Hello. My name is Rajesh Mehar. I am a law-abiding citizen of India. Wait. Actually, I am not so sure anymore.
Until 1 April of 2017, I was a good citizen. You could even have called me an Adarsh Citizen. I paid my taxes on time, did not participate in cash transactions if other alternatives were available, did not hoard cash or have undisclosed income, did not use unregistered mobile phone SIM cards, did not claim subsidies surreptitiously, and definitely did not resort to legal action against my own country.
But since 1 April 2017, it has all been coming apart. I have not been able to file my Income Tax returns despite wanting and trying to. My bank accounts are most likely to become non-operational at the end of this month and I will be forced to transact only in cash. I will not be able to receive a salary, declare my income, or participate in the economy legally. My mobile phone connection will be blocked in February 2018, and I may need to borrow a SIM card and impersonate someone else. I still do not plan to claim any subsidies, but I most definitely plan legal action against my government.
All of this has happened only because of one powerful force in my life. No, not my faadhaar, not my maadhaar, but Aadhaar. My name is Rajesh Mehar. I do not have Aadhaar and I am an orphan of our democracy.
But why? What am I hiding?
Several friends have laughed at my stubbornness. Why don’t you want to get Aadhaar? What are you hiding? Don’t you know Aadhaar is stopping many illegal practices? If you can give your fingerprints to the US Consulate for a visa, why can’t you give your biometrics to our government? Do you hate our Prime Minister?
I have been thinking about these questions without scepticism and formulating my honest answers. It makes sense to start in reverse order.
No, I do not hate our Prime Minister. I disagree with him on many counts, and I think he has made some grievous mistakes along the way, but I like him as much as I like any other political leader from any other party. And that is NOT why I have not got my Aadhaar.
Yes, I have obtained a visa and travelled to other countries and I have submitted my fingerprints in the process. However, I did so feeling powerless, criminalised, and disenfranchised every moment of that process. I did so knowing that I would go back to the welcoming, safe bosom of my country at the end of the ordeal. Now to feel the same way about the land I was born in makes me sad beyond description. I feel like a crying child, beaten and abused outside, coming back home to discover that my parents had gone mad and I was to be beaten and abused at home too.
No, Aadhaar has not stopped criminal activities and illegal practices, or even reduced them. In fact, criminals are using Aadhaar, and common citizens’ lack of understanding about it, to perpetrate crimes and continue illegal practices. The government themselves have leaked citizens’ private information, even the President’s office has. Sometimes, private information has been leaked through obscure websites that nobody knows about, like Zambo dot in. Using Aadhaar, common citizens’ money has been redirected without their knowledge, or cheated out of them again and again and again and again. In fact, criminals have even managed to make fake Aadhaars and the initial promise of weeding out fake claimants of government subsidies and entitlements is also now broken.
Are there safeguards?
But my friends are not idiots. “Arre, but it will never happen to you yaar. The government has made sure that there are safeguards. Even if anything goes wrong, you will be able to get redressal,” they say. Well, no.
Aadhaar was created by a team of technologists who have since left Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the parent organisation, to create other companies that will profit from the Aadhaar ecosystem. This is a troubling conflict of interest, and at least one person connected to ‘monetising Aadhaar’ has been publicly outed as an online troll, creating multiple accounts to badger and discredit critics of Aadhaar. Some people who created the Aadhaar technology are acknowledged to be volunteers! Would I have my broken tap fixed by a volunteer plumber? Would I give my cellphone to have its shattered touch screen repaired by a volunteer technician? Then how can we accept that a mission critical national identity project was developed by volunteer technologists?
If by chance, your or my Aadhaar number is made public, it can never be changed. And unfortunately, you and I are stuck with the same fingers and irises for the rest of our lives. Despite this irrevocable loss in case of a breach, there is no easy complaint system for Aadhaar-related fraud. You can call the Aadhaar customer service call centre, which, by the way, people are having trouble finding. Or it can be reached sometimes but the ‘system doesn’t work’. And of course, no court can allow any legal action connected with Aadhaar except if the legal action is initiated by UIDAI itself.
So, if you or I have an Aadhaar related problem, what is the best way out? Many citizens have taken to using Twitter, a public social media platform owned by an American company, to get through to UIDAI. Moreover, UIDAI themselves encourage us to reveal our Aadhaar number by ‘Private Message’ to air our grievance via this website, which is legally bound to divulge information on the platform to American security agencies. Excellent.
Why is it compulsory?
Nobody knows why Aadhaar is mandatory. Or even if it is mandatory. You can choose not to have an Aadhaar as long as you do not need a bank account, a mobile phone connection, income tax returns, school admissions, medical care, and a host of other optional items. Our Prime Minister himself had opposed Aadhaar vehemently. UIDAI itself petitioned the Supreme Court that Aadhaar should not be made mandatory. So, why is it mandatory? Nobody knows.
Orphaned by Democracy
Indian citizens are constitutionally blessed with three parents for support, one more than the average child gets allocated. These three parents are the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. Citizenry have tried to tell these three parents that they are being abused. Unfortunately, these parents have orphaned us. The first parent, our legislature, passed the Aadhaar related legislation as a money bill, which means it did not get debated in the Rajya Sabha at all. The second parent, our executive, has been indirectly making Aadhaar mandatory by making it compulsory to link it to several other services. There is no option for those who do not have Aadhaar or those who do not want to link it. Our last resort, our judiciary, has been patiently wearing down our complaints by not substantially hearing the several Aadhaar related matters before it for the last two and a half years.
So, bereft of any parental support, here I stand.
Thank you for listening to my story. I am Rajesh Mehar, a law abiding citizen of India until the next Aadhaar linking deadline. I am now an orphan of our democracy. Will civil society adopt me?
(Rajesh Mehar is a father of two beautiful children and also works for an IT company. He does not have Aadhaar yet.)