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Jaimon Joseph

Some three months ago, my wife, her sister and their parents drove seven odd kilometers from where we live, to register for a Universal Identity or UID number. They’ve all got one now. Strangely, my wife got it about a month after the rest of the family did, even though they’d all enrolled together.

I was working that day, so about a month later, I hopped across to an apartment complex just ten minutes from our place, where I’d heard there was a UID camp in progress. I stood in line for maybe half an hour, then got myself photographed, fingerprinted and my iris scanned.

Curiously, the young lady who took all those records, couldn’t even type properly. She’d pound the keyboard with one finger – I remember wondering if she was determined to destroy it. As if in revenge, the computer refused to accept my full address. She banged it in at least thrice and the computer would mysteriously change it to something else.

Another chap came across and if I remember right, he deliberately didn’t fill in the PIN CODE. That’s when the software accepted my address. But even then, in a short hand sort of way – I’m not sure if it’s intelligible enough for Mr Nilenkani’s team to actually post me a letter with my UID number.

I checked with my parents who’d registered themselves just two days before at the same camp. They told me the attendants made it a point to record their email addresses and even filled in details of their existing bank accounts. Just two days later, in my case, they didn’t ask for either. But they automatically ticked a box which said I’d like to open a new bank account. Without even asking me – though the UIDAI guidelines, quoted in various articles on the web, apparently say they must.

A month after that, I discovered there was a UID camp happening right within my apartment. For such a supposedly hi-tech, project, couldn’t the registration process have been just a wee bit more sorted out? How hard would it have been to tell the residents of an area when and where these camps would be held?

Messers Chidambaram, Nilenkani and Ahluwalia have just decided all of us will have to do all of this all over again – this time for the National Population Register (NPR). This is a compulsory scheme, part of the Indian government census apparently.

And so this Sunday, my mom and brother walked to a NPR camp at a government school very close to home, to enroll for NPR. It was painless. But essentially they redid all the scans they’d done earlier.

The rest of the family will probably follow suit, once we know when and where the next NPR camp is being held. But my father’s been working in the northeast for sometime now. If he can’t attend the next camp in Delhi – will he be enrolled at a camp in the NE? And what complications might that entail?

But let’s put aside a single family’s minor discomfort and confusion. What exactly are all those brainy folks in the government aiming at? First they scan everyone twice, using two separate teams, with separate sums of money – tax payers money.

Then they spend some more cash comparing the scans from both teams. If there’s any mismatch, the National Population Register’s biometric scans are used and the Universal Identity biometric scan discarded. But that doesn’t mean the UID team will give back any of the money they spent, if they get any of the scans wrong. Not fair? Well – life’s not fair.

But what do I get after all this spending? I get a silicon chip embedded in a smart card, with a UID number embossed on it. What’s the card good for? It proves I’m Indian. But don’t my Passport, voter I card, PAN card, driver’s license, ration card all do the same thing? Why spend all that money on something they’ve already proved?

What’s the UID number good for? In itself – nothing. Turns out it wasn’t even compulsory to sign up for it. But Nilenkani and team are slowly dreaming up schemes where everything in India – from hospital bills to school certificates, from bank accounts to your monthly ration, will all be generated only if you have a UIDAI number. So might as well get it.

Only problem is, nobody’s told me what they’ll do with all the computer data they get, when I log in with my UID number. Let me explain. We’re all sick of marketing calls and pesky SMSs right? Why do we get them?

Because marketing guys went out and collected our phone numbers. Where did they get them from? Who knows – from our emails, Twitter messages, from door to door surveys, from cell phone shops, from service providers like Airtel and Vodaphone?

It doesn’t matter – they probably paid money to get our cell numbers. Why? Because they could individually send ads to each of us. And once they started, the government, despite its best intentions hasn’t been able to shut them up.

Now imagine a word where I “log” in with my UID number for anything I need. For medicines at a chemist, for a doctors appointment, to open a bank account. In an age of smartphones, I’ll have smart apps that use my UID number to order Pizza from the neighbourhood store or book train tickets. Every time I use my number, there’s a computer trace of where I was, what I was doing. Seems harmless.

But the devil’s in the detail. There’s no law yet, that prevents smart marketing guys from reading those computer traces. And for tailoring ads for me based on what they think I’m most interested in.

Here’s an obviously farcial example. Let’s call it science fiction right now. Something I dreamed up. But something that I’m still a wee bit worried about.

Let’s say I have a bout of erectile dysfunction a few years from now. Nothing unusual – male menopause does strange things to people. But it’s not something I’d want everyone to know.

So I visit a sex specialist who has a clinic on the other end of town. Where no one knows me. Before giving me an appointment he asks for my UID number and feeds it into his computer – because he isn’t allowed to entertain any patients who don’t have UID.

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