Disadvantaged sections

Identity crisis

Print edition : April 28, 2017

Workers engaged in manual scavenging in Puducherry, an October 2016 photograph. There are several ways in which the Aadhaar system could store caste identities. Photo: S.S. Kumar

Anita with her son Nitin. He was denied a disability certificate as he did not have an Aadhaar card. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Oppressed sections


By Akshay Deshmane

IN the first instance, it may seem odd if a suggestion is made about there being a link between caste and Aadhaar. After all, neither caste nor occupation are directly mentioned on Aadhaar cards or expressly sought in Aadhaar enrolment forms. The unique identity that the card creates in official records is also projected by governments as an innocuous, even helpful, tool to access public services and entitlements to those in need of them.

This limited understanding of the controversial identity project is partly the reason why the links between Aadhaar and the potential for perpetuating caste identities are rarely discussed, if at all. In March, when controversy arose on account of government decisions which made Aadhaar mandatory in many official transactions, caste was not part of the discourse. This, despite some of the decisions being about making Aadhaar mandatory for nearly a dozen government scholarships and fellowships meant for students from the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes communities. Even those from these communities seeking to become entrepreneurs had to show their Aadhaar for getting any benefits from institutions such as the National Scheduled Caste Finance and Development Corporation, among others.

This may be seen as part of overall government decision and not necessarily linked with caste. But a closer look at the manner in which Aadhaar data are stored reveals that the system has the potential to perpetuate caste identities which those from the oppressed castes seek to escape from.

Bezwada Wilson, the national president of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, offers one possibility of how Aadhaar helps perpetuate existing identities for those involved in manual scavenging. “As manual scavengers we want to come out of the identity and destroy it forever. But in Aadhaar, my occupation, where I come from, everything will be there. Once you get the data, you can segregate in any way by means of technology,” he said. What his community does is seen as an “unclean profession” and thus, those involved in it are also derided as “filthy”. However, any technology or official arrangement that helps record this identity and wittingly or unwittingly perpetuate it is problematic. As Wilson explains, “The right to have any occupation is there in this country. But recording of the profession in the Aadhaar database is a problem as the identity will also remain in records.”

There are several ways in which the Aadhaar system could store caste identities of citizens. In the case of safai karmacharis it could be the beneficiary lists. Since Aadhaar linkage has been made mandatory for delivering many social welfare schemes, a person’s name and other details on the list of beneficiaries renders him or her potentially vulnerable to be identified. A case in point is an initiative called “Mission Convergence”, launched by the previous Delhi government concerning integration of social welfare schemes, in which data were shared among government departments and non-governmental organisations helping implement the schemes so as to weed out duplicates. While much of the data could initially circulate within governments, questions continue to be raised about possibilities of data leaks. The recent instance of a leak of personal details of cricketer M.S. Dhoni is the best-known example of how leakage of Aadhaar data is very easy.

There is at least one more way in which caste information is directly collected by the authorities. Among a list of 35 documents acceptable as proof of address is the caste and domicile certificate with photograph, issued by the respective State governments. Such broad collection of data by Aadhaar and the manner of its imposition have raised the hackles of many prominent Dalit politicians and intellectuals. Prakash Ambedkar, former Member of Parliament and grandson of B.R. Ambedkar, said: “I am personally not getting an Aadhaar made because there is no clarity about the safety of citizens’ personal data, where they are stored and how they will be protected.” He also feels that Aadhaar does nothing to resolve the problem of many deserving poor being left out of the below-poverty-line (BPL) lists and cards. “That injustice continues and this card does nothing to resolve that problem,” he said.

A few Dalit intellectuals who support the Aadhaar concept are concerned about the manner of its implementation. For instance, one of the best known promoters of the Dalit capitalism concept and founder of www.dalitfoods.com, Chandrabhan Prasad, feels the recent notifications reveal the government’s “ruthless” side. “I feel being ruthless is not good. There should be some flexibility. The government seems to be in too much of a hurry,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether the consequences of this hurry are too grave to be undone or something beyond what can be anticipated at this time.

