Mention the words “information technology” and “India” to an American, and what generally comes to mind? Business students might think of corporate powerhouses like Infosys and Wipro, major players in India’s growing economic clout, while movie buffs might recollect the frenetic call center scenes of”Slumdog Millionaire.”

The average American rarely comes in contact with Indian IT systems beyond the occasional phone conversation to repair a printer or put a credit card on hold. It’s true that Indian call centers provide jobs for multitudes on the subcontinent. It’s true that the successes of Indian IT companies have transformed India’s image from a place to which non-governmental organizations flock into a place where businesses invest. But how can India take advantage of its domestic IT expertise and apply this knowledge to better its entire society?

Ask Nandan Nilekani. A former CEO of Infosys, one of India’s largest IT companies, he is the country’s leading visionary for the application of IT to social services. He left Infosys in 2009 to chair the Unique Identification Authority of India, a new government agency that aims to provide every Indian citizen with a 12-digit, unique identification number.

Nilekani has courted banks, hospitals and different branches of national and state governments to form a united effort — rare in India — to accomplish the daunting task of accounting for over one-sixth of the world’s population. When finished, the UIDAI would dwarf the FBI’s database — the world’s largest biometric database — by a multiple of 10. When the program is finished, a country which many consider “developing” would be in possession of the world’s largest collection of ID information, complete with scans of the subjects’ irises and fingerprints.

The stakes are high and the process is grueling. Nilekani and the UIDAI team are documenting a country with a population of over 1 billion people, 70 percent of which live in rural areas. India has 1,652 languages and dialects, and only 70 percent of the population is literate. One estimate puts the overall cost of the program at $33.45 billion. At UID registration centers in cities, lines overflow out of doors and down steps, with optimism prevailing among those waiting in line. Among villagers, there is more skepticism. How can a 12-digit number help feed families with sick children?

For Nilekani, the answers are just as endless as the creativity of the Indian population. He has designed the UID as simply a number, rather than a card, and opened the stage to any entrepreneurs who can come up with useful applications for it. Potential uses of the UID range from healthcare to banking to student loans — to name just a few. A uniform type of identification could make it easier for migrants to collect government services, as well as for villagers to open a bank account. After India’s hot summer of anti-corruption riots, the UID could provide a welcome tool to clean up the most bribery-ridden government processes. UID as a program is (so far) a refreshing example of a well-run government scheme.

The UID on its own is not the answer to poverty in India, nor is it the one initiative that will solve rampant corruption. But it is a testament to the incredible potential posed by information technology in developing countries, not just to bring in revenue but also to serve as a social good. Equally important is the homegrown nature of the technology. For a country that has always prized its strategic independence — from Gandhi’s home-spun cotton to Nehru’s non-aligned movement — the UIDprogram is shaping up to be yet another development India can be proud of.

Sarah Stodder is a Senior in the College. AN INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT appears every other Friday.

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