The Supreme Court is considering a whole slew of pleas to declare Aadhaar unconstitutional and to halt any efforts to make the unique identity number mandatory for access to various schemes and services of the government. The next hearing on the issue is on June 27. Meanwhile, the government has stuck to its June 30 deadline to link Aadhaar to a range of schemes, from educational scholarships and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, to PAN cards needed to pay income tax, to compensation for victims of bonded labour and the 1984 Bhopal gas leak.
One of attorney general Mukul Rohatgi’s arguments, presented before the Supreme Court at the last hearing on May 19, was that there were already 115 crore people who hold Aadhaar cards in the country. In fact, UIDAI data, updated till May 15, 2015, shows that there are 114,53,65,576 people with Aadhaar in India. According to the UIDAI, this represents an 89.6% coverage of the national population, leaving a little over 10% without an Aadhaar number.
A certain number of these Aadhaar holdouts may be in states like Assam and Meghalaya, which have only 7% and 9% enrolment coverage respectively. At the other end of the spectrum lie eight states with over 100% enrolment, meaning that they have actually issued more Aadhaar cards than there is population. (UIDAI has previously explained this anomaly by alleging gaps in census enumeration resulting in errors in population data.) At the top of the list sits Delhi, a state which has a whopping 119% coverage, having issued more than 21 lakh Aadhaar numbers (as compared to a total population of 17.7 lakh).
Behind those statistics though, are real people who still do not have an Aadhaar, even in Delhi with its 119% coverage. Some have refused to get an Aadhaar by choice; others have been denied the unique identity; still others have got it too late to access the benefits they need. With an increasing range of services being linked to the unique identity (and with confusion at the grass-roots level about exactly which schemes are being linked when, thus leaving a lot of discretion in implementation to junior clerks in government offices across the country), both the holdouts and those left stranded by the Aadhaar are struggling to cope. We talked to people in different walks of life about their experience in living without an Aadhaar.
When Reshmi, an 18-year old from Khaira Tand village in the Gaya district of Bihar, got married earlier this month, it was a time for the family to celebrate. For her 55-year old father Ram Parvesh, however, a background worry remained: he had been forced to take a unexpected loan of Rs. 30,000 from the local moneylender at a rate of 10% interest to finance the wedding celebrations. Without Aadhaar cards for the family, he does not know how he will be able to pay off that debt.
For the last five years, Ram Parvesh and his family – Reshmi, her elder brother Chhotan Manjhi, and his wife Pinku – had been trafficked for labour to a brick kiln in Uttar Pradesh. In April 2016, the family, along with 122 other victims of labour trafficking and bonded labour, were released through government intervention under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. Under the rules of that law, each former bonded labourer is entitled to a sum of Rs. 20,000 from the government – split equally between the state and Centre – as support for rehabilitation. However, that sum of Rs 80,000, more than enough to pay for Reshmi’s wedding, has still not been given to the family. In March 2017, the government issued a notice that from June 30 onwards, Aadhaar will be made compulsory for receiving such rehabilitation help, further diminishing Ram Parvesh’s hopes.
“When I went to the Aadhaar centre at the block headquarters, they told me that without a pehchan patra (voter ID card), they cannot give Aadhaar,” he says. Neither his children nor daughter-in-law have voter IDs, and so were denied Aadhaar.
He himself was able to get Aadhaar, as he had a voter ID. But both those identity documents use the name ‘Parvesh Manjhi’, while the release certificate issued by the government as proof of his status as a survivor of trafficking uses ‘Ram Parvesh’. According to social workers in the area, mismatched identity documents are a common issue among people in his Mahadalit community, with some documents using the caste name while others do not. The mismatched documents have also made it difficult for Ram Parvesh to open a bank account to receive the rehabilitation amount. While Public Distribution System authorities are repeatedly asking for Aadhaar cards as well, they are currently willing to dole out the family’s rations without the unique identity documents. Ram Parvesh hopes that will not change.
Zahid Hussain, a social worker with an NGO that fights labour trafficking, says that Ram Parvesh’s concerns are being echoed by former bonded labourers across the state. “In Madhubani district, the officials have locked access to bank accounts and fixed deposit accounts unless proof of Aadhaar is shown,” he says. “One family has taken a loan at 15% interest to pay for a daughter’s wedding simply because they cannot access their own State Bank of India fixed deposit…How do they expect that people who have been trafficked will have the identity documents required?”