People with disabilities and students


By Divya Trivedi

EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Nitin Kohli of Lal Gumbad area in South Delhi was denied a disability certificate as he did not have an Aadhaar card. The son of a daily wager, he suffers from both mental and physical illness. “I showed the officer at Madan Mohan Malviya Hospital the slip of paper that I had applied for Aadhaar but he did not consider it valid,” said his mother Anita. The application slip for Aadhaar shows the date of application as March 11, but more than a month later there is no sign of a card. Without a disability certificate, the family is deprived of the disability pension from the Social Welfare Department of the Delhi government.

The names of Nitin and his brother are not listed on the ration card either for want of Aadhaar card. As a result, the family stands to lose 10 kg of grain they are entitled to every month under the National Food Security Act. In essence, the family has dropped off the radar of two welfare schemes for not having an Aadhaar card. This, despite the Supreme Court saying that nobody should be denied any benefits for the lack of an Aadhaar card and that the proof of having applied for one was good enough. Officials on the ground are seen to be routinely flouting the apex court’s orders with impunity.

Suffering multiple layers of marginality, disabled people in India are badly hit by the Central government’s insistence on Aadhaar for welfare benefits under government schemes. “Despite the apex court’s repeated reminders, the government is hell-bent on imposing Aadhaar on all. The disabled people are the worst hit,” said Avinash Shahi, a visually challenged PhD scholar at the Centre for Law and Governance in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

“Certainly, Aadhaar being made compulsory for availing oneself of fellowships is troubling many disabled people. Be it iris scan or taking fingerprints, many disabled people are left out. Not only is Aadhaar made compulsory for fellowship but more importantly for pensions also, which is the sole economic aid available to thousands of poor disabled people. They are denied pension because they find it difficult to produce an Aadhaar number. Those who don’t have hands are denied Aadhaar by the UIDAI officials and private agents,” he said.

He pointed to the case of 23-year-old Sujitha in Kasaragod, Kerala, who is paralysed waist down and does not have mobility in her hands apart from having psycho-social disability. Her father, a contractual labourer on a cashew plantation in Periya, died of kidney failure nine years ago, arguably as a result of endosulfan spraying. Sujitha’s mother suffers from partial blindness. Sujitha’s sister, who had similar disabilities, was killed by a bull 13 years ago. After the disability pension was linked to Aadhaar, Sujitha and her mother were repeatedly turned away from the Akshaya Centre (the State government’s network of e-kendra centres aiding service delivery) because her fingerprints were unreadable.

When officials at the ground level are faced with any case that does not fit into the instructions given in the manual provided to them, they simply reject the application rather than help the person through the process.

Reports also suggest that the majority of Aadhaar enrolment centres are situated on the upper floors of a building, and people with locomotor disabilities find it humiliating to be lifted to the centres where scanners are kept, said Avinash.

Aadhaar for admission

Meanwhile, the Delhi government issued a circular mandating Aadhaar cards for admission to its schools this year. “This is a very regressive step to say the least,” said Rajiv Kumar of Pardarshika, an organisation that has been working to ensure Right to Education compliance in Delhi. “What is shocking is that Aadhaar is being mandated not only for admissions but also for continuation of admission,” he added.

For children studying in Class 5 of NDMC (New Delhi Municipal Corporation) and MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) schools, there used to be plan education or what is understood as direct admission to Class 6 of a Delhi government school. But in the circular issued by the State government this year, residential proof and Aadhaar have been made compulsory if a child wants to go on to the next class. People like Rajiv Kumar, who work in the education sector, are bracing for a spate of dropouts because of this. “Most of the children who are enrolled in these schools are child labourers, street children or those who stay on rent. Is the Delhi government saying that if they are unable to get Aadhaar, they should stop studying?”

A month’s deadline has been given to comply with the order. According to Rajiv Kumar, it would have been welcome if the government had set up camps at schools and enlisted the assistance of teachers to help children obtain Aadhaar cards. While the full impact of this move will only be visible once the schools reopen after the summer vacation, Rajiv Kumar thinks about 30 per cent of the children may be affected by this.

