A visitor gives a thumb impression to withdraw money from his bank account with his Aadhaar or Unique Identification (UID) card during an event held to promote digital payment in Hyderabad. Photo: AFP / Noah Seelam

Aadhaar, the Indian government’s bid to create the world’s biggest biometric database, has become a victim of “mission creep.” What began as a project to create a foolproof identification system to weed out duplicate and fake beneficiaries from public-welfare programs has morphed into a vast bureaucratic net that threatens to ensnare every citizen, rich or poor.

In the process, its original purpose seems all but forgotten. In the rush to make Aadhaar mandatory for everything from opening a bank account to getting a driver’s license, its intended beneficiaries, the poor who depend on government welfare for survival, have been left stranded.

Even before the infrastructure for a seamless nationwide verification system of scanners and telecoms was put in place, the government made Aadhaar mandatory for claiming welfare benefits.

Horror stories abound of tribal communities that have lost access to subsidized food, children denied their midday meal, and now, women in Padrauna in Uttar Pradesh’s Kushinagar district who have been denied their widow’s pension as their biometrics don’t match those recorded in the Aadhaar database.

Gujrati Devi, a 90-year-old widow from Mathiadhir village in the Naurangia development block, says she lost her husband in 2009 but was able to get a widow’s pension after some difficulty. However, that has become impossible since Aadhaar was made mandatory for disbursement of the pension, as her fingerprints don’t match the recorded biometrics.

“Bank officers shoo me away, saying, ‘Don’t waste our time. Come here only after your Aadhaar details are fixed,’” the widow said. She said that earlier, either the block development officer or gram pradhan (village chief) would help her get her subsidized food grain and the widow’s pension. But now everybody says they are helpless because of the Aadhaar-card requirement.

Gujrati Devi said there were several others like her also facing problems because of Aadhaar. “I hope and pray that I die soon so that my son doesn’t have to suffer because of me,” she said, tears in her eyes. The elderly woman, who walks with the help of a stick, has been forced to take up odd jobs like winnowing wheat to make ends meet.

‘I had to go get my eyes and fingerprints scanned four times. This Aadhar card is like Lord Brahma, who it’s difficult to see,’ a 100-year-old widow said mockingly

Another widow from the village, Sirtaji Devi, who is 100 years old and too infirm to work, is also unable to use any government assistance as her fingerprints don’t match biometrics on the Aadhaar database. “I had to go get my eyes and fingerprints scanned four times. This Aadhar card is like Lord Brahma, who it’s difficult to see,” she said mockingly.

She and her son have had to borrow money from other villagers to buy groceries and medicines. “When we can’t get a few rupees or rations to feed ourselves, how will we live?” she asked, adding that Aadhaar has made life miserable for village people.

Block development officer Uttam Yadav says he met with the district magistrate and had been assured the problem would be solved soon.

“I receive many complaints every day related to Aadhaar. It’s a good system but people are suffering because of issues like biometrics,” he said. “I raised this complaint in our department and with the district magistrate. The latter is in talks with the Unique Identification Authority of India, and this will be solved soon.”

The Unique Identity Authority issued a statement on March 10 clarifying that essential services such as access to the public distribution system and hospitals cannot be denied because the customer doesn’t have an Aadhaar identity. But such assurances matter little on the ground.

Viswajeet Rai, 28, is a resident of Mitha Maafi village, which falls under the Vishunpura block. He wants to join the Indian Police Service but cannot apply because he doesn’t have an Aadhaar card. He says he couldn’t get a card issued even after applying for it four times.

Rai also faces problems when withdrawing money from the bank. He says the bank has given him an ultimatum: Get his account linked with an Aadhaar card number by March 31 or his money will be frozen by the bank.

“The bank holds hundreds of thousands of rupees of our money, which my father and grandfather earned by farming. Now we have started keeping our money at home,” Rai said.

Ram Krishan Maurya, an executive at the Sahaj Janseva Kendra, the local Aadhaar registration agency, says the repeated rejection of applications because of faulty scanning devices is a serious problem and the government has no solution for it.

“People are troubled by this. They come here, abuse us, and we apply for their cards again. But nothing happens. Nobody listens to us either,” Maurya complained.

Sanjay Kumar, an officer at the Lucknow UIDAI office, says the problem with recording biometric data will be solved soon and the department has been taking it very seriously.

“The department has made it clear that no one can deny any essential services because a person doesn’t have a card, and we are looking into this matter,” he insisted.

The writers are part of the 101 Reporters’ Network.

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