The goalpost has changed; it is no more a tool to ensure the poor get their rights and dues; it has become an enabler of corporate interests
It has come to rule our lives. It has come to decide if we can access our own hard earned money parked in our bank accounts. Having it makes the purchase of a mobile phone sim card simple and the absence of it makes the same that much harder. It has started interfering with the smooth transfer of your pension and LPG subsidy into your bank account. If you want to put your children into a government school, your children do not stand a chance if they don’t have it. If you are a political dissenter, your entire life including your financial transactions can be monitored using this tool. It has become a digital dictator. It is the Aadhaar UID.
But wait. Wasn’t it supposed to simplify our lives by removing the need for undergoing a full cycle of identity verification, photocopying of numerous documents, attestation from gazetted officers every time an individual tries to access a benefit or a service? Such duplication of effort and identity silos no doubt increases overall costs of identification and causes extreme inconvenience to the individual. This approach is especially unfair to India’s poor and downtrodden who usually lack identity documentation and find it difficult to meet the costs of multiple verification process. But has Aadhaar done that?
Ask Jit Singh and his wife Monika, who live in Barola village in Noida, adjacent to India’s national capital, and they promptly bring out documents from a trunk kept in one side of their little room. Jit works as a watchman in one of the numerous under-construction residential projects that dot Noida’s skyline and Monika cooks and cleans in apartments for a living.
This is the gas connection I have in my name,” says Monika. “It’s been over one and a half years and no money (read LPG subsidy) has flown back into my account. Everytime I go to my LPG distributor, they say it’s in the hands of the bank. I go to the bank and they say it’s in the hands of the gas company. I have been even asked to go to the local Aadhaar office which I have done only to be told that it is none of their business. Their work is just to make Aadhaar cards.”
Jit chips in, “We are literally at our wit’s end. We are poor people. We have to pay rent, send our son to college. You know how expensive things are today. For us, every penny matters and we have no clue if this will ever be sorted out. We can’t afford litigations and court cases.”
At the recently concluded hearing on Aadhaar in the Supreme Court, the country’s top law officer Attorney General KK Venugopal contended that nobody who had suffered financial exclusion had approached the court yet. The court rightly said this argument was not convincing as many of those denied might be poor who do not know how to seek redressal. The Supreme Court is absolutely right. And it seems the poor and the ignorant are also being taken for a ride.
A case in point is 27-year-old Tahir Ali who hails from Shahjahanpur district in Uttar Pradesh and lives with his 26-year-old wife Ravina Begum and daughters – Gudia, 8 years old, and Ifra, 5 years old – in Salarpur village of Gautam Buddh Nagar district of UP. Tahir pedals a rickshaw van through the blistering summer heat that scorches western UP, trying to sell flowering plants and cacti to upscale neighbourhoods in what are called “sectors” by the poor working people in this part of the country. It’s been well over one year that Tahir took an LPG connection under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana for his parents in his native village of Oonkalan by paying Rs 1600 and linked it to his Aadhaar card. “Till date, I am yet to receive any subsidy. The cylinder has been refilled at least eight times and every time, we have had to cough up the market price.” Interestingly, when he went to his gas distributor, he was told a different story as to why his subsidy was not coming. “They said since I paid only Rs 1,600 and the rest was borne by the government, the subsidy will only be credited to my account once I have paid off the rest of the amount borne by the government,” he says. After National Herald pointed out that there was nothing like this in the clauses of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, he is crestfallen.
Very few families have had it tougher than Tahir’s. His father Shahid Ali’s Rs 1800 pension has stopped coming for the last 19 months. They have been to the local pradhan’s office where they were told that there was something wrong with his Aadhaar number. They then went to the block headquarter only to be told that the Aadhaar number was in order but that the pension has been stopped. “Upar se bandh hai (It has been stopped following orders from the top),” was what they told me, said Shahid Ali over the phone. “But I know people who have been getting it,” he adds. If this double whammy was not enough for the family, Tahir’s family has been getting no ration on his father’s card for the last 17 months. “They have installed some kind of a machine (read POS machine) and my father’s Aadhaar details are not yet available online (Online mil nehi raha hai),” they have been told. He also adds that the village has power supply only for a few hours during the daytime and hence the ration shop does not function as the POS machine does not work without power.
