Aadhaar: free of charge or free to charge a fee?

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Amid all the privacy and legislative concerns around the mandatory nationwide unique identifier system, there is the irony of how poorly streamlined the process is of acquiring a card that is supposed to streamline delivery.

"As Indians, we always have been resourceful in bringing solutions that could prove in the long run to be beneficial especially to those with means, but have never found ways to ‘ease the burden’ for those who need it the most (the old, disabled, the poorest) in availing these services smoothly and with respect and dignity through ‘normal’ channels." | B. Jothi Ramalingam & Bloomberg

I enjoy the privilege of having peripheral vision. As a mother I managed my children by monitoring their movements with the eyes at the back of my head. This distinction helped me as I walked into the corporation office in South Chennai. I could sense two men approaching me from either side without even taking the effort to turn my head. One of the men wore a crisp white Khadi shirt and starched white dhoti with a green border while the other man was not so well-turned-out. His frayed shirt (especially around the collar), broken footwear and a hesitant demeanour informed me as to who was winning this competition to reach me first. The crisp white shirt came up to me and, as I made eye contact, whispered to me conspiratorially, “Aadhaaraa?". I hesitantly nodded my head. “Only ₹1,500 and two days. If you come to the office! Otherwise ₹2,500 and we bring the machine to your home.”

I stared at him not comprehending what these magic figures were and what was likely to transpire in my ‘own’ home, until a dapper, young man who was watching this exchange stepped into the inner circle and paraphrased the ‘white shirt’s’ language in his strong American accent. “You see, aunty, applying for Aadhaar is totally free. It normally takes only 6-8 weeks. This man is giving you options to get it done faster, in fact, in the comfort of your own living room. You just have to pay ₹2,500 and you will have it done today!”

I must admit, I became momentarily tempted by this offer. I had heard ‘horror’ stories about people standing in queues for over four hours and not necessarily being successful in their quest to get a token that would transport them into the next round of formalities for obtaining the Aadhaar card. I had spent hours strategising with my family as to how to persist in the queue until I obtained the ‘token’ that would take me closer to achieving the goal of obtaining my state-approved identity.

 

It was 8 a.m. and my tummy was beginning to growl and the queue a.k.a. motley crowd around the main desk, behind which there was presently no one, seemed daunting as I remembered what I had read about Aadhaar in one of the local newspapers.

“Aadhaar is a unique identification system. It can help establish a financial system where money is dematerialised, value is transferred electronically and the lack of cash makes corruption unrewarding. This will transform India.”

I turned away instantly from the temptation to be ‘corrupt’ by ‘employing the crisp white shirt to fast track my Aadhaar and decided to plunge into the formidable crowd to take my chances amongst other kindred commoners. The queue, while not being obvious to me, consisted of a colorful bunch of mainly men and a smattering of women congregating around a main desk, sharing little snippets of information with each other, some true and others mostly alternative facts which, upon eavesdropping turned out to be assumptions, conjectures, wild guesses, gossips and general exclamations in exasperation about either the weather, the rising prices, the size of mosquitoes that were practising kamikaze around us or the dog that lay in the narrow corridor, catching a serious nap, blissfully unaware of our agony. I wondered whether dogs too needed Aadhaar?

While I stood there hesitantly, the white shirt moved in closer. "You have to stand here for a long time,” he said. “You will make multiple trips to this office and stand for more than two to three hours each time." According to Wikipedia, which has dedicated a page on Aadhaar, the white shirt would be defined as an Agent who facilitates getting the Aadhaar for a ‘fee’. So if Aadhaar was free then why was the white shirt roaming around freely making promises of getting it to you at a fee? If Aadhaar was meant to ease my administrative burden in the long run why was I, along with billions of Indians, spending my productive hours facilitating the attainment of this distant dream of someone else by standing in an airless cramped corridor?

As I stoically mulled over this, many more people joined the queue. The time for the counter to open was drawing near. Of course, even the opening time was a conjecture arrived at through discussions, past experiences and speculations by the queuing commoners. At least 60 people were ahead of me. In a productive world where, if at least 60 people stood ahead of me, and all of these people were to spend three hours each time for three days, it would take a total of 540 hours of productive time standing in the sweltering heat in search of our unique identity. There was, of course, the uncertainty of being rejected if you happened to be the 61st person to reach the main desk at exactly 1000 hrs, when the counter closed for all new applications. It did not matter even if you had stood there from 7 a.m. in the morning. On an optimistic note ­— you could see yourself as the first person in the queue for the next day. That clinched it. I decided the pain and the wait was worth it to prove to myself that I was a rule-abiding citizen who did not encourage corruption in any form or manner for my personal benefit or for the benefit of others. I let go of my attachment to the crisp white shirt then and there.

