Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My Biometric Life

It is one of the ironies of life, that when I was younger, and much more amenable to standing in queues,, and darting alertly between differently moving queues, I didn't really have to queue up for anything as such.

We will leave out school assemblies and buses, and train ticket counters. And movie ticket queues. Because we were never really allowed to be avid movie goers , as such , in our student years.

The business of queues started worrying me when I had to stand in vague undefined queues for things like ration cards, passports, visas, children's college admissions (typically for the last 3, in pouring torrential rains) where the line of folks often went around entire office blocks.

Maybe its a Mumbai thing. When you are born here, the queuing gene automatically kind of pushes itself into your DNA strands. OK, maybe it waits in line, but at the end of the day, it manages to get in.

So when I heard about this new concept of the UID (Unique Identification ) card that the government planned for the citizenry, I was alarmed. We've been cowering under a plethora of id's like PAN cards, Ration cards, Election cards, Drivers Licence Cards, various Bank cards, various ID cards from employers, Retiree cards, and even Senior Citizen cards.

I had visions of having to line up at dawn in queues for this card, with thermoses of tea, folding chairs et al, while some folks hired proxy folks to stand all night in line, and occupy a space, which they then "took over", after a good night's sleep and heavy breakfast .

But the way it is unfolding is uncanny. They have a website and they have occasional articles in the newspapers, but no one is saying where you can apply for such a card. The website lists centres in Mumbai. Nothing else. No dates, cut off dates, timings, nothing.

I heard about it first, from my household help S, who came to work late one morning, cursing some folks who picked fights in the queue. Someone came in their locality announcing about these cards. This was then embellished and subject to all kinds of rumours. People spoke about a waiting time of 4 hours in the queues.

Turns out that there was one queue to collect pre numbered forms. You filled that up, and reappeared with supporting documents, and stood in another line, for the actual UID processing.

Her son, who accompanied her for the forms, tried to broker the peace between two arguing gents in the queue, when things threatened to get out of hand, only to have a policeman amble over, and request him to accompany him. S, ended up leaving the queue to brief the policeman about what was really happening and that her son was actually trying to maintain peace. When a hardworking angry Indian lady does such a thing, the policeman obviously listens, because they let her son go, after S had kind of given the policeman a small piece of her mind, in a succinct ringing voice.

A local municipal school has been commandeered by the government, for the project. This is the vacation period in Mumbai, and the first time I sort of ambled over from the market, with the beans and tomatoes, to check out the place and its queues and environs , there was a huge wedding going on. The caterers were performing in one shamiana outside, there were all kinds of delicious smells emanating, and the entrance was decorated with flowers and stuff. A big banner, smack in the middle of government banners about the UID card proclaimed in a huge font size, about who was marrying who. When I sort of ambled over , ignoring a small queue, some one thought I was attending the wedding, and smilingly welcomed me. I apologized and was quickly directed to some UID official, who was also in his best clothes and smiling !

I effortlessly put on my best " ordinary old lady confused about automatic things " look, and the fellow gave me his expert opinion on when to come, that there were senior citizen facilities (read separate queue), what documentary proofs I needed etc etc.

The form is actually extremely simple. My family (2 senior citizens, one young adult) landed up this morning, to see long queues outside a glass door, and some guys watching from inside with a sense of superiority. I went in search of the person I had met earlier, after asking my folks to occupy places in the general queue, just in case, his memory failed him or something.

This time , the problem was, that the senior citizens could go in, but not the daughter. I tried to explain to the guy, the benefits of processing an entire family together, and emphasized the fact that 66% of the family was senior citizens. The home addresses, and certain other common data would repeat in the data entry, and my understanding of software told me that certain settings would help data entry here to be more efficient. Over a full day, if they did families together, they would certainly save time for everyone.

Typically, no one pays attention to what I am saying, but it occurs to them that the simplest way to get rid of me is to let me go through. So they waved us all in, and we were the first folks to be profiled biometrically for that day.

A biggish room, with four stations set up, each with scanners, printers, cameras, data entry laptops , verification laptops, and 4 young men and women handling them. There were places for us to sit and wait till our number was called. Our form data was entered, our faces were photographed as we stared into something like a web cam. We were then asked to place four fingers of each hand on some scanner and these appeared on screen. This was followed by the thumbs.