In fact, having been denied their rehabilitation amount for over a year now, reports suggest that several families may be forced to take an advance from unscrupulous middlemen again this year, putting them at risk for re-trafficking.
Bhasha Singh has had a professional interest in Aadhaar since its early days. As a journalist writing about social issues, she has followed its development under the UPA government through to the current NDA government. “Whatever concerns we had in the last five years are now being fulfilled,” she says. A few years ago, she had written an article for Outlook magazine about migrant labourers unable to register for Aadhaar. Today, while most workers, even migrants have been issued Aadhaar in the city, she has decided to hold out, standing by her principles.
“This is an intrusion from the state, to know everything about its citizens,” says Bhasha. “As an Indian citizen, I have full rights over my own body.”
She is also worried about security threats related to the Aadhaar database. “They are putting everything under the security net,” she says. “They’re also selling our biometric data to corporates.” Bhasha adds that Aadhaar cannot be treated like some sort of holy cow, which will solve all the country’s problems.
So far, she has managed to work around the various disadvantages of daily life without an Aadhaar. While she could not get subsidised gas cylinders without the Aadhaar, she has got an LPG pipeline connection through her society in Mayur Vihar in east Delhi. “When my parents try to book train tickets using the senior citizens quota, they are asked for Aadhaar. All the banks where I have an account keep calling, asking for my Aadhaar,” she says.
However, she asserted her rights at the post office, where she had gone to open a recurring deposit. “The clerk said Aadhaar was mandatory, and kept pointing me to printed post office notices pasted all over the room,” says Bhasha. “But I insisted on seeing a government notification, and finally a supervisor turned up and let me fill out the form.”
Arya Raje holds American citizenship, but has lived most of her life in India and holds an OCI card. The newly-wed in her late twenties currently practices as a lawyer in the Mumbai courts. And since Aadhaar is required for all residents of India, not merely citizens of India, she falls within its net. However, it is her training in Indian law that has ensured that she does not have an Aadhaar.
“Even when my family enrolled six years ago, I had my suspicions. I wasn’t very comfortable about the fact that there was no actual law backing UIDAI and Aadhaar, and it seemed unconstitutional to take biometrics,” she says.
Parliament ultimately passed a law, the Aadhaar Act of 2016, but Arya’s concerns have only grown. “The law has no redress if your ID is stolen,” she says. “Yes, the Aadhaar authorities can make a complaint, but I can’t…It becomes more dangerous when everything is linked to Aadhaar. If there’s a single security breach, everything may be compromised.”
She is also concerned about the fact that there is no way to opt out of the system at a later date, even if one leaves the country. “Once your biometrics are taken, it is with them forever,” she says. “There is no privacy law in India to protect me.”
Arya also objects to the government’s attempts to “bulldoze” past people’s concerns without addressing them. “What is the hurry?” she asks. “What really turns me off is that the Supreme Court has actually put a stay [on making Aadhaar mandatory] and the government seems to be ignoring it.”
So far, Arya has not faced any consequences for the lack of Aadhaar, although that may change with the linkage to PAN. When Dena Bank repeatedly called her husband – who does have Aadhaar, but doesn’t want to link it to his bank account – they decided to fight back.
He sent a query on the RBI website, asking whether any notification had been issued to banks, making it mandatory to link accounts with Aadhaar. They felt vindicated by the reply from the RBI’s Department of Banking Regulation: Sir, Adhar is not compulsory. We have not issued any circular.”
Ranjan* is a mechanical engineer living a normal middle class life in Chennai. He works for a private company in the city. He has a wife and two kids. He is also a Christian and believes that the Bible tells him not to register for an Aadhaar.
“When it first came, everyone was saying it was just another normal identity card. But then slowly it became linked to everything else,” he says. “Today, they want to make it so that you cannot have a bank account, cannot get ration, cannot book a flight or train ticket without it. Already, you cannot register a vehicle. Very soon, you will not be able to buy or sell without it…This has already been foretold in the Bible, in the book of Revelation.”
