The complexities of India’s ID system and how it is changing

The first time I needed a document to prove that I was indeed a resident of Mumbai, I had to make umpteen visits to a local administrative office, had to struggle to understand the dialect of Marathi he spoke, convince him that I did not have a surname, and finally, after much sign language, understood that he wanted a bribe. Yes, all that rigmarole had nothing to do with all the forms (in quadruplicate) that I had to fill, but a simple matter of making a state government employee’s wallet fatter. I stormed out of the office in anger, refusing to grease anyone’s palms, and the officer didn’t even shrug… he simply went on to the next applicant, who was probably a lot less naive than I was, and ready to cough out the sum required to get the required document. Needless to say, I still do not have the document in question.

This is the standard situation at any government office in India. Most readers who live in India or ever have to deal with officialdom in India will understand and empathize.

No matter what you go for, you need documents – you go to get a phone connection or mobile SIM card, they ask for your ID proof and address proof. You go to the bank, they require the same, plus a pan card. You go by train, you need an ID card, you go to vote, you need an election card!

So, you need something to prove your identity, and something to prove that you do indeed live where you say you do. But that can be one document, right? NO! That would be too simple! So we have an identity proof, which has to have your photo, with your name on it – like a driving license. My debit card has my name and photo on it. But will it do? No, of course it won’t. It doesn’t have my address on it, you see! My driving license has both, but it will do only for an ID proof. It won’t work as address proof. Why? I have absolutely no clue! So I need a passport, even though I have never been abroad, and have no idea when I will! I have owned a passport for over 20 years now, it has been renewed once, and all it has been used for, is as address proof!

We used to have ration cards in those good old days when the public distribution system used to work. Now we are considered too rich to avail of that, but I still have to hold on to the ration card just to prove that the five of us do indeed reside at the same address, and that my family has been living in the same house for the last 40 years!!

And that is not all. As a citizen of India, it is my right as well as duty to vote, but to do that, I have to get my name (in the right form) into the electoral list (which is a chore too detailed to mention here and worthy of an article by itself). As proof of that, I also need an election ID card with my photo and address on it. Never mind that the photo looks nothing like me, and the address only resembles mine by a long shot, but I still need it to cast my ballot!

Are you wondering how I managed to get all these cards after the very first fiasco? Well, over the years, I learnt to speak Marathi well, even imitating the very same dialect used by the officer in question, learnt to pretend to be deaf when asked for a bribe, showed up every single day without fail, slowly wearing him/her out till he/she finally gave in and handed me my card!!

The only card I got easily, without having to go through any of this, is the PAN card…, which is a relatively new effort to connect my name and address to my finances. Thanks to the income tax department going online, I was able to get the card without setting foot outside my house!

This is the other side of India – where the internet has made a huge change in our lives. I no longer have to wait in long queues to pay my bills or book tickets, file my tax returns, and do almost anything and everything. Of course, not everyone looks at the internet as a blessing. Especially not those sitting in those damp government offices, feeling great power over those of us who have to go to them to get our work done.

Nowhere was it more apparent than at our election office when I went to get my election ID card. The election commission had recently taken a giant step forward, by scanning the records and making it available for the public. I was able to sit at home and get my election ID number and download the forms without any trouble, and had to go to the office just to submit it. The official there refused to accept it, saying that I must have stolen the records somehow!!!! Thankfully, I was prepared and had the newspaper cutting mentioning the availability of documents online, and when he showed signs of thawing, took over the computer he was struggling with, and showed him how I had managed to get the records! I went back to the office 5 times – once for each member of the family – and every time he seemed embarrassed to see me, and hurriedly sent me off, getting my work done in record time!

And now we have something more. Yet another ID card! This one has great plans. The idea is to issue these cards to every single citizen of India – those like us who at least have ‘permanent residences’ and hence the documentation, those who live in rented apartments and struggle to renew their documents every time they move, and even those who have no documents whatsoever! Just consider that this is a country of over a billion people, and you can imagine how big a job it is! This one is rather unimaginatively called ‘Unique ID” or UID in short. The official name is Aadhar, which means ‘foundation’. The card aims to lay the foundation for a better India, a country where people will not have to go through hell for documentation or due to the lack of it. Aadhar will be a biometric card, with all our details – personal, as well as financial. It is thus meant to replace all the unnecessary documents we carry and make our lives easier.

Aadhar came to Mumbai sometime in April or May last year. My husband was the first to go for it, even before it came online. He spent the better part of a day at a neighbouring school where a group of people were engaged in collecting forms, clicking photographs, and taking fingerprints of hundreds of people who had turned up for the UID. Over the next few months, all of us visited the school, getting our names registered and our details logged. We were assured our cards would arrive home within a couple of months. A year passed by, and we heard nothing. The website didn’t seem to want to tell us anything either, for it showed us an error every time we entered our registration number. We gave up sometime at the beginning of this year, thinking that this was yet another fiasco. And then, this month, all of a sudden, the cards began arriving, and soon, we all had our UIDs!

I don’t think the UID will make much of a difference in my life. As of now, it is not being accepted officially. I have scores of documents, as well as the ability to go and get whatever else may be needed in the future. Of course, if it does work, eventually, I won’t have to cart around a load of ID cards anymore, and that was incentive enough to go get the card!!

However, the same cannot be said for the bulk of our population. I meet dozens of people everyday who believe that getting any ID card means paying thousands as bribes, and go through life paying much more for everything else as well, simply because they don’t have the documents, and hence have to go the illegal way to get anything done! It’s not simply the uneducated or the illiterate – its simply misinformation or even lack of information. People stare at me unbelievingly when I tell them that I have got my ration card details updated or my address in my election card corrected without paying a penny. I offer to show them how to do it, but they shrug and say they can’t do it, or don’t have the time to do it. And these are educated people.

Now think of the millions of people in our villages, especially the remote ones, or the migrants, in search of a job which will provide them their next meal, or the daily wagers who are the present day nomads, going wherever there are jobs to be had. The government does try to provide for all these people, but the numbers are simply too large… and they need to be identified in the first place. This is the target group for Aadhar. The idea is to take the card to them, and appropriately, the registrations were first begun in far flung villages, and even those without any documents whatsoever were issued the cards on the basis of recommendation from the village heads.

This is a massive project, one that will take time, considering the number of people it aims to reach, but all we can hope is that it will eventually fulfil all our expectations, and indeed make our country a better place to live in!

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About the author

Anuradha Shankar
Anuradha Shankar is from Mumbai, India. She has a Masters degree in Physics but prefers to describe herself as a Housewife, Mother, Traveller, Bookworm and aspiring Freelance writer.
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