My exposure to Digital India was till recently a mix of government hype and the data my team routinely put together to share with our international partners. My first-hand interface began quite innocuously when the government asked us to link our Aadhaar and PAN cards and made this a requirement for filing tax returns. Someone mentioned that it was an easy process and I left it at that.
A week before the first deadline I asked my chartered accountant to do the needful. He phoned a couple of days before the deadline to say he wasn’t able to do the linking as there was an error message; he sent me an Aadhaar correction form to get the process done at the Karve office, which was fortuitously housed in the same building as his office. So far so good, it all seemed to be working well in Narendra Modi’s Digital India. Or so I thought.
Nope, you have to appear yourself, someone can’t do this on your behalf with the relevant documents. The office opens at 10 a.m. and there is a line of about 20 people so send your person earlier to stand in line, my CA told me in a matter-of-fact manner. The next morning, my guy phoned me saying he was No. 2 in the line, which has grown to about 30 people, so I should arrive at a quarter past 10. On reaching there I was greeted with a long, familiar, but somewhat-blurred-by-time, sight of a serpentine queue of mostly male humanity with a supercilious guard barring entry (even to the queue), his raised voice and bamboo lathi reminiscent of the Bollywood movies of the 1970s.
As I made my way to the front of the queue, now swollen to about 80, I was told, ‘server down hai ’. Anyone who has had to stand in bank and post office queues in the last few decades will know why my heart sank when I heard this. For the lucky ones who have never heard this, it means everyone is clueless as to when the systems will start working and no one can offer any recourse or help. It could mean half an hour, it could mean all-day or till tomorrow. The by-now desensitised public-facing staff sipped tea and gossiped, rudely fending off the persistent or pleading customer. ‘Come tomorrow, if you can’t wait’, says the tea sipping supervisor callously. ‘How long is the wait likely to be?’ I query. ‘The server is in Bangalore [thank you Nandan Nilekani!], we have no idea’, piped in a young lady employee unhelpfully. The mood of the waiting people is one that is resigned and an on-the-spot competition of bad news starts: ‘I have been waiting since 7 a.m.; or this is my fifth visit here; or the government has shut down 500 Aadhaar centres; or…’
My ingenious but unsurprised CA has various alternative suggestions, thankfully; this no doubt is what the profession survives on. ‘Go to the counter in WTC down the road near Bengal Market’, he advised, the queue is always shorter there and hopefully the server will be working. As I reached the WTC counter I spot only three or four people clustered in what is a typical Indian-style queue where people stand next to each other and not behind the person in front. Heart soaring, I hurried to the counter to enquire if I am at the right place. An officious woman at the counter said, ‘we are dealing with tokens we distributed two days ago, please come tomorrow morning to collect your token, you can then stand in the queue’. Later I get to know that only 25 tokens are distributed every other day. No wonder the queue is shorter here, they eliminate you even before you can join the queue!
I ask for the supervisor. ‘Oh he comes in once every few days’, replies the portly lady who is the psudo in-charge, nonchalantly. ‘I’d like to put in a complaint,’ I say doggedly’. ‘Go ahead, the numbers are printed on our board outside’, she responds.
The next day, I am at No. 23 at 4.15 p.m. As the clock ticks towards 5 p.m., the server is functioning but super slow: did you know that each entry into the Aadhaar system can take anything from 15 minutes to half an hour to load (or not)? The inevitable happens: it’s my turn, the clock reaches 4.59 p.m. and the entry operator closes the system saying, Panch baj gayen hain, kal aana ! The gaggle of people, myself included, plead with the guy, appealing at once to his customer services responsibilities and his humanity. He remains unmoved, ‘if I listen to the public, I will never go home!’ Is this the way to treat honest tax payers, asks someone. ‘We are tax payers too’, replies the woman at the counter promptly.
‘Come sharp at 10 a.m., you will not need to stand in queue’, puts in another worker pacifically. It’s Saturday, but there I am at 9.45 a.m. at the WTC building in the heart of New Delhi. I see various people sitting around on the parapet and the stairs, sheaves of forms in their hands already. I go past the security check and head towards the still-shuttered Aadhaar office. The place is deserted, except for a well-dressed but obviously rural-based couple standing close to the shutters. As I pause, the building security guard comes barrelling after me, ‘Madam, you have to wait outside, we cannot allow people to clog the corridors, you can come in when the office opens’. ‘It’s 10 a.m. and it is officially time for the counter to open so I will not go out and stand in the heat’, I counter. ‘Madam, please understand’, he mumbles, sensing my mood; ‘Okay, please send your person outside at least!’
The office finally opens at 10.15 and the operator unplugs his laptop and wanders off in the direction of the exit as the already swelling sea of humanity (some women this time, thankfully) watches with narrowed eyes. One all-knowing veteran answers the unasked question hanging in the air, ‘He has to go outside to catch the GPS signal’. GPS? Really?
Meanwhile, another employee pushes back the queue, simultaneously pulling in the silent couple who were waiting when I arrived and seating them in the cabin of the missing supervisor. ‘How come they are seated inside,’ I ask, more curious than angry. ‘ Hamare relative hain madam’, he responds calmly. ‘Relative hain tho unko bina queue ke andar ley jayenge ?’, I query. He looks at me as if I am an idiot. It’s obvious that relatives will get special treatment, so why am I asking!
The connection with the server having been established, the operator returns with the laptop and begins work with the relatives. They want details inserted into their address which do not show up in the papers they have brought along. ‘ Kar de yaar ’, his colleague and their kin pleads. After a half-hour wait, the system rejects the entry and it is finally my turn. In answer to the query of when the system will update my details, the reply is, in one month. Right! The deadline for filing the return is in two days. It will get extended, says my still-sanguine CA.
Here are some home truths about Digital India garnered from the Aadhaar queues: 1. Digital or otherwise, ground realities are unchanged; 2. Peoples’ mindsets are still pre-digital, as is the functioning of government’s public interface; 3. The tyranny of petty b abus and gate-keepers continues, as does the tolerance and patience of the common person; 4. Connections matter, digital or otherwise, and having a relative the right place is what works best, whatever the system; and finally; 5. The server is always down, in pre-digital and post-digital India.