India was having an identity crisis.

The country had a large population without formal identity credentials, which often led to issues of fraud or denial of services when someone lacked proper documentation. Government leaders responded with an all-in push on biometrics. Launched in 2009, the Aadhaar database now includes 1.2 billion people—99 percent of all adult Indians. A quick scan of a fingerprint or eye is now part of day-to-day life: picking up a pension payment, filing taxes, voting, signing documents, enrolling in school. More than 3,500 government and non-government services use Aadhaar, and over 1 billion bank accounts are accessed and managed using the system’s biometric data.

There’s been plenty of controversy around the world’s largest biometric identity database. Privacy advocates have staunchly opposed Aadhaar and similar biometric identification projects around the world, fearful of both governmental overreach and private security breaches. (A 2018 investigation by India’s The Tribune uncovered a service that sold personal information—including addresses, photographs, phone numbers and emails—based on Aadhaar numbers.)

Still, the ambition, scale and widespread adoption of Aadhaar represents a signature achievement. Rather than design a government-centric solution, the project team decided to construct a platform on which both the public and private sectors could create tailored solutions. “It’s built like Lego blocks,” says N.S. Ramnath, co-author of The Aadhaar Effect: Why the World’s Largest Identity Project Matters. “Any organization—a government agency or a business or a social enterprise—can innovate and build solutions most appropriate to the problems they see on the ground.”

“It’s built like Lego blocks. Any organization—a government agency or a business or a social enterprise—can innovate and build solutions most appropriate to the problems they see on the ground.”

N.S. Ramnath

co-author of The Aadhaar Effect: Why the World’s Largest Identity Project Matters

Despite the social anxieties that accompany it, Aadhaar stands as a testament to how technology can dramatically undercut entrenched problems and overhaul public services.

Here’s one clear example of its benefits in the overhaul of India’s food rations.

India’s Public Distribution System was mired in bureaucracy. Designed to supply food to 330 million nutritionally insecure citizens, the network spanned more than half a million shops, all of which manually recorded distributions—making it difficult to verify, report and root out potential fraud. Adding to the challenge: Some people would use stolen, borrowed or false ration cards to unfairly access aid.

With Aadhaar’s end-to-end digitization, the Indian government was able to wipe out these problems almost entirely. Rations are now automatically weighed and tied to a handler’s Aadhaar identity. Shops use digital point-of-sale systems that verify beneficiaries using iris scans and fingerprints. Benefits are paid through a cashless system with digital oversight to ensure customers aren’t overcharged.

The system also improved services. Because the government can now track inventories in real time, it’s able to send beneficiaries SMS messages when supplies are available. Using a mobile app, people can pull up a map of inventories by store, dramatically slashing in-store wait times from half a day to mere minutes.