India on Wednesday began the massive task of issuing unique identification numbers to its 1.2 billion people, many of whom don't have documents establishing their identity.

Ten people from India's remote tribal areas received the first identification numbers from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and governing Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi in Nandurbar in western Maharashtra state.

Without any proof of identity, impoverished people are often unable to open bank accounts or receive benefits from government welfare programs, the Press Trust of India quoted Singh as saying.

Rich Indians generally possess passports, driver's licenses or credit cards that establish who they are. But the poor often are forced to rely on electricity bills, ration cards, voting cards or letters from local officials.

Last year the government set up the Unique Identification Authority of India, headed by Nandan Nelkani, a founder of Infosys Technologies Ltd., India's second-largest outsourcing company.

The authority is creating a central database of names and will use biometrics — probably some combination of fingerprints and facial identification — to ensure that every Indian is assigned one and only one number.

It has not said how long it might take to complete the task. The agency's initial budget is 1.2 billion rupees ($24.6 million), but the total cost is expected to be far higher.