The world’s second fastest-growing economy has embarked on a project of colossal proportions as it seeks to lift over 400 million Indians out of poverty and enfranchise a population of 1.2 billion through a sweeping fingerprint and iris-scanning program, a challenge of magnitude not unlike that of governing the globe’s biggest democracy.

The project is a number-based system known as Aadhaar, generating a 12-digit ID which, along with a thumbprint, can be used as a form of identification all over the country and provides access to welfare payments, bank accounts and cellular phones, a revolutionary step for the village-based identity system. It had not only stifled migration, but punctured the taxonomy of caste, kin and religion which has almost always defined Indian identity.  Aadhaar represents a step in creating not only an individual, but a national identity.  Billionaire software mogul Nandan M. Nilekani, appointed to head the ambitious project two years ago, told the New York Times, “It is a road that in some sense connects every individual to the state.”

The identity project, which will take a decade to complete and is budgeted at $326 million for next year, will become the world’s largest biometric database, dwarfing the US-Visit visa program, which contains information on 100 million people.  To achieve the goal of lifting millions of Indians out of anonymity and disenfranchisement, the system will have to scan 2.4 billion irises and collect 12 billion fingerprints.

The Aadhaar system has attracted some disquiet related to the possible dystopian abuse of identification information by a state already carrying out extensive wiretapping and surveillance to monitor terrorist activity. The project has however attracted support from India’s political elite, including Prime Minister Singh and Mrs. (Sonia) Gandhi, who both attended the inauguration ceremony. Gandhi purportedly overruled the worries of the National Advisory Council to this effect, stating to a member “No, we are going ahead with the idea,” reports the New York Times.