Revelation is the last book of the Christian scriptures and is a book of prophecy, speaking of the last days of the world. Ranjan cites chapter 13, which speaks of a time when all people, rich and poor, will be forced to get the “mark of the beast,” and will not be able to buy or sell without that mark. Biblical scholars have varying interpretations of this passage, and it has previously led to debunked conspiracy theories. However, Ranjan is sincere in his belief that the passage refers to Aadhaar; and on those grounds, he has refused to get an Aadhaar. He is not alone in his conviction; while no mainstream church has objected to Aadhaar, a number of individual Christians across the country from Tamil Nadu to north-eastern India share those beliefs.
“It is up to every individual, but I will stand for my beliefs, whatever the consequences,” he says. “If the SC rules against making it mandatory, there will be some relief. But I believe we will ultimately have to stand for our faith.”
His family has already put their faith to the test. Ranjan’s mother, a government school teacher, was denied her salary for three months because she did not have an Aadhaar. After repeated prayers and representations to the authorities, her salary was granted, says Ranjan.
Even a recent hip replacement surgery is unable to keep Shubha* down for very long, as she keeps popping up from the hospital bed, her bright pink kurta tangled in the sheets. When the pain becomes too much, she lies down again, but the energy is still alive in her face. It’s a face that is very different from the one shown on the Aadhaar card she pulls out of her smart white handbag.
The face on the ID card is male. The name alongside is Shankar*, a name that takes Shubha a minute to remember when she is asked.
“I got my Aadhaar before I had my sex change operation four years ago,” says 30-year old Shubha, who is part of the transgender community living in north Delhi. “That’s not who I am anymore.” She has known she was different since she was a small child, and has dressed in female clothes since she was young. For the last four years, her biology has matched her gender.
Some biology, however, does not change. Her eyes and her fingerprints remain the same, which means that her unique identity, as recorded by Aadhaar has not changed, which means she cannot simply enrol for a new card. While the UIDAI says it offers the option for a third gender, she insists that was not available at the time she registered. “They only let me choose male or female,” she says. “Now, I don’t know how to get it changed. I went to the notaries at Sadar Bazaar, but they say I must get an affidavit. How would I know how to do that?”
Until a few years ago, she lived with family in the Silampur area, and had a ration card and subsidised gas connection there, until her old name. Recently, she moved further north to Burari with her mother and brother, but has found it difficult to transfer those benefits, especially since she looks nothing like the picture on her identity cards.
She still holds a bank account at the Vijaya Bank in Chandni Chowk in her old name. “During notebandi, when I went to the bank, they first refused to let me do the transaction because they said my face was different. Finally, I told them to match my signature, and they let me do it,” she says.
Shubha has been HIV positive since 2005 and has been taking anti-retroviral therapy treatment from the government Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan hospital with few hassles since 2006. However, when she went to the same hospital for her hip replacement surgery to correct a congenital defect, she was told that if she wanted to get the 50% discounted rate she was entitled to in a government hospital, she would need to show a valid Aadhaar. “I ended up paying the whole Rs 1.5 lakh, so that I could get the operation done without any identity documents,” she says. She has now come for pain management help to the Shalom Delhi hospital, a non-profit project on the Burari Road with ten wards meant for marginalised people living with HIV/AIDS. She does not need an Aadhaar card here.
That is why 20-year old Mohini* is also at Shalom, accompanying a patient with HIV/AIDS. Both of them are from the transgender community as well. She hails from Bihar and has an Aadhaar and voter ID card with her home address, using her previous male name Mohan*. “Whenever I travel home, maybe about once a year, I have to change my face to match what is on my ID to show in the train,” she says.
When Jiya and Rajesh had their first child, a baby girl, in August 2015, they named her Tanishka, and determined that she would have the educational benefits they lacked. They did not realise that would require them to enrol their tiny infant for an Aadhaar card.
The couple are migrants from Uttar Pradesh living in the Lal Gumbad area of Malviya Nagar in south Delhi. While the area is named after a 13th century Sufi saint’s tomb, it is today a warren of tiny lanes of migrant labourer families, set within the posher environs of Panchsheel Park. Rajesh works at a local club, while Jiya stays at home.
