The aspiration of ease of living, for a billion-plus Indians, is frequently found stranded amidst political lethargy and systemic apathy. Governance is effectively trapped between two worlds. There is the digitalised part where Indians enjoy 21st century outcomes and then there is the time travel through the third world where governance is still emerging from the post-colonial hangover.
The perfect illustration for this schism is manifest in the process Indians go through to acquire/renew a passport. The first part of the process is first world, thanks to a system engineered by TCS and enabled by the Ministry of External Affairs. The applicant goes online, fills a form, gets an appointment date, goes to a centre, presents the necessary documents and, if all is well, gets the passport within a fortnight.
The second phase involves retro travel for the process called ‘police verification’. The already burdened police department, where a fifth of the posts lie vacant, must verify the address and antecedents of over 10 million applicants every year. For the verification, the police department either sends an officer to the applicant’s home or calls him/her to the nearest police station.
Imagine you are renewing your passport but have shifted residence. The issuing authority, the Central Passport Organisation, seeks two documents — proof of identity and proof of address. You provide Aadhaar/Driving Licence and bank statement. Now assuming the antecedents are clear, the police department is tasked with vetting the same documents of identity and address which the issuing authority has already vetted.
Is the inter-departmental trust so poor that one department must repeat what is already done? Evidently, the law requires the system to validate the identity — so that the person is not acquiring a passport by fraudulent means. The passport authority registers the biometrics of every applicant. Over a billion persons are enrolled on Aadhaar. Can technology not answer the question in the age of OTP?
Be that as it may, the publication of the address on the travel document triggers circular problems. More critically, what exactly is the purpose? Many countries — the UK, the US, Canada and even Israel — have no home or any address on the passport while some simply seek a communication address for the despatch of the travel document. The question which begs to be asked is: why must the Indian passport provide the residential address.
The address addiction is not limited to passports. It haunts another domain — customers seeking access to banking facilities. The fact is the customer is parking their money in the bank and ergo is the principal and the bank is the agent. RBI data shows that most banking now happens digitally — payments are either by NEFT or UPI and, if needed, cash withdrawals are through ATMs. But banks want to know with proof where you live. It is true that banks are required to ensure KYC — know your customer — given the national laws and international treaties India is a signatory to. It is equally true that banks identify customers either via Aadhaar or a government issued document. So why would the system — in an era where portability is the signature tune — insist that the customer provide a proof of address every time for change in residence?
Indians are increasingly mobile — seeking a life and livelihood where there are opportunities. Census 2011 informed us that over 450 million people do not live in the place they were born — the internal migration could be within districts, within states and across the country. Add over 100 million persons who are part of the circular seasonal migration across states. To save, spend and remit, they need banking and those who open accounts are harangued to produce proof of address. Not all Indians want to be employed. Many from Tier II and III towns aspire to be entrepreneurs. Those setting up small businesses often struggle to access banking. Why can’t the system combine Aadhaar for unique identity and a communication address as a template to facilitate economic engagement?
On August 15, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that “Ease of Living’ is imperative for an Independent India and we are committed to focus on ‘Ease of Living’ and want to take it ahead.” This column had then observed that for this to happen, the government must dismantle the ideology of distrust (http://bit.ly/27Living). Ease of living has been a theme song with Modi — it found mention at the meeting with DMs at the beginning of the year and again at the dinner hosted for 60 secretaries last month. Systemic sloth though has prevailed over intent and detained execution of the promise.
The issue is not capability. This is a political economy which installed Aadhaar to provide identity to over 1.3 billion people, scaled UPI to register 5.04 billion transactions a month, engineered FASTag for collecting highway toll, enabled 200 crore doses of vaccination and delivered digital certificates. There are lessons in the success stories. A good place to start would be a survey of what afflicts access to services. This could be followed by a grand challenge to policy makers and startupreneurs to come up with solutions that can achieve population scale. The schism between young and modern India and its archaic governance systems is stark. India can surely do better.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India