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Thursday, February 21, 2013

My reason for going to listen to Nandan Nilekani at an Indian Express ‘adda’ last week was because I believe his Aadhaar programme is a huge hoax on the people of India but I have an open mind and am prepared to be convinced otherwise. I see it as a hoax because I believe that taxpayer’s money that could be much better spent on rural schools, roads, hospitals and sanitation is being squandered on a scheme that, in my view, has no obvious benefits and that is too centralised and directionless to make a real difference to reducing poverty if this is its real goal. From long years of reporting in rural India the most important lesson I have learned is that it is locally controlled development schemes that work best. Any scheme that is designed in distant Delhi and controlled from there generally ends up by mostly benefiting corrupt officials. I very much fear that this will happen to Aadhaar once it starts being used to transfer vast quantities of cash for destitute beneficiaries.  But, I have known Nandan since the days when he was in charge of Infosys and so have always been eager to understand why he agreed to lend his name to something that could end up as one of the Indian government’s biggest and most expensive white elephants.

The ‘adda’ was organised on a balmy evening in the Olive Restaurant near the racecourse in Mumbai. We gathered in a courtyard where white wicker chairs had been set in a semi-circle under a tall and beautiful tree. As dusk fell a gentle breeze brought with it the scent of stables and birds nestled in the tree with loud screeches.  Guests from the world of commerce and journalism mingled over glasses of white and red wine and delicious canapés. Nandan was at his amiable best and greeted old friends from his days as a student in the IIT in this city. I chose to avoid mingling and concentrate instead on finding a place as close to the stage as possible so that I could be better positioned to ask Nandan a question or two. This turned out not to be such a good strategy because Nandan spotted me while he was expounding on the benefits of his Aadhaar scheme and informed the gathering that everyone thought Aadhaar was a good idea ‘except Tavleen’ thereby ambushing me before I could get to asking my question.

Mister India
Shekhar Gupta was in conversation with Nandan and gave me my chance to ask my questions soon enough. I asked Nandan to explain what he believed would be the main benefit of the Aadhaar scheme, when we should expect to see it happen and why he thought biometrics could work in rural India on such a massive scale when they did not work atLondon airport on a much smaller scale. The Iris machines at Heathrow are supposed to allow you in without needing to have your passport examined by an immigration officer but it has been my experience that they are nearly always out of order or fail to recognise me when they work. Nandan answered only the biometrics part of the question by saying that 300 million people had already been enrolled so this meant that the biometrics were working already. He said a million people were being registered for an Aadhaar number every day. He did not answer the rest of the question and I thought it would be churlish to point this out but the day after the ‘adda’ I went to the Aadhaar registration centre in Colaba to see if it was functioning any better than it did when I last went there some months ago.

At that time I made two efforts to register and somehow always ended up on a day when the centre was closed. So this time I sent someone to get the registration form for me in advance and was astonished to see that it was a two-page document on paper of such inferior quality that it would not survive a single year in a government file.  I wrote out my name, address and telephone number and last Monday went personally to the Colaba centre. It is in the dank, smelly basement of a municipal school and as far from modernity and biometrics as you can imagine. The small army of officials that man the centre work with rudimentary tools amid a scattering of cheap chairs and tables. A small wrought iron gate, that is permanently closed, separates them from the applicants queuing in the street outside.

Kafkaesque queues
When I joined the queue there were about fifty people ahead of me and they said they had been waiting a long time and did not think they would manage to register that day because there were signs that the centre was about to close. The man in front of me said, ‘I have come and queued here before and I have seen that they close fifteen minutes early and open fifteen minutes late. That is how it is every day.’ I asked why he wanted an Aadhaar card and he said it was because he had been told it was compulsory. When I talked to other people in the queue they confirmed that they were registering only because they had been told that if they did not then they would not be able to get cheap rations at government ration shops. They added that they had heard that it would not even be possible to get a passport without an Aadhaar card. They were people who seemed too poor to ever be able to travel to another country but what worried them was the possibility that they would lose their identity as Indian citizens.

In my own case I never got to hand in my registration form that morning because the centre closed before I could so I went back the next day and to my surprise found the centre closed. When I asked why it was closed two women officials said that the next date for accepting forms would be on Sunday at 10 a.m. Nobody explained why and so ended my fourth visit to this Aadhaar centre without having been able to take the first step towards getting my unique identification number. If my own experience is anything to go by it could take another two decades to register a billion Indians and by then people will have stopped wondering what the purpose of the scheme was in the first place.