How a Villager's 'Wild Chase' to Retrieve Aadhaar Number Reflects a Crushing Lack of System

In an opinions piece on 'The Indian Express', two scholars have written of the extraordinary lack of systemic recourse for marginalised people who have lost their Aadhaar number.

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New Delhi: An opinion piece by economist Jean Drèze and JNU scholar Vyom Anil has sought to highlight – through the lived example of a Dalit villager – the sheer absence of recourse for marginalised people when it comes to complications with Aadhaar.

The column on The Indian Express, narrating the authors’ first-person experience, is called ‘Wild chase for identity.’

In it, the authors reveal that the process of retrieving one’s Aadhaar number, if one has lost one’s Aadhaar card, is not only non-existent but also fraught with so many internal contradictions that those without regular access to technology are bound to suffer endlessly.

One Reena Devi, who belongs to the Musahar community and lives in Kinaru village of Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, found herself in exactly such a situation when the authors met her in October 2020. Entitled to a ration card, job card, bank account and widow pension, Reena could access none of these because she had lost her Aadhaar card, and with it, her Aadhaar number.

In what is a scathing example of the failure of the Aadhaar’s primary promise of biometric record keeping, the author’s found that the process of retrieving an Aadhaar number was instead a journey through various steps of unaccountability.

“Even for us, with our university degrees and fluent English, it took months to solve her problem. In the end, we succeeded, but not without special assistance. (By the way, there is nothing wrong with Reena’s fingerprints.),” the authors write.

In the piece, Anil and Dreze describe multiple journeys, to the Aadhaar enrolment centre, to block headquarters, to the Muzaffarpur district registrar and then to another enrolment centre – all unveiling layers of harassment and giving what the authors call a “sobering view” of the problems of outsourcing Aadhaar work to private agencies.

Also watch: Jean Drèze on Making Aadhaar Mandatory For Mid-Day Meals

For people like Reena, the authors found that technology made mockery of her condition. The UIDAI telephone helpline and the website both asked for details like pre-registered mobile number, email address and date of birth. The first two, Reena did not have. The third, she had no idea of.

Confusion regarding the system extended up to even UIDAI help centre workers and the Assistant Director-General who separately advised Reena to apply afresh for an Aadhaar. “They were not sure whether it would help, but thought there was no harm trying.”

Reena would apply twice and be rejected both times.

The reply to the authors’ Right to Information application to the UIDAI, too, proved unhelpful and offered vague answers which failed to recognise that a person who did not have her Aadhaar number would not be able to offer this number at a help centre so her mobile number could be updated to kickstart the process of retrieving this very number.

Ultimately, a UIDAI officer in Ranchi helped retrieve Reena’s Aadhaar number at the end of an ordeal that lasted months.

The authors end their piece by asking a few key questions on why there is no communication of how people like Reena can retrieve their Aadhaar numbers.

The authors also write that all efforts to procure a ration card for Reena without an Aadhaar card also failed.

Since the Aadhaar was linked to Public Distribution Systems, Jean Drèze had been vocal on the fact that the latter would be made vulnerable to class biases as a result.

Several scholars have also spoken of the trampling on the rights of the marginalised with the imposition of the Aadhaar. Citing the example of an Adivasi man in Jharkhand who passed away out of prolonged hunger and undernutrition in 2018, Abinash Dash Choudhury wrote for The Wire, “The right to life, which essentially ensures the right to a dignified life, and is the foundation of the National Food Security Act, 2013, has been trampled on extensively.”

The pandemic and lockdowns of the past year have furthered the need for food and financial security for those like Reena Devi. Several governments, like Delhi, depended on Aadhaar to issue e-coupons to provide free food during the lockdown – which kept several out of the ambit, as this analysis on The Wire sought to highlight.