What Can India's Biometric ID System Do for Development? – Podcast with Aadhaar Architect Nandan Nilekani

November 09, 2017

Hundreds of millions of people around the world don't have a legal record of identification. Legally, they don't exist. Most of them are in the developing world—and they can't access services like healthcare or education, or get food rations or fuel subsidies. But what happens when more than a billion people get a digital ID in just five years?

“I don’t think people have fully internalized the agency that this gives,” says Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of the tech giant Infosys, on this week’s podcast. “The fact that you can go to any PDS [Public Distribution System] outlet to get your rations, go to any BC [business correspondent] to withdraw money—the bargaining power shifts from the supplier to the consumer.”

Nilekani is the founding chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, which devleoped Aadhaar—India's biometric ID system that has changed how the country's government provides services and subsidies.

According to Nilekani, 1.18 billion people are currently enrolled in Aadhaar, 12 billion dollars have been transferred using the platform, half a billion bank accounts have been linked to the platform, and India has saved 9 billion dollars by cutting down on fraud and waste.

But opponents of the system say that Aadhaar erodes people’s privacy, pointing to an Indian Supreme Court ruling that privacy is a constitutional right. “Yes, privacy is a fundamental right,” Nilekani says in the podcast. “However, the state can circumscribe certain privacies of people for certain good goals. . . . When the Aadhaar case gets taken up, it will pass the Supreme Court with flying colors.”

Hear his full response below. 


For Nilekani, Aadhaar is just the beginning of a new era of innovation, built on digitally-enabled “societal platforms.” He is already putting this approach to work in the area of education, as the Co-founder and Chairman of the EkStep Foundation, and sees great potential for private development as well: “The next wave of innovation will be private innovators using this to come up with ideas which we can’t even fathom,” he says. 

Listen to the full podcast at the top of this page and be on the look out for forthcoming CGD research on Aadhaar—including the results from a massive on-the-ground survey of Aadhaar users. In the meantime, you can hear more of what Nilekani had to say about Aadhaar on our website


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.