Tembhli (Nandurbar), Maharashtra: Ministers, politicians, bureaucrats and the media are all making a beeline for this nondescript village, populated by tribals, in one corner of Maharashtra, much like they do to a fictional village that resembles this one in Peepli [Live], a movie released not so long ago.
If, on Tuesday, Tembhli had as many policemen as residents, and also the nation’s eyes on it, blame it on the village’s distinction as the place from where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Congress and National Advisory Council chief Sonia Gandhi will launch, on Wednesday, Aadhaar, India’s ambitious unique identity programme that seeks to give every resident of the country a unique ID number.
In the past fortnight, Tembhli has received a complete makeover: the roads are new; every hut in the village of 261 households has been fitted with an electric light; women here brag about handpumps that have started working.
Yet, the talk of the town (er, village) are the gadgets on which fingerprints are recorded, irises scanned, photographs taken, and all details displayed. Everyone in Tembhli is part of the database of Aadhaar and while they have willingly shared their personal information with UID officials who have been here for days, they do not really seem to know what they stand to gain by doing so. “We are told that it will solve all our problems and help in development of the village,” said Shabribai, the sarpanch of the gram panchayat. Just how she can’t tell.
“We have been enrolling around 300-350 people every day since 20 September and until now around 1,500 people’s biometric data has been recorded,” said a UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) official. “When the Prime Minister and Mrs Gandhi come for the launch, 10 people will be allotted numbers; the rest will be given (theirs) later,” he added, asking, strangely enough for a man in his position, not to be identified.
Most residents of Tembhli migrate to Gujarat, just across the border, for between six and eight months every year seeking work; they own no land. “The entire village is empty during those times,” said villager Sujabai.
“Since most people migrate to Gujarat, the unique ID will help them avail various benefits under government schemes, which they cannot avail right now as they lack a proper identity,” said the UID official. The Aadhaar project aims to link various government schemes such as MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and the Rural Health Mission to ensure that their targeted beneficiaries actually benefit from them.
The policemen here have another take: they believe the number will help them track down criminals and establish identity of dead in case of accidents.
The possibility that the data will be used to do that, to target minorities or simply be misused, has resulted in some opposition to Aadhaar from activists concerned that a scheme of this magnitude is being introduced without debate. These activists held a meeting in New Delhi on Tuesday and one of them, justice A.P. Shah, a former chief justice of the Delhi high court, said that “three countries, the US, the UK, and Australia explored the possibilities of national ID cards and then abandoned the project on issues related to cost and privacy”.
Aadhaar’s chief Nandan Nilekani has always maintained that the unique ID is more like the social security number issued to all residents in the US and not a national identity number. He has also previously said that UIDAI would merely issue the number and that the card itself would be issued by one of its partners. India is also working on a privacy law that will address some of the concerns raised by the activists, as reported by Mint on 21 June.
In Tembhli, such concerns are far from Phool Singh Tar Singh Takrey’s mind. His house collapsed during the rains and he wants to ask the Prime Minister for a new one. His family doesn’t have a ration card, which will entitle them to subsidized or free foodgrain, and he is hoping the unique ID will help him get one. Mint reported on 12 August that India’s food ministry was exploring the option of linking the public distribution system with Aadhaar.
Takrey and his fellow residents at Tembhli can also look forward to other goodies: Gandhi will allot plots of land to tribals and State Bank of India, the country’s largest lender, will likely launch its nationwide scheme of smart cards to enable banking for the poor on the occasion.
The villagers are hoping the changes rung in by Wednesday’s launch will remain.
Pramod Chitte, a policeman stationed here, isn’t sure. What he knows is that the village will be remembered in some way. “I am sure Tembhli’s name will come up in quizzes as the place where Aadhaar was started from.”
Elizabeth Roche in New Delhi contributed to this story.