Is it possible to exist without an ID?
The longer that debate on identity is buried, the more hurdles we place in the way of good governance that is emphasized by the current Indian government
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Flying out to the hills the other day, I came across an odd sight at the airport. There were long queues snaking all across the three terminals. But there was one that was totally empty, guarded nevertheless by an armed security man. That gate had a signboard placed before it. In white lettering over a blue board, it said, “Honourable Members of Parliament and AEP Holders”.
The queues at the airport were swelling because you need to show both your ticket and a photo identity card to enter the building. AEP stands for airport entry pass or permit, which may mean an airport manager and other such important personages but also other staff and trainees. The rest of us looked wistfully at that empty gate and its workless security guard.
I can’t remember the last time I was asked for an identity card while going about minding my business in the UK or in mainland Europe. Equally, I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t asked to show one in India, again while going about my daily work.
The identity card in India is ubiquitous and omnipresent in its intrusion. Yet, no one seems to mind. Are you travelling abroad? Need some foreign exchange? You have to produce your passport and—this is a bit strange really—your air ticket.
Are you travelling within the country? You need your Indian identity card, such as the Aadhaar card, to get on to the plane. Checking into a hotel? You better have that ID card on you. Some of it is related to security, protecting vital infrastructure such as airports.
Yet, entering a railway station—even the main railway station in a city—is laughably (and scarily) easy. There is the usual unconcerned, slightly sleepy policeman sipping tea from a mug while trying his best not to pay much attention to the X-ray screen at the baggage belt. The bags pass him by, you pick yours up and he still hasn’t looked at you.
Your ID card is needed once you are inside the train when the ticket collector (TC) comes to check your ticket. Much of this is completely unnecessary. (For instance, you have to give your age and gender when booking a ticket and the TC will compare your ID card details with the information he has on you).
Several A4 size sheets of paper will be stuck outside every coach with the following information in columns: a serial number, name, sex, age, and seat number. To my mind, this is all a throwback to another era—a decades-old era—when ticketless travelling was common and the demand for train seats far outstripped supply.
Keeping the whole system of ticketing in the hands of the railway officials rather than, say, computers, kept the classes happy in that era. Contrast this with train travel in Europe or north America. You get your seat or berth number when you buy the ticket. About the only option you will get is whether you want to face the direction of travel and whether you want a “quiet compartment”, where you are not to speak on the mobile phone.
No one asks you for your ID card at any point of time—not while entering the station, not while boarding the train, not when the TC comes along. The closest you get to being asked to show a form of ID is perhaps when you book tickets for a show over the phone. That ID is your credit card. And that’s pretty much the limit of how interested the government is in tracking your whereabouts, your spending habits or where you are spending the night.
In India, the Aadhaar ID card has already covered around a billion people—a truly mind-boggling achievement for a developing country. Its purpose is ostensibly to eliminate the leakages in subsidies that are meant for the poor. But when it was launched by the previous government led by Manmohan Singh, Aadhaar was proffered as a means to check illegal immigrants. That remains a pipe dream. What it is, is a handy card to check your address for some utility and some security-related reasons. There is no such card in the UK. There is a national insurance card with a unique ID number but its use outside health and social security reasons is highly restricted. Identity in the UK is still largely determined—and this is really an important reflection of that society—by healthcare. It is your government-appointed local general practitioner (GP) who is literally your first point of contact as far as identity is concerned.
A pretty determined effort by the Labour government to introduce one was shot down amid a massive debate on civil liberties and privacy. It was the Tories, then in opposition, that shot it down, and I don’t think the nation of 60-odd million misses it.
However, there are two areas where ID checks could be introduced—elections and immigration. Following an expose of election fraud, a leading member of the ruling Tory party is calling for ID checks at polling booths. Eric Pickles, who is no stranger to the Indian subcontinent or indeed South Asian immigrants, says voters in the UK should be asked to show an identity card—not just the voter card that is slipped in through your door—at polling stations. His recommendation follows the discovery of massive electoral fraud at mayoral elections in Tower Hamlets, an east London neighbourhood with a large population of ethnic Bangladeshis, last year. A court removed the mayor, Bangladesh-born Lutfur Rahman, the UK’s first Muslim mayor, and barred him from contesting until 2021 for widespread voter fraud and intimidation. The lawyer for four ordinary voters who had brought the case to the Election Court alleged there had been “personations” by people voting in someone else’s name both at the booth and in postal ballots.
The other recommended check—this is more administrative in nature—is in counting in and counting out people coming to the UK. These exit checks—counting only long-term migrants and leaving everyone else out—are an obvious priority if you want to know exactly or even roughly how many foreigners enter the UK and then “disappear” into the shadow world of informal work and illegal migrants.
In India, a full and open debate on Aadhaar has never taken place. Indeed, the only debate is over the extent of its expanding use. Linking an Aadhaar number with providing subsidies to the poor may have had the effect of taking the wind out of the Left’s sails. But privacy is an issue that militates against the concept of a big (and prying) government, and by its very nature should interest both the Right and the Left. The longer that debate is buried, the more hurdles we place in the way of good governance that is emphasized by the current Indian government.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1