In 2022, Shajahan Ali Ahmad, a resident of Bongaigaon, Assam, faced an abrupt termination from his assistant manager position at a private bank due to his inability to maintain an Employees' Provident Fund (EPF) account. The government of India mandated, in June 2021, that EPF account holders link their Aadhaar number to their accounts for functionality, a requirement Ahmad couldn't meet. His Aadhaar has been locked since 2018.
EPF, functioning as a savings account for Indian employees, involves contributions from both the employer and employee. This accumulated fund serves as a financial safety net for employees, ensuring they have savings for their post-working years.
Ahmad is among the 27 lakh people who had submitted their biometric details with the government of Assam during the 'Claims and Objections' process in 2018. The said process comes within the ambit of National Register of Citizens (NRC), where, the individuals who did not find their place in the draft NRC could once again furnish admissible documents to prove their eligibility for citizenship and be included in the final NRC.
According to reports, in total, biometric data was collected from 27,43,396 applicants during the claims and objections phase. Out of which, more than 19 lakh individuals were excluded from the final NRC list released on August 31, 2019.
Those who were excluded following the claims and objections process still have their biometric information inaccessible.
They are not the sole group in this situation. Many individuals who successfully made it into the final NRC despite being initially omitted in the draft also have their biometric data in a frozen state, awaiting their Aadhaar numbers. Ahmad belongs to the latter group who has been waiting for his biometric details to get unlocked for five years.
Speaking to Decode, Ahmad enlisted the problems he has been facing in the past five years due to his locked biometrics. "For the past year, I've been at home without any employment. I've actively sought opportunities and successfully obtained job offers from various private companies. However, when I inform them that I don't possess an Aadhaar card, they reject my candidacy," he said.
Even after securing his name in the final NRC, Ahmad has been unable to reap the benefits of innumerable government schemes as all of them mandate possession of an Aadhaar card. "I am not able to register myself for many government schemes which I desperately need. For instance, I cannot get myself an Ayushman card nor can I get a ration card. How are we supposed to survive like this, in this age of inflation where the price of private facilities are sky-rocketing?"
Ayushman card is an e-card with which beneficiaries can avail cashless services of an empanelled hospital, private or government, under Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojna. The scheme aims to provide free secondary and tertiary healthcare services to the underprivileged section of the society. Similarly, with government-issued ration cards, individuals can purchase essential food items, fuel, and other goods at subsidised rates.
Like Ahmad, Biplob Karmakar, who graduated in 2020, is still hunting for jobs after being repeatedly turned down by several firms. "Our names are being removed from ration cards, we can't apply for loans, we are losing out on job opportunities. There are several individuals among us who are not even literate to comprehend why they are being denied access to food rations or the intricacies of court rulings related to our locked biometric data," he said.
Karmakar has started a WhatsApp group, which now has 190 memebers, where they discuss and simplify the recent developments related to the issue.
Fear of a bleak future
Jeherin Nesha, a resident of Margherita, Assam, is a fellowship holder under Ministry of Minority Affairs and is also currently pursuing her PhD. She was awarded the Maulana Azad National Fellowship for Minority Students in April 2022, but it was unexpectedly halted in September of that year. This happened because she couldn't provide an Aadhaar card, as per the ministry's requirements. Her biometrics, too, are locked at the moment.
Nesha left no stone unturned to highlight her genuine concerns before the ministry which unfortunately did not yield results. "I approached the Ministry several times but subsequently they stopped answering my calls or emails," she said.
She had submitted a letter undersigned by the deputy commissioner and another one by the university registrar, addressing her concern to Union Minister Smriti Irani. But she never received a response.
Nesha has been waiting for over a year now to receive her overdue fellowship money. The objective of this five-year-long fellowship is to provide financial assistance to students from six notified minority communities, namely, Buddhist, Christian, Jain, Muslim, Parsi and Sikh, to pursue M. Phil and Ph.D.
In another case, Tanmay Saha, a resident of Silchar, Assam who is currently working in a public sector bank, fears that he will be stuck there for years as he cannot apply in any private sector firm without an Aadhaar card.
Saha is the only one in his family whose biometrics are locked at the moment, as the rest of his family members made it to the draft NRC list in 2018. "Not just with jobs, but a lot of people in Assam find their overall lives to have reached a stand-still. Students cannot apply for scholarships, young people cannot maintain EPF accounts and senior citizens cannot receive pensions, as all of it requires Aadhaar" he said.
Saha feels that he, along with the other unfortunate individuals whose biometrics stay inaccessible despite being on the NRC list, is being deprived of their fundamental rights. "The Aadhaar tagline says 'Mera Aadhaar, Meri Pehchan', but where is our pehchan (identity). Despite repeatedly visiting government offices and pleading on social media platforms, the government is turning a blind eye to our problems," he said.
In April 2022, the Supreme Court issued a notice in response to a PIL seeking directions to issue Aadhaar cards to those persons whose biometric details were locked. The apex court sought a response from the Centre, the Assam government, the Registrar General of India (RGI) and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). However, as Saha pointed out, there has been no help.
Sushmita Dev, former MP of Silchar, had filed the writ petition before the apex court, arguing that anyone who has lived in India for 182 days is entitled to receive an Aadhaar card, regardless of their citizenship status. Alluding to Dev's argument Saha said, "We have such provisions for foreigners in India but someone who has lived in the country all their lives cannot get an Aadhaar card if their biometrics are locked on the pretext of NRC."
The Ministry of Communications issued a crucial announcement on March 31, 2023, mandating the use of Aadhaar for investments in small saving schemes like Public Provident Fund (PPF), National Savings Certificate (NSC), or Senior Citizens Savings Scheme (SCSS), adding that people who have already invested in these schemes need to link it with their Aadhaar numbers by September 30, 2023.
According to Saha, in such a scenario where Aadhaar is exceedingly becoming the backbone of every scheme in India, the government should at least provide them with some exemption or alternative.
However, Habibul Bepari, an activist with Citizens for Justice and Peace in Assam, highlighted that a notification from UIDAI, dated August 2022, states that people with no Aadhaar number can apply for an Aadhaar Enrolment Identification number, which can be used to avail government benefits till an Aadhaar number is generated. Bepari added that unfortunately both, the citizens and the government officials, are mostly unaware of this alternative, lending to people's misery.
Devious deeds in dire times
According to Bepari, some fraudsters have found an opportunity to line their pockets by pouncing on people's pain. People with locked biometrics cannot apply for another Aadhaar card and have no other option but to wait. However, some fraudsters operating from obscure locations have been luring people to opt for an illegal way to get a new Aadhaar number.
Bepari explained, "Since you cannot generate two Aadhaar numbers using same biometrics of a person, the fraudsters manipulate the existing biometrics. By scanning only four fingers out the five from one hand and falsely putting in the information that the applicant only has four fingers in a hand, the fraudsters are able to generate a new Aadhaar number."
Another tactic applied by them includes submitting left-hand fingerprints in lieu of right-hand fingerprints to generate the number. "These tactics may fail one out of five times, but most of them did yield results. For this, they charged Rs 3000-4000 per person," said Bepari.
The fraud had started at a small scale and did not reach the ears of police. Bepari, along with his activist group, educated people about the fraud and the implications of the same. "We told them that they can run into deep troubles if the government unlocks their biometrics, as they would end up possessing two Aadhaar cards in their name. The fraud has been curtailed to a good extent now," he said.