In each case , we could see our biometric details on a laptop in front of us, while the young lady controlled stuff from her own networked laptop. The system would actually analyse the images, possibly for the required level of clarity, and declare them Pass or Fail. Intriguingly, I "failed" in the thumbs. I repeated the stuff, and after what appeared to be a lot of thinking, the system declared me "Passed".

I am still trying to figure out the significance of this. Never mind.

But all was not done. I was now asked to open my eyes wide, ("like you are very angry with some one " the young lady advised), and look into a contraption that looked like binoculars. The lady removed these after a while, and a set of huge , heavily detailed, hazel eyes, stared back at me from the screen. For the first time I was frightened by my own eyes on screen .

I was asked to check out the correctness of my entered data on screen, alongside all these biometric things, and my information was now complete. I signed a form with the captured details, and a copy was signed by the supervisor of the room, and given to me. I would get the card, by post after a couple of months. Until then the receipt would suffice.

We left. But not before we congratulated them for an excellently organized system. All young folks, so many of them women, handling the machines , and communications with the people with great attention and expertise. The supervisor was a young woman, constantly moving around the stations, and checking on things. There was another assistant fellow, who troubleshooted any loose cables, printer cartridges and stuff. All very confident, capable, and cheerfully handling folks with a variety of ages, languages and
social backgrounds.

We were out in 30 minutes. The crowd has swelled. My friend was distributing blank forms, another one was directing people inside to the biometric room. Of course, there were restless types in the queue. Some patiently standing. And there was an elderly couple being shown in.

Something just occurred to me as we stepped out in the muggy sun of Mumbai, and made our way through the market amidst whiffs of mangoes on sale, and fresh green veggies being put out for sale, and water being sprinkled on a hot dusty road.

This week has been notable for the fact that two alumni of the place where I live, have been in the National news.

One of them, grew up on the campus, and graduated from there , where his father taught for many many years, in the late seventies and early eighties, He is a central minister now, and he recently roundly rubbished the quality of the teachers/faculty, of some of the country's most excellent, and acclaimed institutes (his almamater was one). It is significant to note that he does not hold the education or science-technology portfolio at the centre.

The other, is an alumni, who graduated from here, then went on to be a founder of one of India's most acclaimed and successful IT companies. He then donated back to his almamater large sums from his own holdings, for Instituting Academic Chairs, and funding of student hostels, a place where he must have spent many interesting and unforgettable years in his student days on this residential campus. The government requested his expertise in heading the very important Unique Identification Project for the citizens of the country, and he left the cushy environs of a corporate czarship, to do that. The entire UID card system was being implemented across the country under his stewardship, and a whole lot of young people were being trained in new skills and employed because of the project.

It makes you wonder what you think education really is.

The entire experience today at the UID centre was an amazing eye opener .

Just one question. If you are of an age where cataracts are enthused about appearing, and a possible metabolic situation predisposes you , maybe, for glaucoma, what happens to the wonderful eye scan that then becomes invalid ?

I continue to wonder, wide-eyed.

Must I do this all over again ?


  1. Ah, if this system ever comes to Canada, I am safe because I've already had cataract surgery on both eyes.
    Implementing such a thing with a population the size of India's is a major project. Good for you, getting in early.
    I came to your blog via Sylvia's. I love the beautiful blog-headers you've done for her! Just wonderful.
    — K

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

  2. Tagged you because I really, really want to know what you think.

  3. Good to know what to expect when we go for our cards. June has been declared the month for UIDs in Bangalore. It is wonderful how efficient government machinary can become on infusing a bit of corporate knowledge of how things should be conducted. Wish it was the case in many other things.

    And am smiling imagining S admonishing the policeman in choice marathi. We have a lady who works at my mother's house for the past 15 years that stories about S always remind me of.

  4. This sounds so wonderful!
    I've had the eye scan at Dubai airport, but I'm wondering when we'll have them in Kolkata.
    So far we've survived with our passports and PAN cards.

  5. You've scared the life out of me. With my arthritic knee and 10 kgs of extra weight do I have a chance of ever procuring the UID card in good time? I doubt. The same chaos prevails here with no one knowing when,where and how to apply.

    For reasons unknown I am not able to sign in with my google account.

  6. good thing that the senior citizens are not made to wait... have yet to find out where to get it done :p

    loved your lovely vesified observations on my post...

  7. oh, thanks for contacting, will check out the post!