Like most men of his generation, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, an orphan and scholar was sent to war on June 5, 1916. He was an officer, to command young men drawn from the working classes, of the “mining, milling and weaving areas of Lancashire.” He liked speaking to these lads, but was told that as an officer of the 11th (Service) Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, he should not ‘fraternise’ with them, but goad them on to die.
And so it was. In the terrible fighting in Somme, in France, trench by stinking trench, infested with excrement, lice, worms and infection, Tolkien and his men prevailed. But most were struck down by disease or machine gunning. It is a miracle he survived, injured many times and finally shipped back to England.
Otherwise we would not have got to read The Hobbit and the majestic, three-volume The Lord of The Rings. These are parables of titanic struggles between forces of good and evil, but it is ultimately the literally small guy (a Hobbit) — Bilbo or Frodo Baggins — the miner and miller in the trenches, who beat all odds to prevail.
But there is a far more sinister aspect of these tales. It is the existence and cause of the mayhem: control of the ‘One Ring To Rule Them All.’ The One who wins and wears the Ring rules all.
That is reality today. We have a despicable Ring. It is called Aadhaar. It started off innocuously during the UPA regime but morphed into a monster from 2014. Today, it has two purposes — one, to enforce an all-encompassing surveillance state; two, to deny poor people of state-subsidised means of existence. It also threatens to block your investments, bank accounts and pension. Go figure.
In the first week of October, 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari died in Simdega, Jharkhand, after her family was repeatedly refused food by the local bania because nobody had Aadhaar biometrics.
I had the fortune to meet my former tutor at the Delhi School of Economics, Jean Dreze, who now lives and works in Ranchi, Jharkhand, a little more than a month later. Dreze has studied poverty more deeply than any other academic in the world, not by looking at abstract — and mostly sarkari-manufactured data — but by living among the poor. He still rides a bicycle to work, and as he says, he is still a jholawala, because he carries a jhola, with a laptop which has tonnes of incredible data. The Jholawala said two important things which I will rephrase.
One: Aadhaar is a dumb scheme because it assumes that poor receivers of subsidies are deceivers of taxpayer money from the system. Therefore Aadhaar, designed by people like Infosys’ Nandan Nilekani, who’ve never had anything to do with say, buying subsidised sugar, got it wrong.
The actual villains that dupe the subsidy system own the so-called ‘fair-price-outlets’ in every mohalla — typically the most powerful and wealthy banias. This is easy, if you control money as well as commodity supplies.Take near-zero-cost credit provided to supply subsidised rations to the poor from crony sarkari lenders, after paying a bribe. Next, use this to buy up commodities, warehouse them, create artificial shortages and price distortions. Tell the poor to eat grass or pay exorbitant rates. This is why India has rotting food mountains and Santoshi and thousands like her die of starvation. Aadhaar pins the poor, innocent and hungry with the responsibility to prove their poverty and hunger.
But for most of us, how does Aadhaar matter? This, as Dreze explained is simple. Once linked to systems like pensions, credit cards, financial instruments like mutual funds and bank accounts, it creates the scope of massive Big Brother scrutiny into your life — whether you buy a brassiere or a Bentley. Long ago, Thomas Hobbes called this the PanOpticon, the all-seeing eye into every life.
Two more things matter. One, even the best biometric system on earth is prone to error. Fingerprinting or retina scanning has an accuracy of less than 75% on average. But when you go to claim your pension or bank balance, any measure under 80% will deny you. This is not sci-fi, this is the truth.
Two, this Ring of control has been extended from cradle to crematorium. Children, even under the age of five, need this piece of rubbish to appear for exams or get a mid-day meal at a crèche. When we all, inevitably, will depart we need Aadhaar to prove us dead.
But the good news is this: all of this is likely illegal and obviously illogical. Each provision will be challenged in court and likely be struck down. The sooner Aadhaar is abolished, the better. Tolkien despised his responsibility of sending men to die. Which is why, finally, there was no Ring to rule over all.