire population in the next two to three years,” Nilekani said.

According to him, the unique ID project is meant to be a platform for technological innovation stemming from the interaction between entrepreneurs and government, and inspired by the Internet and the Global Positioning System, which started out as government-funded projects but evolved into digital infrastructure that benefit billions of people. And, the government’s backing is meant to provide legitimacy to the project and its scale. Ultimately, private entrepreneurs are expected to provide commercial services through the platform.

“The idea was that we’ll create a digital identity for everyone, something which was on the cloud, something which can be verified on the cloud and provide a bunch of APIs (application programming interfaces) which will allow you to build apps on top of it. That was the vision of the project,” Nilekani said, adding that initial challenges of persuading a large number of people to join the platform and convincing government departments to use it are being surmounted.

The unique ID is being used, for instance, to make direct transfers of subsidies from the government to the consumer: instead of sending money to a person’s bank account, it is sent to his or her unique ID number, which is linked to a bank and that money goes to the appropriate bank account. Of the 750 million people who so far have unique ID numbers, about 130 million people have linked their IDs to their bank accounts, and get direct credits (of subsidies) to their bank accounts. The system is also being used by one state government to track attendance of staff while micro ATMs are being added in Indian villages to allow people with unique ID numbers instant access to their bank accounts.

The unique ID platform is an effort at bringing together technology, governance and innovation to tackle challenges in areas like education, health care and agriculture, Nilekani said.

“We’re seeing a huge trend, we are seeing ubiquitous digital connectivity where a billion people will have phones, half a billion will be smartphones, a billion people will have the Aadhaar number, a billion people can have a payment account like a (digital) wallet...with the aspirational nature of the Indian populace, the colliding of these trends will create huge opportunities.”