Only a decade ago, some 400 million people in India lacked any type of formal documentation. Most were impoverished and, without even basic identification such as a birth certificate, they were marginalized and unable to alter their societal status. This condition made them, in effect, noncitizens, with no influence on or ability to participate in their country’s economic and legal systems. They couldn’t vote, open a bank account, or access government services.
Nandan Nilekani wrote about this problem in his 2008 book, Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation (Penguin Press). An engineer by training, he was one of the cofounders of Infosys, the IT services giant that helped spur India’s technology revolution. In his book, Nilekani proposed providing each of India’s approximately 1.2 billion citizens with a unique, fraud-proof identifier. The following year, India’s then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, asked Nilekani to turn this idea into reality. He appointed Nilekani chairman of a new government agency, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which was tasked with creating such an identifier. The initiative came to be called Project Aadhaar (the Hindi word for foundation or base).