A couple of weeks back, I was in the Infosys Bhubaneswar offices. On Friday, which was my last day at work before my vacation, UID enrollment was going on on campus. SBI, one of the agencies entrusted to enroll people into Aadhar was going to be at Infosys for a week.
I decided that I must get enrolled. There would never be a better chance. And so I did. But it took me two trips and 3 hours.
UID or Aadhaar as it is called is India’s unique identification project. It is a massive, in fact the biggest, biometric identification program anywhere in the world. It is quite different from programs like the US Social Security programs or any country’s passport or driving license programs. It’s sole focus is on unique, infallible biometric identification. It does not have any benefit or purpose associated with it. Rather, it is designed such that any benefits program (like the Public Distribution System) or regulatory purpose (id of bank account owners) may use the Aadhaar infrastructure.
It will be cheap, fast and near infallible. Say you walk up to a bank to open an account. You fill up a form that states your name, UID number and maybe even father’s name and address. Then, you peer into a lens that scans your iris and sends its data and the data from the form to the UID system. The UID system simply sends a Yes or a No – Yes this person, whose iris you scanned, is who he claims to be (name, father’s name etc.). The system will never send back your name, father’s name etc. Just a yay or a nay. Clever.
Actually, it is clever in other ways too. By avoiding a direct connection with any benefits program, it entirely avoids the politics surrounding any benefits program. Also, the government plans to run only those parts of the system itself that it absolutely must. The rest is being outsourced. So we will hopefully not build up a huge bureaucracy to run Aadhar, just a small one.
The original team that worked on the UID project had many team members (and its program manager, Raj Mashruwala) who came from tech companies in the Bay Area. I attended a talk and panel discussion about UID by some of them at Google in Mountain View a few months ago.
Most Indians are cynical about corruption and so a common refrain you will hear about Aadhaar is that politicians and bureaucrats will never let it succeed because it will make leakages in benefits programs so rare. One of the panelists at the event was an ex-IAS officer, now entrepreneur. He said that pols and bureaucrats, especially the ones in New Delhi, won’t mind at all if petty corruption of the kind you find in PDS and NREG went away. In fact, pols might want to take credit for eliminating this most visible form of corruption. The big bucks are anyway in scams like the 2G scam, where UID has no role to play.
So anyway, back to my own odyssey to get enrolled in Aadhaar. At 5pm on Friday, I wound up my work and went and stood in line. There were probably 15 people in front of me. A form was handed out, which I filled out, but not after having to ask for help. Why is there a “Relationship” field after “Father’s Name”? It may not have been this exactly, but there were a few totally befuddling fields to enter.
The line was moving really, really slowly. When my turn came, it was close to 645pm. And then I discovered why.
There were two stations. At the first station, the form you had filled out, was entered into an application on a computer. The trouble was that they (Aadhar or SBI, I don’t know who) needed the fields to be populated in both English and Oriya.
Now typing in Oriya using a QWERTY keyboard needs special skills and a special keyboard. The next best thing is to type in English and transliterate. The enrollment application used Google Translate’s transliteration service. Which is pretty nifty, but only in the hands of a trained operator. The woman at the first station was, shall we say, less trained. As a result, the Oriya part of the form was taking forever.
Eventually, I had to ask her to step aside and let me do it. I can’t read Oriya. So I would type in Roman, transliterate and then she would tell me if it was OK or not. We made some progress. But even with this arrangement, something like “R. K. Puram” proved extremely difficult.
Just after 7pm I got done with the data entry. Now onwards to station 2. Station 2 was for finger printing, iris scan and a photograph. But just my luck. As soon as I sat down, the network connection just disappeared. The operator couldn’t pull my record from Station 1.
The operator tried various things, which to me looked like a variety of paths to reach the same file folder on the other computer which was no longer connected. Then he would jiggle some wires and try the same series of things again.
Doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results is called insanity. Or a random number generator. Windows is somewhere between the two. Sometimes it actually produces results. So I let him keep trying for 5 minutes before I asked him to call his supervisor.
He called (not phone called, just called out loud). The man was getting a cold coffee at the coffee station across the hall. He got back with his drink in another 5 mins.
He tried the same thing a couple of times. But not for too long. He seemed to have had some experience with the mysterious ways of Windows. He rebooted. Another 7 minutes.
Now, finally, the operator had my record. The iris scan was a snap. Next was the finger printing. No problem. And then, what should have been the easiest thing, taking a photograph with webcam, didn’t work. And finally, that’s when I gave up.
I had a scheduled call at 730pm. I left at 725pm, disappointed. I wasted 2.5 hrs of my life and had nothing to show for it.
People say that the profit motive automatically brings in efficiency. This was a clear example of how that is often giving credit where credit is not due. SBI is enrolling people into Aadhaar because it has a vast network and great reach which positions it well to profit from the exercise.
But I doubt if SBI is making money at this. Their costs per day per enrollment center are fixed. They probably get paid per enrollment. But if enrollment is this slow, how can they turn a profit? Simple things like investing a little bit in training, better software and a wireless network instead of wires going all over the place could easily increase throughput. But apparently it hasn’t occurred to them yet.
I also didn’t understand why Aadhaar requires information from enrollees in both English and the local language. Couldn’t it be in one or the other?
Anyway, my story ends on a positive note. I went in to the office on Monday evening just for this. Somebody had already confirmed that my record still existed. All I had to do is get my biometrics recorded. I did and now I am enrolled in Aadhaar.