Aadhaar as a proof of identity (through issuance of a unique number) was envisaged by the Congress government for all Indian citizens in 2009 under Manmohan Singh, the then Prime Minister. Nandan Nilekani, a multi-millionaire business man from the IT sector in Bangalore, was assigned the task of setting up the system to issue the unique identifier via Aadhaar. The very same Congress government shelved the initiative following a stricture from the Supreme Court that ruled against making Aadhaar compulsory for all citizens, stating lack of legislative backing. Aadhaar had also received flak from the BJP opposition in 2014; one of their senior politicians had helpfully pointed out that Aadhaar had not been approved by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance and by issuing a unique identification number and card, the government was opening the doors to illegal migrants by regularising their transgression.

Today, under the same BJP, which is now in power, Aadhaar is rapidly becoming the de facto identification proof for the average Indian citizen. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spotted the potential in Aadhaar after a thirty-minute meeting with Nilekani in 2016 and a whole new bureaucratic process involving loads of laptops and biometric registers, reams of forms and systems were lined up to accelerate the issuance of the cards. Contractors, mostly young, IT graduates were hired to enter data and details from citizens ranging from 90-year-olds to nifty teenagers. Parents queued up to obtain Aadhaar for their children as much as pensioners wanted this card and number to establish the proof that they were alive and kicking; farmers, daily-wage labourers, teachers, entrepreneurs and film stars started obtaining the identity proof either by queuing up in one of the centres set up for the purpose or by receiving their Aadhaar Cards in the cool confines of their living rooms where enterprising ‘agents’ brought biometric machines to custom-build a unique identification number and card for a fee. Aadhaar had become a ‘free to charge’ service for those who could ‘afford’ it. Out of 1.2 billion Indians, even if 5% opted to pay to get Aadhaar, there was money to be made, and lots of it.

 

Nilekani surely did not envisage execution nightmares when he mooted the idea of a unique identification number for all Indians. His vision was to set up a nationwide system of authentication that will enable infrastructure for other identification schemes. Arguing that identity was important, especially for the poor, Nilekani said that getting an identity was a tough job and as such the authority would provide a database of residents containing very simple data in biometrics for targeting welfare schemes, tracking tax compliance etc.

Today, 1.171 billion Indians are enrolled in this system as of August 15, 2017. As of this date, over 99% of Indians aged 18 years and above have been enrolled in the system. Along the way, the process of obtaining the unique identity has become hydra-headed. The queues continue to snake out of proportion outside Aadhaar centres with ad hoc ‘crowd managers’ issuing makeshift tokens to keep lines and frayed tempers in check. Now, a majority of those who queue up have the identity card or Aadhaar but need to update or amend their telephone numbers, addresses or other details. The time spent and the effort taken to do these ‘minor’ changes is as onerous as applying for a new card. There are no facilities such as drinking water, washrooms or even commercial peddling of snacks for those who wait in anticipation of obtaining a proper proof of their identity for hours on end.

As Indians, we always have been resourceful in bringing solutions that reach scale and numbers that could prove in the long run to be beneficial especially to those with means, but have never found ways to ‘ease the burden’ for those who need it the most (the old, disabled, the poorest) in availing these services smoothly and with respect and dignity through ‘normal’ channels. I watched my father spend his days journeying to his bank, to New Delhi from Chennai and to the local Pension authority in Chennai for nearly five years after he ‘retired’ from Central Government service in Delhi. It was his life’s mission to draw his monthly pension, which he accomplished with creativity, resourcefulness and stoicism. If he were alive today, he would have joined this latest Indian quest for identity with as much enthusiasm and spent his share of multiple days and hours pursuing the token and the card in order to seal his Indian identity through Aadhaar. He would have even spent some time helping to fill forms for those who are either not literate or cannot understand or see properly. And like him, billions of Indians have once again put their faith in the system to lead an honest and incorrupt life, enjoying their simple savings and desires.

According to Wikipedia, the budgeted amount for the Aadhaar project was reduced to ₹9 billion (around $140 million) in FY‘17-‘18 from ₹20 billion (around $310 million) in FY‘15-‘16, given the high enrolled percentage. The high enrollments would not have been achieved without the ‘ordinary citizen’ taking the trouble to reach the centres two to three hours ahead of their opening hours, staying on and persisting to understand the system, filling the forms uniquely interpreted from centre to centre, State to State, and working within its drawbacks and shortfalls. For instance, out of the three biometric stations at the centre I visited yesterday, only one machine was functional and, for the first hour, all those who ‘paid’ a fee were being accommodated blatantly while those of us in the normal queue were penalised for being honest and for having come early and waiting on empty stomachs. It does not bode well in the long run as more and more conditions, interpretations and manipulations of the system evolve and emerge without making it any easier for the ordinary person.

Someone could have approved the use of funds from the surplus budget that was returned, to provide better customer service and amenities while issuing the unique identity for Indians — including more functional biometric stations, ensuring that the employees come on time, are well trained, get paid well, make eye contact, acknowledge the physical presence of the common men and women whose identity they are recording and make their lives a shade easier with a smile. After all, without these ‘ordinary individuals’ and their unique identity, there would be no quorum for a collective national identity for India.

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