These days I have become somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to large government programs and India’s Unique Identification Program is the mother of larger government programs. Providing unique identification number (somewhat like a U.S. Social Security Number) linked to photographs, fingerprints and iris scans to 1.2 billion Indians in over 600,000 villages and cities are taking technology deployment to an unprecedented scale. So I was intrigued when I came upon an Aadhar (new name for the Unique ID program) in a Rajasthan village.
The camp was set up in the Panchayat Bhawan with some banners announcing its presence. When I walked in, the village Pradhan was outside checking out ration cards and voter IDs of villagers who had come to get their Aadhar card and inside several computer stations were set up with cameras and fingerprint scanners as well as a printer. As I was watching, an elderly villager in colorful headgear walked in and handed his ration card to the Pradhan took check, who cheerfully waved him inside. He was asked to sit at the table and his Aadhar enrollment took a few motherinutes. He looked rather bewildered at the fingerprint scanner but the young technician was very helpful and Ramlal Gupta walked out waving a printout of his enrollment form at the end.
I was intrigued about why he had taken the trouble to come and enroll for Aaadhar card and asked him about it. His answer was simple, “I don’t know if this card is going to be useful or not but every time government makes some cards and I don’t get them, I discover later I should have. I never finished the paperwork for the Below Poverty Line (BPL) card and now I really regret it. So I thought I should do it since it only takes a little time.”
Ramlalji is wise. I am also beginning to discover that these vague pieces of paper shape people’s lives in strange ways. For example, India Human Development Survey documents that Dalit and Adivasi children typically enter school about six months later than forward caste Hindu children. There is little systematic research that can tell us why but I am convinced that lack of birth certificates and proof of residence could be one of the reasons. Every time I speak to a government school principal they say very simply that as long as their papers are in order we want to make sure all children attend school. But when pressed, stories of children from the nearby hamlets being told to go to another school or children of migrant laborers being sent back start emerging.
Birth certificate is a particularly dicey affair. Since about 50% of the deliveries take place at home, if a birth is registered within 90 days, birth certificate is easy. Otherwise an application needs to be made and the Gramsabha meetings where birth certificates are discussed are often held infrequently, a couple of times a year. So it is not surprising that the National Family Health Survey – III documents that only 41% of children under 5 have their births registered and only 26% have birth certificates; Dalit (24%) and Adivasi (18%) children are far less likely to have birth certificates than forward castes and others (40%) as are rural children (20%) compared to urban (42%). The attached graph also shows large differences by mother’s education. While Right to Education Act notes that no child will be denied admission because of a lack of birth certificate, the alternative documents that are acceptable in place of a birth certificate are also onerous.
I can’t see the point of turning a child away from school because he or she has no birth certificate, or making a family run around to get letter from a hospital or a nurse midwife. Does a child not exist because she does not have appropriate proof of age or proof of residence? Why should the government schools care whether a child from Rampur attends Deopur school since Indian school funding is not tied to local tax revenues? If domestic strife drives Deepa’s mother to live in her natal home or Karim belongs to a family of brick makers who migrate seasonally in search of work with no proof of residence papers do these children not deserve education?
These are longer philosophical questions. But as long as these ubiquitous demands for identity and residence proofs remain pervasive, people will flock to get their Aaadhar cards.