Uravelling guide to identity

A contemporary biography of perhaps the biggest gamechanger in today’s times

Published: 26th August 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 26th August 2017 04:33 PM   |  A+A-

Shankkar Aiyar.

Express News Service

The aggregate of Aadhaar numbers generated is 1,171,282,315 now. 1.2 billion is a colossal number. Rare is the Indian who does not know about Aadhaar and UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India).

Who got the first Aadhaar number? In 2010, it was issued to homemaker Ranjana Sonwane of Tembhali village in Maharashtra.

What does the 12th digit in Aadhaar signify? Why don’t Aadhaar numbers start with 0 or 1? Answers to such questions can be found by searching the internet.

How did the name Aadhaar come about? This question is different. Here is the answer in Shankkar Aiyar’s words. “One of the tasks of the focus groups was to explain the concept of unique identity, seek views and understand mindsets…. The standard procedure was to collect a group, mostly men, since women rarely participated, and have a comfortable chat…. An elderly Mogiya, Naiya Ram Rathore, put his hand on Pugalia’s (Naman Pugalia) shoulder to tell him this was a good idea. 

And then he added, ‘Pehchaan hi toh jeevan ka aadhaar hai.’… Identity is the foundation, the very basis, of life… Aadhaar it was.” The sub-title of this book is “A Biometric History of India’s 12-digit Revolution”.  I think of it as a biography of Aadhaar. While a lot is known about UIDAI and Aadhaar, there is a lot not in the public domain.

Debate and discourse notwithstanding, Aadhaar is nothing short of a revolution, the likes of which, no country, not even developed ones, has witnessed. The adjective “biometric” in the sub-title must have been consciously used, not just because it resonates with Aadhaar’s biometry. Biometry suggests iris scans and fingerprints.

Bureaucracy and government processes are characterised by sloth and inertia, and are not readily amenable to revolutions. The revolution worked because many people intervened positively and left their fingerprints.

Normally, such a history would have been written 20 years down the line, when protagonists would no longer have been around. Shankkar has done a contemporary history. Acknowledgements list out people he has met, so that the chronicle has a first-hand feel about it, through iris scans done of the protagonists.

Therefore, it is valuable documentation of behind-the-scenes manoeuvres and handling of tensions and cross-currents, which are not in the public domain and which would otherwise have been lost. In addition to a Preface and an Epilogue, there are seven chapters, structured chronologically.

The catchy sub-titles of the chapters illustrate what they are about. (1) The Birth of Aadhaar and the Need for it; (2) How to get going in Government; (3) Know How needs Political Air Cover; (4) Identifying Ideas for Acceleration; (5) Who is UIDAI, asks the Opposition; (6) Ascent of Dissent, Disputes and Differences; and (7) PM (Narendra Modi) makes Identity the Platform.  The Epilogue is on “Right to Privacy and getting it Right”.

It is a well-written and readable book. Shankkar Aiyar is one of the rare journalists who has a flair for playing around with words and the product is also (partially) a documentation of contemporary Indian politics. Do read it.

There is only one complaint. From the seventh chapter, when one moves to NDA from UPA, the momentum tapers off and the writing is no longer as interesting and informative.

“As I studied its (Aadhaar’s) linear history, what stood out was that two national parties—with diametrically opposing ideologies—invested political capital in the programme to take it forward.” True, but there isn’t sufficient word capital on the NDA.


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