POLITICS

Here's The Problem With Aadhaar's One-Size-Fits-All, Blunt Force Strategy

The unfortunate case of Sanat Maitra and many others like him.

11/11/2017 11:40 AM IST | Updated 11/11/2017 11:40 AM IST
Mansi Thapliyal / Reuters
REPRESENTATIVE IMAGE: A villager gets ready to be photographed for the Unique Identification (UID) database system at an enrolment centre at Merta district in Rajasthan.

"Why should a citizen have to petition a high court to direct the Centre to issue an Aadhaar card to him?"

This question in the case of Sanat Maitra, someone with 83% cerebral palsy, has brought into sharp focus the problems with the one-size-fits-all blunt force strategy that Aadhaar has become.

Maitra has tried thrice to get his Aadhaar card according to his mother. But his condition means he cannot look straight at the camera for the iris scan or hold still long enough to give finger prints. Each attempt has ended in failure.

Yet like all of us, he is being bombarded with threatening messages from his bank asking him to link his bank account with his Aadhaar number or else risk having his account made inoperative.

Aadhaar Bureaucracy

The problem is not about ironing out the kinks in the Aadhaar. The problem is a lack of awareness or even outright denial that there could be kinks at all. The government's bald-faced assertion in court that ultimatum messages from banks and telecom companies about linking to Aadhaar cards was just hearsay is a prime example of such arrogance.

Maitra has tried thrice to get his Aadhaar card according to his mother. But his condition means he cannot look straight at the camera for the iris scan or hold still long enough to give finger prints. Each attempt has ended in failure.

The court's question is very pertinent.

This is something that should not have needed to come to the court at all. This is something the Aadhaar bureaucracy should have resolved a workaround when it happened. The Maitras should not have been subjected to the same trauma each time with the same results. This is an example not just of a failure to think things through but of being so bound by the rule book that we are helpless to deal with any deviation.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Chabadibai Sonawane, former sarpanch of Tembhli group gram panchayat, who met Sonia Gandhi last year. She is yet to be enrolled for Aadhaar as the scheme is yet to take off in her village Asus, located next to Tembhli, Nandurbar district.

The UADAI has issued some clarifications for special cases like cerebral palsy or other neurological conditions. Relatives can call UADAI for special arrangement for enrollment and specially trained manpower can be arranged. Only biometrics can be accepted for those unable to keep eyes open long enough for iris scan. The visually impaired will get a biometric with a full-blown picture.

The Aadhaar Act says: "The authority shall take special measures to issue Aadhaar number to women, children, senior citizens, persons with disability, unskilled and unorganized workers, nomadic tribes or other such persons who do not have any permanent dwelling house."

But are those working (and being overworked) at Aadhaar offices aware of any of this? Obviously not otherwise Maitra would not have had to approach a court after three failed attempts.

It's not just about Aadhaar.

The Disadvantaged

As the treatment of cerebral palsy affected Jeeja Bhattacharya by Spicejet shows, we are not equipped or trained to deal with disability with sensitivity. But it's not just the disabled who are physically unable to meet the conditions to get an Aadhaar card.

The Act makes special mention of "senior citizens" but go to any Aadhaar centre and you will find countless senior citizens struggling to get their Aadhaar cards done. Some have issues giving fingerprints. Some have bad knees and very limited mobility. At one point during the Aadhaar camps, someone said they would come by to do the biometrics for my mother who was housebound at that point. Nothing happened. In a country where the 80-plus demographics is one of the fastest growing, we are callously ill-equipped to deal with their needs.

Pallava Bagla via Getty Images
The world's largest bio-metric enrolment in India called Aadhaar will enrol 1.2 billion people in a 12-digit unique number for each person to be issued to each resident in India.

Even something as simple as a sidewalk can be a logistical challenge, wheelchair-unfriendly and with sharp curb level changes that make it tricky for those with bad knees. Navigating all that to go to an Aadhaar office and stand in line is not easy. And then to be turned away after all that just adds insult to injury.

Also consider that those who work with their hands, for example handling bricks and other rough objects, show considerable fingerprint quality deterioration with age because aging results in loss of collagen.

"Technology is meant to be an inclusive mechanism. In not thinking through an alternative for biometrics, the Aadhaar technology will work in the opposite manner," writes Manjira Khurana of HelpAge India. Instead of an alternative, the elderly are just faced with a shrug from the harried Aadhaar official who is as clueless as anyone else.

Of 100 million elderly in India, more than 51 million live below the poverty line.

What is worse is that the elderly are often the group that can stand to lose the most when benefits are hardwired to Aadhaar cards. Of 100 million elderly in India, more than 51 million live below the poverty line. And even those not below the poverty line are panic-stricken at the thought that their bank accounts, or their mobile phones, a lifeline to the world outside might be at risk because they have not been able to get the Aadhaar.

In a more senior citizen friendly environment, the government should have thought through facilities to bring the Aadhaar to those who cannot go to get their cards, and trained the personnel to deal with that situation. Instead it is left to the elderly to flounder in a sea of confusion.

Pallava Bagla via Getty Images
The world's largest bio-metric enrolment in India called Aadhaar will enrol 1.2 billion people in a 12-digit unique number for each person to be issued to each resident in India.

Better Implementation

Many moons ago I remember my mother going to the bank because there was a signature mismatch with my great grandmother's signature. My great-grandmother was then already in her nineties and still signed clearly. The bank official, true to bureaucratic form, said my great grandmother needed to come in.

My mother looked at him and said "Look, my grandmother-in-law is 94 years old. That she is still able to sign legibly is itself an achievement. I hope you can do it as legibly if you reach that age. That she has signed for this account for so many decades with no problems is amazing. If you want anything more from her you had better come to the house."

The chagrined bank manager quickly cleared the matter.

At that time you could shame the bank manager to show simple human decency. Now my great-grandmother would just get a threatening SMS telling her that her bank account of 70 years was at risk of being turned inactive.

It's not that the Aadhaar is necessarily bad. It's that its implementation has been painfully shoddy.

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