Digital Identification? Ask India

Ronaldo Lemos’ weekly column in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper

published in

3 de June de 2020


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The Covid-19 crisis exposed that Brazil was on the wrong track regarding its development. Other countries of the BRICS have prospered in the last years, promoting inclusiveness of its population at the bottom of the social pyramid. A good person to talk about this is Nandan Nilekani, one of the minds behind the digital identity system of India.

Nilekani is 64, and before joining the government as director of India’s digital identity entity, he was a founder of Infosys, a multinational tech company that grosses USD 20 billion yearly.

To understand the “Indian leap”, just look at some of the numbers Nilekani showcases in his lectures. In 2008, just 17% of adults in India had a bank account. In 2011, India reached the global average on bankarization. In 2018, 80% of the adult population had a bank account, far beyond the global average.

On a regular development plan, this growth from 2008 to 2018 would have taken 46 years. What made the difference in the country was the use of technology along with clear, effective public policy. The name of this change is a system called Aadhaar (Hindu word for “foundation”). It’s a unique digital identification system, which solved the issue of invisibility for a major slice of India’s population.

This problem arose tragically in Brazil. During the Covid-19 pandemic, 30 million Brazilians “were discovered” without any government registration. They are the invisible, the ungoverned — non-existent to the State.

The queues at Caixa banks in the country, along with the inefficiency of the governmental app to receive financial aid, are only the surface of this issue. An issue that costs many lives in Brazil.

Meanwhile, the Indian identity system worked precisely as the “foundation” for social and financial inclusiveness. Its main feature is its simplicity. Aadhaar uses only four pieces of data: name, date of birth, gender, and address (or another identifier, such as a phone number). These four pieces of data are linked to up to 3 unique, biometric identifiers (fingerprint, iris, face). The combination of these elements creates a unique, 12-digit number.

This system then becomes the single passport for citizens to use governmental services. This is a contrast to Brazil, where there are several administrative registries and documents required for each citizen.

Currently, there are 1,2 billion users of Aadhaar in India. To open a bank account (or receive social benefits), all operations can be done only with a cellphone, eliminating the need to be in person. 647 million bank accounts were opened, and USD 32,4 billion in social benefits were distributed through them.

Another feature of Aadhaar is that it doesn’t discriminate between rich and poor. In Brazil, the rich have access to digital identification systems that allow them to fulfill certain duties on the internet (such as the shameful Digital Certificate, coordinated by ITI). Meanwhile, the poor have no identification at all or are condemned to the bureaucracy of using paper documents.

Solving the chaos that is Brazil’s identification system is an essential task, among many measures the country must fulfill if it wants to get back on track in its development.


It’s gone: Touching anything without worries

Now in: Fear of touching anything in public due to Covid-19

Coming up: a low-touch economy with little physical contact

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