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Adventures with Aadhaar

Blog Post3 min read

This story started a few weeks back, I went with my research assistant, Baby, to the State Bank of India, in order to enquire what kinds of identification proof she’d need to open a bank account. Being a tall, white, woman, I usually command a fair bit of attention in such offices, and so was promptly helped by an older bank employee who was taking a rest in the corner, despite the large crowds of young men vying to get help them with their banking tasks. He explained that Baby would have to bring two forms of official documentation in order to open a bank account – one from a list of address proofs, and one from a list of identity proofs. As we scanned the lists, we realized that she didn’t have any of them. Then, we go to the “aadhaar.” I said, “Hey, did you ever get your aadhaar? It says that would count as address proof.” She looked puzzled. I said, “Did you ever get anything from when you did the eye scan?” (Baby applied for her aadhaar many months ago, at a government office in Sitapur. She calls it the “ank wala” scheme, or the one having to do with eyes. Apparently, the eye scan made a big impression on her.)

A quick note of background on India's Aadhaar, or Unique Identification Project. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen lots of newspaper articles about the UID: for examples from the Hindu, see here, and here, and here. The UID is a number given to Indian individuals that is linked to their biometric data (finger prints and eye scan) that the government plans to try to link up to various programs and systems. According to the UID website, “[b]y providing a clear proof of identity, Aadhaar will empower poor and underprivileged residents in accessing services such as the formal banking system and give them the opportunity to easily avail various other services provided by the Government and the private sector.”

The people who took Baby's eye scan said that her number would be mailed to her house. Apparently, when the mailman came around, he was having trouble locating her little room in the somewhat chaotic slum where she lives. He showed the address to a shopkeeper, who told the mailman that he knew the intended recipient and would give her the letter. The shopkeeper promptly forgot about the letter until a couple of months later when he spotted Baby walking through the neighbourhood. After a long while of digging through papers in his shop, he pulled out the letter. Baby was the proud owner of an aadhaar!

Only a few days later, Baby came down with a terrible bout of diarrhoea and went to the district hospital to seek treatment. She brought her aadhaar paper, in an official looking envelope, with her, hoping it might help her get free or reduced cost treatment. In her sick and distracted state, she’d put some money in the same envelope. When she got home, she noticed that although she still had the envelope, but that the money and the aadhaar paper were gone. Maybe it was stolen, or maybe it had fallen out, but either way, she no longer had her aadhaar.

That seemed like the end of the story, so I wrote to a friend who works on aadhaar to commiserate about how tough life is for poor people here in UP. The friend was resourceful enough to put me in touch with folks at the UID office in Delhi, who were able to send a copy of Baby’s aadhaar letter. (Granted, there are very few poor people in eastern Uttar Pradesh with Baby's connections -- I think her aadhaar retreival can be considered somewhat unique!)

Thanks to a color printer and lamination machine, we were able to give Baby an official looking piece of paper with her number on it, and even make her an "aadhaar card." She doesn’t have the other form of identification needed to open the bank account yet (she originally though she did, and it turns out to have gotten lost). (As an aside, she was able to vote in the last elections without a identification card, because the municipality called upon her to supervise the women’s voting!) If she can manage to get the other form of ID, I’ll be interested to know how this version of her aadhaar papers works at the bank.

On a final note, a few days ago, another aadhaar camp came to her slum, so she decided that just to be safe, she would go ahead and apply for another unique identification number! Let’s see whether she gets it!

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r.i.c.e. is a non-profit research organization focused on health and well-being in India. Our core focus is on children in rural north India. Our research studies health care at the start of life, sanitation, air pollution, maternal health, social inequality, and other dimensions of population-level social wellbeing.

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