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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Part Farce. Part Tragedy. All Aadhar.

My son decided to get enrolled for Aadhar.

Having little else on my schedule for the day, I offered to accompany him to an enrollment center. We knew it was going to be a time-consuming exercise, given the anecdotal accounts of strained facilities, long queues and disorderly customers, and we had lots to talk about.

A Google search had listed the Mumbai General Post Office as an Aadhar Seva Kendra (Aadhar Service Center). This stately edifice lying South East of the magnificent Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus had been on my list of Mumbai buildings to check out for a while and this Aadhar agenda was a perfect reason to combine business with pleasure. The cab decanted us at the GPO gates at 8.58 a.m. and we were rather looking forward to the next few hours under that great dome when we walked up the security bloke at the half-ajar gate. "Bahut der kar di aapne", "you are terribly late", he said. The GPO Aadhar center apparently processes only 15 (you heard that right, fifteen), customers a day and he opened a dogeared notebook that already had 16 (sixteen) names on it. The sixteenth chap had pleaded with them to keep him on standby banking on the possibility of there being a dropout from those ahead of him. "These customers came and booked their place between 4 and 6", he explained. 4 and 6? Yes, 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. aka the darkest hours before dawn. Not one to be disheartened by one snub, I strode out and demanded more options from Google. The Mumbai Collectorate, a complex of government offices, was just a km south of where we stood. We didn't dilly. Nor did we dally, but marched off to this other oasis that promised what we sought.

The Mumbai District Collectorate presents a rather characterless front enlivened ever so slightly by its unusual, oblique orientation to the road before it. The grand stairs of the Asiatic Society and the fabulous Horniman Circle that constitute its immediate neighbourhood, erase even an infinitesimal possibility of a second glance. But we were not to be distracted. The policeman at the guard post confirmed that there was a functioning ASK (acronyms, acronyms), right inside and thither we proceeded. An elderly couple sitting all by themselves on a bench in the main quadrangle indicated that they too had been drawn there and we took them along to a spot further inside the bowels of the complex to finally come upon a hallway with a vinyl sign tacked on that announced Aadhar Seva Kendra. A couple of gents had beaten us to it and they were happy to confirm that we had, in fact, reached the Jerusalem we sought.

It was just past 9.15 at the time. Barring the six of us (ibid.) there was nobody around. Even the safai karmacharis (janitors) had not swept past yet. Indeed, as the picture reveals quite vividly, the ASK vinyl sign had become some sort of a magnet for garbage left behind by the previous day's (week's?) aspirants. The clever ASK staff love suspense so there was no indication of when the doors to the sanctum sanctorum would be thrown open for us dawdlers. Nothing to it, in other words, than to settle down and begin a wait of indeterminate duration. There's a fellowship of shared discomfort which sparks bonhomie amongst strangers and soon enough, backstories of what brought us there were tumbling out. The senior citizens having been incessantly harassed for 'Aadhar seeding' (why does it need such reproductive nomenclature anyway?) by their banks, insurance companies and vada pav wala across the gulli had finally decided to throw in the towel and get enrolled. The other two gents were seeking modifications in their records; a new mobile number, a name spelled incorrectly.
Aadhar on their minds
The original 6 had now burgeoned to a round dozen and the doors remained as unyielding as ever.

10.30 a.m. Our prayers were to be answered after all. A young lady arrived with a bunch of keys, strode purposefully to locked door and a decisive turn of the key and slide of latch later, the ASK's doors had been thrown open for another productive day. (Stop right there. Not so fast).

How to find network
Two young gentlemen followed the young lady and took their appointed places behind spartan desks equipped quite prominently with table lamps. These luminaires weren't to be taken lightly: they provided the illumination for capturing the stipulated facial image biometric. Soon, one of the two gents left, laptop in hand and trailing considerable length of critical looking cable. Technical difficulty, we surmised and got back to waiting. The man, though, had not merely stepped away for a brief interlude; he appeared to have 'proceeded on leave' as we like to call it. About half an hour later, I ventured in to ask the now solitary occupant, the original young lady, about the missing gent. "We have a network problem here", she acknowledged, "and the day's data acquisition cannot begin until we log into the central system". The particular section of the complex where this ASK is housed is separated by a wall from the Indian Navy's Western Naval Command HQ. There are hushed whispers about signal jammers and, as even I can confirm, mobile data is pretty much non-existent. Like a diviner with a wand or a dowser with rod, our dauntless champion was wandering around in the vicinity for his client to ping the server in the cloud (does have a metaphysical ring to it, doesn't it?). Later, much later, the mystic handshake having been completed, young man came back, much the worse for wear. It was well past 11.30 and if I'd been walking around hoisting a laptop and a dongle and a bunch of cables in the unforgiving outdoors, I'd be a wreck too.

