Kibbanahalli, Karnataka: One humid day in May, in a small building off the main road, Manjola, a farm worker, sat at a small wooden table, pressing her fingers, one at a time on an electronic pad that scanned and stored her prints.
She is among the first Indians to be enrolled in the unique identity programme (UID), or Aadhaar, which seeks to provide at least 600 million residents with a universal government identity by 2011.
The only problem is that Manjola knows nothing about the programme in which she is being registered.
Awareness is the first challenge the ambitious programme has encountered at the grass-roots level and while it will encounter more challenges, this is something the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which oversees Aadhaar, needs to address quickly as it increases the scale and scope of its effort.
Manjola hadn’t heard of Aadhaar or UIDAI.
“No one has told me anything about it. I don’t know who’s in charge of it,” she said, leaning forward in her chair as her retinas are scanned, the second and final step in the biometric data gathering process. “My children’s school teacher told me there was a programme to give my children an ID, so I came because I knew that would be good for them.”
Aadhaar met its initial target in this part of Karnataka; at least 2,200 residents of Kibbanahalli—and 25,000 in the Tumkur district—registered for the 12-digit Aadhaar numbers in a “proof of concept” study, a test ahead of the programme’s national roll-out, from August through next February.
Pilot project: A Kibbanahalli resident (top) gets her photo taken for enrolling in Aadhaar; a biometric device is used to scan fingerprints. Most villagers have limited knowledge about the programme’s benefits. Hemant Mishra/Mint
Similar tests were carried out in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar.
The month-long Tumkur project, which concluded on Thursday, showed two or three clerical mistakes per 100 registrants.
“There will be mistakes because it’s early on,” said Raju S.K., a teacher who participated in both rounds of the test. “My name was written wrong; a wrong initial.”
But the larger issue, if Tumkur is any indication, is awareness, especially among the rural poor whom UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani has said will be the programme’s biggest beneficiaries.
The UIDAI’s communication and awareness team plans a large-scale education push for the weeks leading up to the test’s start in August.
But with limited trained personnel on the ground, it could be an uphill battle.
Vijay Mahajan, chairman of Hyderabad-based Basix, which works to promote microfinance innovation in rural areas, said that in the absence of a structured education programme, word of mouth among rural residents would be crucial.
“The first few million people who get a UID will end up educating their neighbours, and slowly it will spread,” he said. “They won’t know it conceptually, or just because they enrolled. They’ll know about it after they’ve had some experience using it.”
In Kibbanahalli, the only visible sign of Aadhaar’s presence was one UIDAI sign, set far back from the road at the door to an enrolment site.
At another centre where data was being collected, there was no signage and no lighting. Several residents waiting in line to have their biometrics recorded said they didn’t know what a unique identity was and had never heard of Nilekani or the project.
During the early stages, turnout was so thin in Kibbanahalli that local officials began doing everything in their power to draw in registrants.
Adarsha S.S., a programme supervisor in Tumkur, said this included the practice of telling residents to bring their government-issued ration cards to one of the Aadhaar enrolment sites, without first telling them that once there, their fingerprints and retinas would be scanned for a UID.
“People came on a small scale before, during the first round,” he said. “Then we told them to bring their ration cards, and they began coming more.”
Nanja Muri, the village accountant in Kibbanahalli, highlighted the dearth of manpower in rural areas.
He said that only district revenue inspectors—in Tumkur, he added, there is only one overseeing 48 villages—had been sufficiently trained by government officials to educate residents, and that village accountants in the district had taken it upon themselves to spread the word among residents.
Muri’s own grass-roots effort included a small musical band that walked the streets, drawing people out of their homes to explain the fundamentals of UID and provide them with application forms.
Kathye Yini, a local housewife who had just been registered for a unique identity, said she had learned of the programme through Muri, who knocked on her door one night.
She added that it was her neighbours—and not government officials—who were responsible for her limited knowledge of the programme’s benefits.
When asked about the impact a UID would have on her life, she only knew that, unlike the ration and voter ID cards she currently possessed, a UID would give her proof of address if she travelled outside Karnataka.
UIDAI officials are not surprised about the initial responses.
“It’s a slim organization compared to the width and breadth of India,” said K.K. Sharma, assistant director general of UIDAI’s regional office in Bangalore. “We were expecting teething mistakes.”
He said that by August, fewer than 30 UIDAI staffers would be working in the regional headquarters in Bangalore, overseeing three states, two Union territories and at least 150 million residents.
Sharma declined comment on the issue of lack of publicity.
However, an official, who did not want to be named, said that the proof of concept was only meant to be a technical test of the biometric machines and overall enrolment process, and not meant to be about explaining the programme to people. In the next month, UIDAI’s awareness council will be submitting its report on the communication strategies it should employ to increase awareness among rural residents.
Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society, who has opposed the programme as well as the government’s decision to have Nilekani head it, said it was troubling that residents did not comprehend why they were providing their personal information.
Basix’s Mahajan said that given the advantages the programme would eventually bestow on them, people would learn, though it would be of their own accord.
“When the first woman to be registered for a UID in a village sticks her finger on a biometric device and is able to access banking with it, she’ll get excited and will tell her friends,” he said. “And thus UID will spread.”