First published in The Caravan, 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.”