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India's new antipoverty measure: national ID card

The card's introduction, one of the largest IT projects in the world, will eliminate a patchwork of local IDs and is meant to improve the delivery of social services to the poor.

Help coming? An Indian family cooks on a New Delhi street. The country is launching an ambitious bid to improve delivery of food subsidies by issuing a national identity card.


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Rasmu is happy she moved to New Delhi, where she and her five small children live in a tarpaulin-and-cardboard shack. Back home in rural Madhya Pradesh, central India, she was unemployed; in the Indian capital she has become a road-builder, earning 2,500 rupees ($52) a month.

Besides her parents, there is one thing she misses, however, from home: the cut-price rice, wheat, and oil she was entitled to there. Like millions of migrants to India's cities, Rasmu has found her identification documents mean nothing outside her native state. The Below Poverty Line (BPL) card that once helped her children eat is now just a scrap of paper.

It is cases like this that have led India's government to introduce an ambitious new project: a new national identity card that will be issued to every one of the billion-plus population.

Unlike India's other innumerable forms of ID – from birth certificates to tax codes – the new card will be recognized everywhere in the country. It will feature biometric details that will quickly enable identity checks. It will link to a vast database, accessible by numerous government agencies. And its introduction will constitute one of the world's biggest IT projects.

Unlike most government initiatives designed to tackle poverty, the ID card scheme has won near universal approval.

"This is long overdue and much, much, much needed to improve the delivery of public services, something we have been particularly deficient at," says Surjit Bhalla, an economist.

Failures of antipoverty programs lead to skepticism


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