Today’s Economic Times (yes, I read the money papers. No, not because I have money. It is just like people who will never be celebrities read page 3), has a news report on its front page about unexpected problems being faced by the UID project. For those who read page 3, UID stands for Unique Identification, the government’s ambitious project to give every Indian an identity card.
The UIDAI (AI = Authority of India) says the problem is ‘Missing Biometrics’. Biometrics as you would never guess is the science and technology of measuring and statistically analysing biological data. It explores mysterious biological phenomena like why women get headaches at night. Sorry. Was joking. Well, this is what it is (though I still prefer the first explanation): Biometric verification is any means by which a person can be uniquely identified by evaluating one or more distinguishing biological traits. Unique identifiers include fingerprints, hand geometry, earlobe geometry, retina and iris patterns, voice waves, DNA, and signatures.
To stop you from falling asleep let’s quickly move onto the problem: According to ET, ‘Scores of people the Aadhaar project (that’s the national language name for UID. I am sure there are other language names too. Most likely in languages from states whose regional parties support the government at the centre. No, not that centre.), will help the most, do not have the sharp, curving lines on their fingers… Millions of Indians working in agriculture, construction workers and other manual labourers have worn-out fingers due to a lifetime of hard labour, resulting in what is euphemistically referred to in technical literature as ‘low quality’ fingerprints. This is precisely the demographic (socio-economic strata of people), that UID aims to help – those that are outside government records and welfare schemes.’
There is a load of c*** in that paragraph. Let me point it out one by one:
1] Scores of people – One score = 20. And if it is only scores of people then it is not a big problem, is it? But it is a money paper. Their reporters are not supposed to be very good at language.
2] ‘those that are outside government records and welfare schemes’: our government has welfare schemes? Wow. Well let’s assume it has. But then, we all know that except for the politicians and bureaucrats, everybody is outside those welfare schemes.
3] But the first two are merely journalistic shortcomings. The biggest piece of s*** is something that I have a continuing rant against: our national disease of fixing the symptom and not the problem.
The millions of people who live on the fringes of society, who live under the poverty line and in conditions that erase the lines on their fingers and yet can’t erase the hunger in their bellies – these people don’t want an identity card. They want an identity.
I guess I should stop ranting against this syndrome now. It is all-pervasive and no one gives a damn either. And so we create infrastructure to hold international athletic meets instead of creating infrastructure to support sports. Or spend millions to build bridges over the sea to de-congest traffic instead of spending a fraction of that money to fix roads and make them drive-worthy. The current rage and darling of the media of course is the new rupee symbol. The rupee is almost one-sixtieth of the Euro, one-fiftieth of the US Dollar and almost half of the humble Thai Baht but, we are an emerging economic superpower, we are the next big thing so what the heck, let’s get ourselves a symbol.
That is what all this is about. It is a game called ‘Let’s play superpower-superpower’. It is not, ‘Let’s get ourselves a symbol’ but, ‘Let’s get ourselves a status symbol’. It is the same game that drives a poor farmer first to mortgage his land to have a big fat wedding for his daughter that befits his status and then, to commit suicide when he can’t pay the loan back.
But I am sure they will bypass the biometric problem by appointing a committee or two. Alternately, they will just say, ‘Go ahead! It is not a big problem. After all, the nation’s leading money paper says it is only scores of people and not millions’.
So we will march on regardless and spend the last paisa of the seven thousand crore rupees set aside for this project and ask for more because surely the population has grown since we started this scores of years ago, hasn’t it? And we will continue to ask for money until one glorious day, the last tribal in the remotest area in the country will have a Unique Identity Card. And when you ask him what that is, he will say, ‘I can’t read and write so they asked me to put my thumb impression on this card. Nice no?’
Post Script: As an aside, the irony is the UID project is headed by Nandan Nilekani, the man with an illustrious career as a leader in IT, an industry that has made its billions from a different form of manual labour. I wonder if the workers in that industry have also lost their fingerprints by handling the mouse for too long.