Biometric-Wala: An encounter with the newly sought-after craftsman who fashions an identity for you—or, at least, a UID card

First published in The Caravanuid2.jpg, 1 October 2011

CONTRARY TO WHAT HIS NAME SUGGESTS, Bechu Lal Yadav, 29, isn’t a seller of goods. He is a recordist of identity. And he is among a new breed of technical professionals who have come up overnight—the Biometric-walas.

Originally from Bhadohi district of Uttar Pradesh, Bechu Lal makes biometric “smart” cards for zero balance bank accounts. They may resemble ATM cards, but in the absence of ATM machines in villages, the second embedded chip is used to verify the card through thumb impressions and record cash transactions. He owns a few such zero balance smart cards himself, and is proud of it.

Bechu Lal had been making these cards for the company eGramIT when the firm discovered an even bigger client than retail banks: the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Across the country, companies like eGramIT have been subcontracted by UID “registrars”, which fall into almost any kind of government department or agency, to help issue Aadhaar (12-digit identification) numbers.

For a brief period, he could be found at the Life Insurance Corporation of India in Lucknow helping people fill forms, be photographed, iris-scanned and fingerprinted. But after a so-called fight, about which he does not know much, the enrolment came to a standstill and he was sent to Lajpat Nagar in South Delhi for a month to lead a team.

His company has rented out a large hall in the Sitladevi temple complex in Lajpat Nagar. “We may be shifted out of here because we are now hearing it’s not allowed to have centres at temples or mosques,” he says. The enrolment centre opens at 10 am, but it’s also where Bechu Lal sleeps at night. Even before he is awake at 8 am, people start knocking on the door. “Can you accept our forms?” they ask. “Can I please wash my clothes?” he replies.

He and his team of five manage to enrol roughly 250 people a day. Restive crowds become angry—middle-class people want to push their way up the queue, leaving working-class people behind, and some kick up a fuss. But Bechu Lal never loses his cool—less because of his temperament and more because of a certain Mr Mittal from the temple board who sits at one end of the table and manages the crowds. “The people here are good,” says Bechu Lal. “In other places there’s a lot of fighting.”

People are dying to get themselves an Aadhaar card—sorry, number (UIDAI insists it’s not a card but a number, even though people will get cards). Coming from Lucknow, Bechu Lal claims that one driving factor behind the sense of urgency is the notion of a permanent ‘Delhi identity’. “People see that their fingerprints and eyes are being recorded, and it’s obvious to them there can be no identity card more foolproof than this,” he says.

Some people have even taken an entire day off from work to wait for hours to enrol. They fear that without the Aadhaar card they might not be able to receive subsidised food grain or be able to operate bank accounts, and perhaps even be asked to leave Delhi. “I don’t know if other cards will become obsolete,” he says. “It hasn’t even become operational.”

What will he do after everyone has been enrolled for Aadhaar? “No worries,” he says. “The biometric field has a lot of opportunities.”

Gag reflex

Published in the October 2012 issue of The Caravan.

THE FIRST AMENDMENT to the Indian Constitution, passed in 1951, allows the government to impose “reasonable restrictions” on a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression, in order to protect “the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”.

The means to impose these “reasonable restrictions” are described in several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPc). Section 298 of the IPC makes punishable words uttered “with the deliberate intent of wounding religious feelings”; section 504 addresses “intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace”; section 153 makes punishable speech acts that lead or could have led to rioting; section 295A could land you in jail for three years over “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings”; section 153B permits the punishment of speech acts that question any social, religious or linguistic group’s allegiance to the Constitution of India or that such a group be denied Constitutional rights. Continue reading “Gag reflex”

Web of deceit

Published in the July 2012 issue of The Caravan.

THE ONGOING STRUGGLE to protect the Internet from censorship in India has begun to attract much-needed attention, and not a moment too soon. But a series of recent developments that has placed the issue on the radar of the national and international media also reveals the increasing complexity of the issue, and the ease with which interested parties can manipulate an opaque system to block access to sites of their own choosing—the dawning of a new era of “private” censorship.

Previously, it seemed that the principal obstacle to online freedom of expression in India was our own government, which has for several years ordered blocks on allegedly “controversial” websites and exerted pressure on companies like Google and Facebook to remove content that government officials deem “defamatory” or “inflammatory”. But it is now clear that the government is only one of several hurdles to free expression online, along with entertainment companies, courts, Internet service providers (ISPs) and even Internet companies themselves. Continue reading “Web of deceit”

An election in Matsura

For The Caravan, 1 August 2010

IT’S EARLY FEBRUARY in Matsura Gram Panchayat in Rajasthan’s Dholpur district. The Matsura Panchayat, a collection of 11 rural settlements, is holding a historic election. Its 2,700 voters are about to elect their sarpanch. Panchayat sarpanches, in a few states also called panchayat presidents, are the leaders of the smallest administrative units of the decentralised democracy. Continue reading “An election in Matsura”