On May 1, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai linked the attendance and salaries of its over 1.5 lakh employees to Aadhaar – a biometrics-based unique identity number. This means salary deductions each time they fail to mark their attendance by punching in their Aadhaar numbers. The switch from an earlier system of attendance cards that employees would swipe on their way in and out of office was based on a Central government order to all state government offices to start using an Aadhaar-enabled biometric attendance system, said Sudhir Naik, deputy commissioner of the corporation.

The shift has caused chaos at government institutions. At the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, employees say they spend up to 20 minutes to mark their attendance because of glitches in the system.

On April 24, a senior officer at the Mumbai office of the Unique Identification Authority of India – the nodal agency that issues Aadhaar numbers and manages the centralised database – tried to demonstrate the “effectiveness of the Aadhaar-enabled biometric attendance system” to Scroll.in. She asked this reporter to record the time while she punched in the last eight digits of her Aadhaar number. The word error popped up on the small screen where her photograph should have appeared. She asked another employee at the office to make another attempt but the result was the same. A technician cited network problems. Four minutes after the first attempt, the second employee could finally mark her attendance.

Four minutes is a long time when hundreds of employees across government offices are punching in or out during the same morning and evening hours. These four minutes also belie the claim on the Maharashtra government’s website that the Aadhaar-enabled biometric attendance system “may initially take up to 30 seconds to 1 minute depending on the number of attempts”.

Among the workers most affected by this new system are doctors at government medical colleges and hospitals in Mumbai. “I once spent 15 minutes to get my attendance marked,” said an associate professor attached to KEM Hospital. “In 15 minutes, I could have begun my surgery instead.”

Many medical colleges across India already had biometric attendance systems, as mandated by the Medical Council of India. The aim of this was to avoid ghost faculty and to ensure that teachers on the payrolls were actually the ones teaching the students. This system allowed the faculty to punch in any time of the day and attendance was not linked to their salaries.

“Medical teachers did not resist the Medical Council of India’s machines as we had the liberty to punch in any time of the day,” said a senior doctor at a medical college. “But now I have to ensure I do it twice in a day. Does the government expect me to leave my surgery halfway and go to mark my attendance?”

Stuttering devices

The R-North ward office of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai at Dahisar has more than 250 employees and has received 15 biometric machines, along with 38 tablets devices, with which to mark attendance. Since the employees know that they need to punch in on time every morning to get their salaries in full, there is always a crowd around these machines at 9 am. In the evenings, they leave their workstations early to queue up at the devices so that they can mark their attendance at closing time. “And when the machine stops, everyone stands there for the machine to restart,” said one employee.

Another worker said, “The attendance application gets uninstalled on its own and we have to wait for it to be installed again.”

Since most employees do not remember their Aadhaar numbers, they carry pieces of paper from which they read out the digits to be entered, which adds to the time spent at the machines.

A third employee suggested, “They should keep CCTVs in the office too to ensure that we are working. This system is only wasting 30 minutes every day.”

Employees of the R-North ward office line up at the Aadhaar-enabled biometric attendance system. (Credit: Priyanka Vora)

Sudhir Naik, the deputy commissioner, marked the resistance down to workers not wanting a stringent system. “The system will bring discipline and transparency,” he said. “Obviously, there will be some resistance.”

He added, “If they are drawing salary from the government, they will have to abide by the system.” He said the government has issued clear orders that government employees will be paid only if they mark their attendance using the Aadhaar-enabled biometric system.

Another problem with this system is that it ensures that every government employee has an Aadhaar number – even though the Supreme Court is currently hearing a matter on whether to make the unique identity number mandatory.

There is no other way of marking attendance if an employee chooses not to apply for an Aadhaar number. Sandhya Nandekar, a ward officer at R-North, said some of their employees did not have Aadhaar numbers initially but now, they all do. “The system is running smooth,” Nandekar added.

Paucity of machines

Senior officials of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai admitted the chaos in marking attendance was because of a shortage of devices. The corporation, which has more than 250 offices in Mumbai, had placed an order with a Gujarat company for about 4,000 biometric machines. “We have only received half of what we ordered,” said Naik. “The company is getting orders from several states and they are unable to supply in time.”

Asked why the corporation was not procuring the devices from other vendors, Naik said the Central government had listed only a few companies from where the machines could be purchased.

Senior officials believe that once all the machines are installed, the morning and evening rush at their offices will reduce drastically. “We are thinking of installing at least one machine for every 30 to 40 employees,” said Dr Avinash Supe, director of major civic hospitals in Mumbai.

Scroll.in had written to the office of the Unique Identification Authority of India in Mumbai on April 27 with questions about the technical problems at the corporation offices and hospitals and how they might be resolved. The authority had not replied at the time of publishing this article.

Resistance remains

However, resistance to the new system is unlikely to go away even when the attendance rush gets sorted out. A senior doctor with a medical college in Mumbai said he was skeptical about linking his salary details with his Aadhaar. “When I got the number, I had no clue it would be linked to my bank account, salary and PAN card,” he said.

There is growing distrust of the security of the Aadhaar database in the face of frequent reports of data leaks, security breaches and even unauthorised transactions. In April, several government websites were reported to have published the Aadhaar details of lakhs of beneficiaries of government schemes.

An employee of the Greater Mumbai corporation said he believed the new system would go the same way as the attendance card system it replaced. “People made sure that machines were spoilt and now the [attendance card] system is over,” the employee said. “The same will happen with the new system.”