Contrary to what his name suggests, Bechu Lal Yadav, 29, isn’t a seller of goods. He is a recordist of identity. He is amongst a new breed of technical professionals that have come up overnight – the Biometricwallahs.
The graduate from Bhadoi district of Uttar Pradesh was going around making biometric “smart” cards for zero-balance bank accounts. These look like ATM cards but in the absence of ATM machines in villages the other chip is used to verify the card through thumb impressions and record cash transactions. He is proud of possessing a few such zero-balance smart cards.
Bechu Lal’s employer, a company called eGramIT, found an even bigger client than retail banks: the Aadhar number to be issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India. The UIDAI appoints registrars – all kinds of government agencies and departments can be appointed registrars – and these registrars then sub-contract the task of enrolling people for Aadhar to companies such as eGramIT.
Until recently Bechu Lal was helping people fill forms, be photographed, iris-scanned and record prints of each one of their ten fingers at the Life Insurance Corporation of India in Lucknow. But then there was a “fight” there about which he does not know much. The enrollment suddenly stopped and he was sent to south Delhi for a month to head a team in Lajpat Nagar.
His company has hired a large hall in the Shitla Devi temple complex in Lajpat Nagar. “We may be shifted out of here because we are now hearing it’s not allowed to have centres and temples and mosques,” he says. The enrollment centre opens at ten in the morning, and it’s also where he sleeps in the night. Even before he is awake at 8, people start knocking 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 enroll around 250 people a day. Restive crowds get angry, middle class people want to push their way up the queue leaving working class people behind, some kick up a storm in anger. Bechu Lal never loses his cool, but that is less because of his temparament and more because the temple board’s Mr Mittal 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 a Aadhar card – sorry, number, because UIDAI insists it’s not a card but a number even though people will get cards. Coming from Lucknow, Bechu Lal has perceptively noted that one driving factor behind the rush is a permanent ‘Delhi identity’. “People see that their finger prints and eyes are being recorded and it’s obvious to them there can be no identity card more fool-proof than this,” he says.
There are people who have even taken a day off to wait for hours for their turn on the computer. They fear that without the Aadhar car they may lose subsidised foodgrains, not 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.” The ‘citizens’ around him say it is Aadhar workers like him who have spread the rumour.
What will he do after everybody has been enrolled for Aadhar? “No worries,” he says, “the biometric field has a lot of opportunities.”
[An edited version of this article by me first appeared in The Caravan.]