The wait had given us more time to discover many more travellers' tales. A gentleman representing his 90 year old mother was wondering if she could be registered without clearly discernible fingerprints. There were plenty of incorrectly recorded addresses, mobile numbers, email addresses and misspelt names. One story stood out for egregious misery. A couple had travelled from Jalgaon, 
Mumbai 420 km
over 400 kilometers or 10 hours by MSRTC bus, to attempt to reverse an error of particularly dreadful proportions. Apparently, when they were first being registered, there was a major misattribution of fingerprint records, their being scrambled across a bunch of enrollments done around the same time. The error came to light when they were both misidentified while trying to 'seed' (there it is again) their Aadhars at their mobile service provider. They went back to the Jalgaon ASK where they had first enrolled, only to discover that it was shut or dormant. While Nashik would have been a less onerous journey, they decided to take no chances and come all the way to Mumbai.

And eventually, it was my son's turn to hand over the reins of his identity to a faceless, unaccountable deity in the cloud, the inscrutable UIDAI. It will probably be weeks, possibly even months, before we discover what the elven folk have done with his data. And whether his iris scan now identifies him as  a 34 year old businessman from Ranchi and his fingerprints have been assigned to, well, me for instance.

I could do a lot of inferential stuff with what I witnessed first-hand at the ASK this morning. You can too. But do ask yourself this. How confident are you now that Aadhar is a secure, stable, error-free unique identity system.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Theists aren't believers enough

Life as an atheist is uncomplicated. Let me speak in the first person here, as an atheist of at least 4 decades. I do not believe in a personal god. Indeed, I believe in no divine being that lies beyond the laws of science. Creation, existence and dissolution are phenomena arising from the laws of thermodynamics, the nature of space-time, the interaction of matter and energy and so on. Morality and ethics are neither motivated by nor subordinate to holy books or scriptural ordinance. They arise from evolutionary impulses for the healthy continuity of the species, an idea explored, with great scholarship and erudition, by Richard Dawkins in "The Selfish Gene". A moral compass rewards me richly in the one life that I have without having to rely on fantasies of an afterlife filled with milk, honey and mind-blowing sex. Above all, I have an abiding sense of breathless astonishment and wonder at the workings of the Universe at both ends of the scale- the gigaparsecs that separate us from the quasars and the infinitesimal dimensions of the superstrings that lie orders of magnitude below quarks. Even a passing thought of the workings of the world around us is enough to make me pause in wonder and leave me humbled  blow me away.

Believers seem to come broadly in two stripes. Those who consider themselves more evolved will talk about "a force that looks out for me, guides me, is all powerful". Less complicated believers frame their faith in images and rituals. The mini shrines on car dashboards, the taweez/amulet/ring that protects them or brings them good fortune, the pilgrimage to places of worship near or far, the prayers to be offered to <insert divine entity here> to secure <insert desired outcome here> are visible giveaways. For this lot, religious faith is as simple as a matter of accounting. They are virtuous ergo they win brownie points ergo divine entity is happy and rewards them. They do bad things ergo their brownie point balance is reduced ergo they need to make extra efforts to mollify deity with offerings and observances so that the equation may be set right again.

A peculiar feature common to both sorts is the willingness to privilege place/direction/time as more propitious and a deity that is personally interested in their welfare. 

Bringing me to my point. A human scale deity with human scale emotions isn't much of a deity. What could an insignificant, individual mortal do that impressed or perturbed a being that spans gigaparsecs in a blink and consumes a dozen galaxies in supergiant singularities? Conversely, how powerful is a deity that can be lured with puny blandishments or possession off by my sexual orientation?

Come on, believers. Your God, if she's there, has to be a squillion to the power of squillion times more powerful than a prescriber of vertical/horizontal caste marks, ritual genital mutilation or compensatory self-flagellation.