What’s in a name? What’s in an identity? And how is one’s address relevant? Enrolment under the UID project has skirted critical issues to create a monster that excludes rather than includes, distorts rather than identifies human beings. And it is all being done in the name of India’s poorest citizens. ~ Usha Ramanathan
In the beginning, and for some time thereafter, the UID project based its claims of legitimacy on the ‘inclusion’ of the poor. In marketing the project, phrases such as giving identity to those without an identity, being "recognised in the eyes of the government", the "lack of identity" as "especially detrimental (to) the poor and the underprivileged", and the people who live in India’s "social, political and economic periphery" have been used liberally.
The movement away from the promise of inclusion to the threat of exclusion if a person is not enrolled for a UID came later, beginning tentatively in 2011 but becoming aggressive and vocal in 2012. It was January 2013 before the poor were led into panic when UID-linked bank accounts were made mandatory for receiving entitlements by cash transfer into banks. Many of them had IDs that recognised their entitlements, for instance ration cards, NREGA job cards, voter ID, post office accounts – but they were now being told that they could not reach their entitlements if they did not have a UID number.
Enrolling the undefined class of the unidentified poor is a complicated exercise. The N.Vittal headed Demographic Standards Committee recognised this, and suggested an approach where "approved introducers" could introduce a person to the system and "vouch for the validity of residents’ information." This idea was borrowed from the account opening procedure in banks; with a significant departure. An introducer must have a UID number; must be easily accessible to the resident; must be above the age of 18 and must not have a criminal record. NGOs were encouraged to act as introducers. But, while an introducer needs to be "approved" by the Registrar, there is no requirement that the introducer must know the person to be enrolled. This might have seemed a pragmatic resolution of the issue of enrolment of the poor and those without identity, but it was bound to raise its own set of problems.
A case in point is the well-documented instance of the homeless in Delhi. In January 2011, I visited the Pul Mithai enrolment centre to understand how the poor were being enrolled. Under the Delhi Government’s ‘Mission Convergence’ in which the government and NGOs share a platform for policy-making and implementation, a survey of the homeless had been carried out using the benignant though inexperienced services of an informal roster of young persons. At that point in the exercise, which had covered about 80,000 people, a "provisional ID card under Homeless Survey" carried the name, gender, age and a photograph along with an ID number which ran like this: 10HP 58/1G. 3042397. ‘HP’ stood for ‘homeless people’ and 1G for the place where they had been surveyed as sited on the Eicher map. 1G was Mori gate, 1B was Yamuna Bazaar and so on. On the reverse were a series of caveats and explanations, including this: "This ID card has been issued on the basis of self-reported information by the cardholder." The UID enrolment was done on the basis of this card.
The actual enrolment was a parody. The names were not complicated, but there were some discrepancies; for instance, where a card recorded a woman as Pooja Devi, she insisted that she was just Pooja. Gender was the easy part. Age was less certain. It often went by approximations and in some cases, the age recorded in the survey was plainly in error – a lady whose daughter had married recently couldn’t be 26! We did a ‘panchayat’ to help her arrive at her age.
The columns for the name of the father, and of the mother were left blank. The young lads doing the enrolment explained: "Yeh log NGO ke hain" or these people belong to the NGO, a new version of mai-baap. Where fingerprints did not work, and iris did, the system ‘accepted’ the fingerprints after the fourth try – in what is called ‘forced capture’. Those enrolled had no idea of the consequences.
The address posed a problem. What is the address of a homeless person? The street where they are when surveyed? A pavement they occupy until a ‘clean-up drive’ chases them away?
On the UID form, another option was used. The homeless were given the address of an NGO that out of benevolence was willing to lend its name. Except the NGOs are in places in South Delhi while Pul Mithai is near Old Delhi railway station and the address for delivering the UID letter, and for the UID linked bank account, would be that of the NGO. The two "introducers" at the enrolment centre were young and motivated but had no idea where those they were helping to enrol could be reached.
So, many UID letters stayed undelivered – where the name and photograph did not help locate persons; or where, as in Geeta Colony, there was a ‘clean up’ drive between the enrolment and the UID letter reaching the NGO; or in Nizamuddin, where labourers engaged on works for the Commonwealth Games had moved to another site and could not be traced. Later, the Homeless Resources Centre became the address. But the problems are generic and won’t vanish; and the HRCs are linked to projects with a limited shelf life after which they may cease to exist, or may morph into an altered entity.
This may have "enrolled" the homeless, but not in ways that gets them into an identity system that will help them.
Those in poverty live in a twilight zone of (il)legality. To them, an identity document is an especially valued possession. That is one reason that the voter ID was so sought after although not having a voter ID was no disqualification for voting; one among a plethora of ID documents would serve for the purposes of voting. The casualness with which the identity of the poor is being trifled with by the UID, and piggybacking on the poor in carrying on an experiment is, to use a euphemism, less than fair.

The dependence on an introducer who doesn’t know the person being enrolled holds the potential to actually distort identity. At his World Bank talk in April 2013, Mr. Nandan Nilekani gave a description that has the virtue of simplicity but not quite of accuracy. An introducer, he said, "will say ‘I know this person, he’s Ram Singh approximately born in 1977, so, we give a date of birth. He has a home, he has a home; otherwise, if he is a homeless person, we’ll give him an address c/o Homeless Shelter or whatever. Basically, then, the introducer stands as some sort of guarantee in some sense for that person. Then that person’s data is entered, and he gets an ID. So, that’s how these people get into the system… Remember, fundamentally you get only one ID in the system. So the ID that you give at the time of your enrolment is your name in this system for the rest of your life…which is why I refer to this as a 21st-century Ellis Island…what happened at Ellis Island, let’s say in the 19th century or Nova Scotia in Canada in the 19th century?
“You had all the boatloads of people coming from Europe, Eastern Europe, Croatia, Poland, wherever, Ireland, Italy, all that. And they would land at Ellis Island and they would have very complicated names. And the immigration officer would say, ah, no, I think from now on you be Sam David. And, from that day onwards, in the New World, he would be Sam David, no matter what his name was in the Old World. So, we do the same thing, you know. This person was out of the system, except physically he is in the same place, but virtually he is outside. He comes in and gets a name and that’s his name in our system for the rest of his life. So think of it as a 21st-century version of the Ellis Island."
The author is an academic activist. She has been researching the UID and its ramifications since 2009.