India to issue all 1.2 billion citizens with biometric ID cards
The operation will be run by the Unique Identification Authority, a new government department created specifically for the task of assigning every living Indian an exclusive number and gathering and electronically storing their personal details.
It is hoped that the operation, which is expected to cost at least £3 billion, will fight corruption but it could also be used to identify illegal immigrants and tackle terrorism.
Nandan Nilekani, who is in charge of the operation, called it a "humongous, mind-boggling challenge."
"But we have the opportunity to give every Indian citizen, for the first time, a unique identity. We can transform the country," he told The Times.
At present Indian citizens can be issued with up to 20 proofs of identity, including birth certificates, driving licenses and ration cards, although none is accepted universally.
A computer chip in each card will contain personal data and proof of identity, such as fingerprint or iris scans. Criminal records and credit histories may also be included.
Mr Nilekani, who left Infosys, the outsourcing giant that he co-founded, to take up his new job, wants the cards to be linked to a “ubiquitous online database” accessible from anywhere.
But experts have warned that the database, which will be one of the world’s largest stores of personal information, will prove an irresistible target for identity thieves.
Mr Nilekani will also have to persuade as many as 60 government departments to co-operate. The Government has said that the first cards will be issued within 18 months. Analysts feel that it will take at least four years for the project to reach “critical mass”.