National Herald also came across Rhmat Husain, a casual construction labourer, who has been getting no subsidy credited to his account for the gas connection he took under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana 1 year four months back. He lives in a eight by ten foot room in Bhangel village of Noida along with his wife and three children.
Venugopal’s main contention in the Supreme Court has been that it is true that privacy is a Fundamental Right, but so is food and shelter. He submitted that Aadhaar enables benefits to reach the true beneficiaries. In face of these cases, this argument seems untrue. If Aadhaar’s original purpose was to ensure that the poor and the marginalised got their rights and dues and access to services and benefits, that goalpost has changed for sure, says Abhishek Saxena (name changed), a senior management person who works with a big telecom operator. It is an enabler of corporate interests, he says.
He explains, “Aadhaar has rendered earlier databases which would only have numbers and names of individuals pretty useless. Previously, database companies would buy this information from us. But now, with Aadhaar, you get the person’s address as well. I will tell you why that is important. Suppose you are a high-end consumer electronics manufacturer. Your products are high-quality and pricey. The Aadhaar address gives you a clear idea about a certain person’s purchasing power. So, the manufacturer comes to the company and wants numbers and details of residents of let’s say, 10 posh areas of Delhi-NCR. It has made an investment for which it gets what exactly it wants. Its sales pitch gets sharper. It’s a win-win situation for all.”
Even the scientific basis of collecting biometric information for the UID database is very flimsy. Dr Saeed Ahmed, director, Human DNA Bank, Biotechnology Park, Lucknow, established the world’s second DNA bank (the first and only other being the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s DNA database) on June 8, 2008. He rubbishes the very scientific basis of India’s UID project.
“The purpose of a comprehensive UID project should be to identify a person, alive, dead or unconscious. That is where first and foremost, the UID project fails miserably. After a person’s death, iris scan becomes ineffective. After Rigor Mortis sets in, even fingerprinting is not possible. In case of burn deaths or rotting of body in water, it will become impossible to ascertain the identity of the person. The only solution is in developing a DNA data bank which is the most comprehensive identity parameter,” says Dr Ahmed.
“The irises of individuals suffering from chronic glaucoma, hypertension, diabetes and retinopathy changes periodically. How is the UIDAI going to factor in these changes,” he asks. Last but most importantly, the control of biometric data and services linked to Aadhaar is a problematic proposition as a surveillance state can use this to throttle dissent.
History is witness to the fact that organised information on citizens, residents, ethnic groups has been used as an instrument of social and political control. It has been used as a weapon in war and has been used to target specific population groups. Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist government in Germany launched the first identification drive in the modern world. Even before that, Europe has had identities accorded to people primarily for two reasons – conscription and Church levies – right from the medieval times. Hitler’s Germany gave the responsibility of the population mapping exercise to International Business Machines (IBM) who also devised the punch card and slot machine. Both would be used by the Nazis to target, segregate, ghettoise, deport and exterminate Jews, communists and other political rivals. Now, is there any guarantee that a reactionary and autocratic government will not make use of the information to identify, frame and neutralise political opponents, rights activists and everybody else who threatens the regime? An IBM Hollerith D-11 card sorting machine, used for the census of 1933 that first identified the Jews, still stands in the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC as a grim reminder of the perils of organised information falling in wrong hands.
There are already strong allegations that LPG connection documents, Income Tax and Sales Tax documents were used by rioters in 2002 to target households and commercial establishments belonging to individuals from a certain community in Gujarat. Now one can only shudder and think as to what will become if some registrar will pass the data collected for the UIDAI project on to miscreants. Considering the trajectory of events since 2014, this fear is anything but outlandish and unfounded.
The UID is not a tool to benefit the poor and the marginalised. It is meant to optimise corporate outreach and control people’s lives. It stands against the Right to Privacy which is a fundamental right and should be junked.