NEW DELHI — India began a yearlong census of its billion-plus population in which it plans to photograph and fingerprint every citizen over the age of 15 to create a national database and then issue its first national identity cards.
About 2.5 million census-takers began traveling across more than 630,000 villages and 5,000 cities Thursday in an effort to visit every structure serving as a home, from tin shanties to skyscrapers, in what the government calls the world's largest administrative exercise.
For the first time, they will note the availability of toilets, drinking water and electricity, and the type of building materials to create a comprehensive picture of housing in India. They will also take fingerprints and photographs of each person and collect information on Internet, mobile phone and bank account usage.
The census-takers – mostly local government officials or schoolteachers – also plan to include millions of homeless people who sleep on railway platforms, under bridges and in parks.
So far, India has not had a system of national identity cards. The collection of fingerprints and photographs will be linked with another massive exercise launched last year to assign every Indian an identity number.
"It is for the first time in human history that an attempt is being made to identify, count, enumerate and record and eventually issue an identity card to 1.2 billion people," Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said.
The total cost will reach 57 billion rupees ($1.2 billion), the government said.
Most Indians welcome the ID cards, saying they will reduce the need for multiple identification papers and make it easier to receive government benefits and services.
Wealthy Indians can flash a combination of passports, driver's licenses and credit cards to establish who they are. But the poor – who often don't possess birth certificates – are forced to rely on electricity bills, ration cards, voting cards or letters from local officials, none of which is foolproof and often come at the cost of hefty bribes.
"It's a very good move," Raviranjan Sinha, a retiree in the eastern city of Patna, said of the plan for national identity cards and numbers. "It will bring some uniformity to the jumble of paperwork we are faced with."
"If this is true, there can be nothing better," said Kanhai Lal Gupta, a vegetable vendor in the northern city of Lucknow who makes less than $2 a day. "I hope we won't have to pay bribes to get this card."
A separate law making primary education compulsory came into effect Thursday, opening the door for impoverished children who have been denied school admission because of a lack of documents such as birth certificates.
At New Delhi's imposing pink sandstone presidential palace, President Pratibha Patil's household became the first to be registered Thursday in the first phase of the census, known as "house-listing."
While China, the world's most populous country, also counts its population, its census is carried out by various agencies, including Communist Party units, commune leaders and factory heads, unlike the single Registrar and Census Commission that carries out India's count.
India's population of nearly 1.2 billion is growing at more than 1.4 percent a year, while China, with about 1.3 billion people, is growing at a much lower 0.65 percent, according to the CIA World Fact Book.
India's census will face a special challenge from left-wing extremists active in 20 of the country's 28 states who have stepped up a campaign of violent attacks on government officials.
The census-takers plan to finish their work by February 2011. The information will be used for government policymaking, planning and budget allocations.
This will be India's 15th census held without interruption at the start of every decade. Census operations in India were begun in 1872 by British colonial rulers.
Associated Press writers Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow, Indrajit Singh in Patna, and Wasbir Hussain in Gauhati contributed to this story.