They decided to enrol Tanishka in the government’s Laadli Yojna, a scheme which helps to empower girl children from underprivileged homes in Delhi by offering financial assistance at birth, and at intervals throughout their childhood until they complete school. At 18, the girl is allowed to claim the maturity amount for further education and training, or to set up a micro-enterprise. The scheme is restricted to families with an annual income of less than Rs. 1 lakh, and the couple qualified for the benefit.
However, when Rajesh went to the local Women and Child development office in Lajpat Nagar to register for the scheme, he was told to go back and bring the Aadhaar card for the child. Bemused, he protested that his daughter was only a few months old, and showed instead the Aadhaar documents belonging to him and his wife. The officials refused to budge. Finally, in the winter of 2015, Jiya took her five month old and made the 15-hour journey back to their home village in Rae Bareli, UP, where Tanishka handed over her fingerprints and iris scans in exchange for an Aadhaar number.
“I only studied till Class 5, but I want my daughter to go to college, to be able to get a good job,” says Jiya, watching Tanishka play in the alley in front of their home. She thinks Aadhaar is a beneficial scheme overall, but cannot understand why it should have been forced on her young daughter. “Why should such a small child need to get Aadhaar? Can’t they just accept the parents’ ID?”
For other young children in the Lal Gumbad basti, a late registration for Aadhaar is hurting their families’ abilities to put food on their plates. Diya and Gaurav, five and six years old respectively, are not getting the rice and wheat they are entitled to under the Public Distribution System. “We did not have Aadhaar cards made for them when they were babies, so they could not be included the last time our ration cards were made,” says their mother Savita. The family is currently making do with the ration for her and her husband Dalip, who is a daily wage labourer from Rajasthan.
It’s the same story for Santosha and Shobh Nath, also migrant workers from Rajasthan. Their eldest daughter, 12-year old Lakshmi, is included on their ration card, but four more children ranging from three to nine years, are not, as they did not have Aadhaar cards at the time ration cards were made. “We should get at least 16 kg more of foodgrains for the family,” says Santosha, who works as a domestic helper in two nearby homes. “The extra money we saved could be used for rent, or maybe actually put into savings.”
The Delhi Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan has currently filed a case in the Delhi High Court on behalf of the Lal Gumbad families being denied their ration entitlements due to Aadhaar. They also pointed out that some families were denied ration due to biometric failures at some Aadhaar-enabled point of sale devices set up at 42 ration shops in Delhi as a pilot project. The case was heard on May 25 with the Government seeking to dismiss the petition on the grounds that similar petitions are being heard in the Supreme Court. The judges denied that request, and instead, appointed an advocate to act as a commissioner of the court and meet people denied their entitlements due to Aadhaar, and report back to the court.
Asit and Gopika were at the South Delhi SDM’s office when they discovered the long reach of Aadhaar in modern India. It was 2013, the couple wanted to get registered to get married under the Special Marriages Act and had gone to the SDM office to file the notice. Gopika, a resident of Greater Kailash-II, had already visited the office the previous week, and got a list of the documents required, all of which were now produced in order.
Once everything was completed, the clerk asked Gopika for her Aadhaar card, which she was carrying, having got it by registering for the National Population Register earlier. Then the clerk asked to see Asit’s Aadhaar. Which he didn’t have.
The SDM clerk was perplexed, says Gopika. “Bina aadhaar toh nahin hoga. Kabhi toh kiya hoga? Bilkul nahin hai.”
Asit used to work for MTNL and had in fact completed Aadhar registration as part of a drive at work, but he had never got the card and most of his papers were already in Mumbai, as he was shifting to the city.
“It was pure panic because we had already been sent back in the morning for not having an attested affidavit. Once that was cleared, the clerk wanted Aadhar. Asit was leaving for Mumbai that evening, and by some fluke, he had an old photocopy of the Aadhar enrollment slip in his bags,” she remembers the chaos. Overall, it took three trips and four hours at the SDM office.
The marriage registration was completed 30 days later, still without an actual Aadhaar card for Asit.
The couple now lives in Guwahati, with their one-year-old son, and Gopika foresees a new Aadhaar-less drama. “I’m wondering how to get his passport without Aadhaar,” she says.
(*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.)