As far as scholarships in higher education are concerned, students are still waiting and watching as the new rules have just kicked in. “Generally it takes very long for the scholarship money to come in. I have just applied for mine after linking it to my bank account. I am waiting to see if it helps quicken the process,” said Samira of Delhi University.

Ranjan, also of the same university, does not have an Aadhaar card yet, but got his last scholarship stipend in January. “I haven’t applied for it after that. I will do so now, hope they don’t block it,” he said.

Victims of trafficking and bonded labour


By Divya Trivedi

Consider a situation where Bhamati (name changed) of Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh, who was rescued from a brick kiln near Jaipur, is forced back into bonded labour for want of an Aadhaar card. Well, it may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Last year the government increased the compensation paid to people rescued from bonded labour. This year it has made Aadhaar necessary to get it.

The requirement of Aadhaar works only if the District Magistrate ensures that the rescued person is provided with the identification card then and there. This will assist the person in further rehabilitation too. Otherwise, it appears to be simply another barrier to keep people out of rehabilitation schemes.

Most victims of sex trafficking, child labour or bonded labour lose all proof of identity as they are moved from place to place. When rescued, the District Magistrate certifies each case as related to bonded labour and issues a release certificate. This certificate becomes the basis on which the survivors can apply for other identity cards or for obtaining a public distribution system (PDS) card, or for becoming a beneficiary under schemes such as the Indira Awas Yojana or the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

For such rescued persons who do not have even a birth certificate, the Aadhaar holds out a promise of easy access to rehabilitation. Amritha Punnoose and Shamira Manwar of the International Justice Mission, which works with survivors of trafficking, hope Aadhaar will live up to its expectations. Even as the government and the judiciary issue conflicting statements about Aadhaar and the unending stream of notifications makes the rules unclear, they, like their compatriots in partner agencies, prefer to wait and watch.

The compensation amounts fixed by the Bonded Labour Rehabilitation Scheme, launched by the Labour Ministry last year, are in the range of Rs.20,000, Rs.1 lakh, Rs.2 lakh and Rs.3 lakh depending on whether the rescued person is a bonded or child labourer or a victim of sex trafficking. The rehabilitation is linked to the legal proceedings and conviction of the accused person. The conviction rates were very low, according to Shamira Manwar. After social workers took up the issue, in January the government announced that the immediate assistance of Rs.20,000 would not be linked to convictions and that the District Magistrate would immediately release that money as soon as it was established that it was a case of bonded labour.

Amritha Punnoose wants to know whether the District Magistrate can enable a rescued person to get an Aadhaar card at the time of rescue itself, if at all Aadhaar becomes mandatory. “It is very difficult for survivors to get ID cards. In case of victims of sex trafficking, the first thing that is done is to put them in institutional homes, and then it is determined whether it is safe for them to return or not. Will they become vulnerable to trafficking again if they go back? Our colleagues across India are exploring if something like Aadhaar can help them at that time. It does not require much documentation to secure an Aadhaar and it makes it easy for them to apply for schemes they are eligible for. For instance, in Chennai, they were able to apply for ration cards and community resources,” said Amritha Punnoose.

When the District Magistrate issues a release certificate, it also frees that person from any debt. “From there, rescued persons have to go to various access points for other schemes. Our social workers, along with community social workers, help them in the process. It is very laborious. If Aadhaar shows the potential for being a one-stop shop for all rehabilitation schemes, it will be a big boon. Especially if the District Magistrate has a process in place to issue that piece of identity at the day of rescue so that one doesn’t have to struggle so much,” said Shamira Manwar.

Whether linking Aadhaar to a scheme for rehabilitation, for instance in the case of sex workers, would be a stigma for life is not certain. Amritha Punnoose and Shamira Manwar say the survivors are at the moment more focussed on getting an identity card than thinking about stigma, surveillance or misuse.