Tribal fear of unique ID number

TRIPURA hit the headlines in April for doing well in implementing the Unique Identification of India Authority project, whereas other North-east states continue to lag behind, or are just not interested. Mizoram, for example, has refused to participate on religious grounds.

Also known as Aadhar, which means “support” or “foundation”, the project involves a unique 12-digit number being issued to an individual after collecting his/her demographics and biometric information – a photograph, fingerprints of all 10 digits and iris prints for storage in a centralised database.

The concept emerged in 2006 as a solution to the rampant corruption exposed in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and Public Distribution System and was mainly directed at families below the poverty line. Proposed by the Union ministry for information technology, the hi-tech information database was meant to cut wastage and dispense with leakages in the delivery mechanism for various public sector services.

The government also aims to support and ensure the proper functioning of the system and also achieve substantial economy in subsidy outgo. According to the Uid authority’s vision, the effort is also to create more accessibility to the banking system, which is very low in many rural states, particularly in the North-east.

The ambitious project is estimated to cost Rs 45,000 crore and the Union finance minister had to sanction an additional Rs 1,758 crore. Recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the project would soon become a main channel for citizens to access a wide variety of budget benefits.

 Last year the project faced a setback when the Union home ministry raised security concerns regarding its enrolment techniques. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance had also rejected the Bill, slamming its high costs, lack of privacy safeguards and absence of a clear purpose. Social activists opposed it on the grounds of false claims, violation of privacy and civil liberties, functionality lapses, misuse of data, inappropriate technology and unjustifiable cost.

Till April 2011, there were only a few hundred enrolments in Assam and Mizoram. According to the Uidai director-general, “Ninety per cent of Tripura’s population has been covered under the project while the national average stands at 16 per cent.”

The reaction in Mizoram was quite “unique”; thousands of families refused to enroll, their refusal (by mostly smaller Christian sects) resulting from a belief based on the prophesy in Chapter 13, Verse 17 of the Book of Revelations in the Bible which says “... so that no man might buy or sell, unless he had the mark which is the name of the Beast or the number of his name”. The number is believed to be 666, thus drawing a parallel with the Uidai, which stipulates that no one can buy or sell property without the Unique ID number.

Officials went to the extent of warning Mizos of the dire consequences that would involve a fine of Rs 1,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years and also deprivation of benefits from social schemes if they dared disobey. Locals were equally adamant, claiming that they had the right to follow their faith and were not afraid. The synod of the largest Presbyterian Church directed its congregation to cooperate with the enumerators and also condemned those who were issuing booklets about the “Number of the Beast” to terrify its members.

Similar reactions were observed in Manipur’s Churachandpur district, where enumerators had to labour to convince villagers. Even though the opposition here was not as strong as in Mizoram, people were rather indifferent. The convincing was mostly done with the help and intervention of the village chief. It was mostly a door-to-door campaign for enumerators.

Beside religious beliefs and ignorance, many tribal sects in the North-east were apprehensive, some even doubting the identity number as the very concept of an identity (based on indigenuity, tradition, customs, culture, oral history) which is quite in contrast with the ongoing enrolment process.

This process requires proof of documents, from a birth certificate to proof of name, address and relationship with one’s family. The list has a total of 18 supported documents for name and photograph proof, 33 documents for name and address proof, eight documents for relationship proof with the head of one’s family and four documents for proof of date of birth.

The project has left everyone a tad confused since the Aadhar scheme was supposed to be a rural entity, its target being BPL families, social scheme beneficiaries and those in areas with a low banking system. But proof of all documents listed seems to be urban-centric – Pan card, passport, driving licence.

A technological venture, the project focuses on identification and authentication for the opening of bank accounts, facilitating electronic transactions of money, enabling smooth payments for social schemes and a variety of other benefits such as micro-credit, micro-insurance, micro-pensions, micro-mutual funds, etc. Enumerators in the remote corners of the Manipur’s hill areas went about their job with cans of petrol and generators, due to the unavailability of electricity. Their job would suffer a setback during the monsoon due to bad roads.

But with so many controversies and such ambiguity surrounding it, one wonders if the hyped ID card scheme will serve the rural population, as is claimed. What of those without computers and electricity, whether a tribal farmer or a commoner, who would have this “unique” identity card thrust upon them even as they have little wherewithal, never mind money in a bank and, therefore, no financial transactions to conduct? No wonder fear of the “number” lingers at the very core of tribal identity.

The writer is a freelance contributor
The Statesman, May 28,2012

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