The Aadhar card mechanism is against the inclusive nature of technology. It abandons those with fading fingerprints or ageing irises to their own devices

Earlier last week, I went to Mumbai for one of the few activities that make me feel like an adult. I was travelling in my capacity as a landlady. Ok, I am making this out to be a bigger deal than it is. Still, I do have a little apartment in Mumbai and for the last few years have had a pretty easy tenant. Let’s call him Mr K.

Mr K is 78. He moved into my house while his own house is being demolished and rebuilt. He has lived in Mumbai for most of his life and has had a fulfilling career. He is independent and proud. His wife died a couple of years ago and he pretty much manages everything himself.

The lease to the house had expired and we had to renew it. In the light of my lack of initiative in chasing the paperwork, Mr K did most of it himself. He found an agent, he drafted the new agreement and he waited for me to fix a date for the registration. When I landed in Mumbai, he sat me down and made me read the entire draft. He was in charge of this whole thing and he was executing it with the precision and authority I am certain he demonstrated all those years that he was an employed professional.

The following day we went to the office of the agent. The agent had access to the government’s online system and this way we could avoid the rush and long wait at the registration office. The lady at the office keyed in our details and a draft of the rental agreement in the government-approved format appeared. Then, I was asked to pose in front of the camera. A picture was clicked. A fingerprint reading device was thrust at me. I placed my left thumb on it. It captured the print and asked us to wait while it cross-checked my print against the database of Aadhar card records. Within a few seconds, a window popped up saying my fingerprint matched the one in Aadhar. It was all super-efficient and super-quick. I was super-impressed.

Then, it was Mr K’s turn. The photo was clicked. The fingerprint device was brought out. Mr K pressed his left thumb on it. It read the print, and then asked us to wait to be matched with his Aadhar card. It did not match. He tried his right thumb. No match. He tried with each of his 10 fingers. Not one matched. The agent tried to calm us down. “Sometimes this happens with the elderly,” he said. He made Mr K press his fingers into a damp pad and hold it there for a while. He wiped the hands and then we re-tried. No match. On any of the fingers. The only option we had available, according to the agent, was that the lease be transferred to Mr K’s son, whose fingerprints were young enough to be read. It broke my heart to see Mr K’s face then. He was defeated; let down by his own hands.

The problem of mis-identifying fingerprints is not one to be dismissed as an aberration unique to Mr K. Research shows that, inevitably, fingerprints fade with age. Certain kinds of chemotherapies and radiation treatment also lead to faded, sometimes entirely vanished fingerprints. Working with your hands — especially if it involves handling bricks, or other rough objects — can damage prints. Even handling a lot of paper all day, or washing utensils in the kitchen, could result in fingerprints being erased. The official rebuttal to this argument is that the Aadhar also records iris information, so it doesn’t really matter. There are two problems with this — one, reading iris information itself is just as error-prone, especially in senior citizens with cataract issues. Secondly, most nodal agencies are loathe to install the costlier iris-reading software. In fact, when I came back to Delhi and spoke with an official who is in the know of most things Aadhar, he told me that, technically, good fingerprint readers must be able to read even the fading prints of the elderly. But is there a norm that agencies buy only the top-end, good machines? No.

This shoddy implementation of the Aadhar, added to the fact that there are no possible workarounds to it, leaves people like Mr K dependent on younger family members, even though they themselves are capable and content to take care of their own affairs. This robs senior citizens of their agency and leaves them vulnerable to the moods and whims of their children. And what of those who are alone? How are they expected to get their rent agreements registered or buy an apartment?

In the week since I came back, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced in the Union Budget that Aadhar will be made into a law. In fact, the government is in such a hurry that they have already circulated the draft of the bill and decided to pass it as a money bill in this session, so as not to allow any Parliamentary delays in its implementation. This makes the Aadhar card, and the important biometric information it stores, mandatory for many things. Most serious among this is access to ration and the public distribution system. The poor, who qualify for this, and are often the ones working with their hands, will be the worst-affected. Yet, the proposed law does not have any alternative provisions. It simply abandons those whose fingerprints have failed them, to their own devices.

Technology is expected to be an inclusive mechanism. In not thinking through an alternative for biometrics, the Aadhar technology will work in the exact opposite manner.