Bangalore: In Bangalore’s Rajendranagar slum, down the road from the posh National Games Village apartment complex, goats nibble on heaps of trash and scrap metal is melted on open fires.
Scrap worker Ansar Pasha crouches at a street corner, breaking metal parts with his bare hands—gruelling work which he can’t wait to get out of. He has no big dreams and just wants a job that will pay him a steady salary, freeing him from his current day-labourer status, he says.
“I don’t have a government ID,” said Pasha. “If I have one, I can apply for another job. I would do anything.”
Pasha is hoping the unique identity (UID) number that the government says it will issue to at least 600 million residents in India in the next four years will be his passport out of scrap work and to a steady job. Men like him find it difficult to land a regular and legitimate job without an official identity.
In poor urban communities, day labourers and others who live hand-to-mouth are counting on the UID project, known as Aadhaar, to give them access to steadier employment.
If it works, UID will serve as a tracking system that ensures welfare programmes reach their intended target instead of leaking through the cracks in the system.
It could also serve as a critical link in an informal sector that’s massive—around 395 million workers, or 86% of the country’s total workforce of 457 million (according to the 61st round survey during 2004-05 by the National Sample Survey Organisation)—but has to rely mostly on word-of-mouth and personal contacts, something that increases the risk of exploitation, especially for migrant workers.
“With a UID system, there’ll be rising wages and employment,” said Y.K. Alagh, an economist and chairman of Institute of Rural Management Anand, or Irma. “If you look at the use of contract labour in Indian manufacturing, almost two-thirds of (hiring) is informal. Today in that informal sector, labourers get work because of their contacts with subcontractors in their communities. With UID, it will be much easier to organize employment services.”
A foolproof UID database will make workers identifiable to companies that would want to hire them.
“When the contractor knows how to contact a worker, knows the person he’s hiring, it makes a big difference,” Alagh said.
Lack of an official ID also makes it difficult to open a bank account, rendering it all but impossible for Rajendranagar’s hundreds of cart vendors to expand.
At a busy intersection, Christraj J. does brisk business selling plump, red tomatoes off his wheeled cart. He said he would use an Aadhaar number to take a bank loan and expand his operation.
“If I had one, I could do my business better,” he added, haggling with a customer.
Tabrige N. faces a different problem. An independent Urdu tutor by trade, he makes Rs3,000 a month giving lessons in the language. But his sole form of government ID—a ration card issued in his home state of Bihar—is not valid in Karnataka.
When he gets his UID, which would be accepted in all states, he hopes to use it to secure a permanent instructing job, and to open a bank account.
Some construction companies do hire workers in poor urban areas who don’t have government IDs, but often at lower wages.
Aspirational needs crowd out any concern over the prospect of intrusion by the state into private space.
“I would make more money with one. I want one. I would have more opportunities for work,” said Ramesh, a for-hire day labourer, adding that without an ID his prospects include low-paying offers to operate lifts at a private firm.
On a residential street, an occasional customer approaches Frass, a fish seller, who wheels a cart loaded with the day’s catch. He says he only has a voter identification card and no bank account. With a UID, he says, he could perhaps be hired for a job that didn’t involve pushing a wagon of fish down a bumpy road, praying for the next sale.
Ruban, a day-labour carpenter, managed to open a bank account. He did so by using a fake voter identity card, a practice Aadhaar hopes its programme will discourage. “They’re fraud cards—they’ll give you a card but your name is not on an official voter list,” Ruban said.
In addition to improving the prospects of poor urban labourers by giving them a universal identity, the UID programme could result in the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs for skilled workers.
A report published in May by CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets, which studies trends in the region, said Aadhaar will generate 350,000 new jobs in the country through expansion of the UID “ecosystem”, which will include telecommunications, rural banking centres and information technology.
“There’s no other programme from the government side which is creating this many jobs,” said Anirudha Dutta, CLSA’s deputy head of Indian research.
The report said 115,000 jobs are expected in the enrolment sector—filled by people who will be physically collecting the biometric data and registering citizens—and 60,000 in software services.
The estimate did not include jobs that will later need to be filled at what Dutta said would be several thousand centres throughout the country, to be established after the initial enrolment phase, whose purpose would be to constantly update UID data as addresses and other personal details change.
The CLSA study did not look at employment conditions among the urban poor, who are workers at the so-called bottom of the pyramid. Dutta said the wealth of new UID jobs would not have an immediate trickle-down effect on unskilled workers on the streets of city slums.