Scroll

Aadhaar has run into pockets of resistance in three states of the North East

The project is buffeted by various battles of identity in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Assam.

Aadhaar, the 12-digit unique identification number based on biometric data, has opened up pockets of resistance in North Eastern states like Meghalaya, Nagaland and Assam. Concerns about privacy, security and the increasing enforcement of Aadhaar are not restricted to these states. But they also come with their particular set of worries.

In these borderlands, which have seen ethnic movements for self-determination, politics is largely shaped by the fear of the “outsider”, from other states as well as alleged illegal immigrants from across the border. Aadhaar has tapped into old anxieties about letting the outsider in, about local ethnic groups being “swamped” and political fortunes being altered by the homogenising policies of the state. The national identity project is buffeted by different battles of identity here.

The opposition

The three states have the lowest Aadhaar saturation rates in the country. Assam occupies the bottom rung, at 7.1%, followed by Meghalaya, at 15.3%, then Nagaland, at 55.5%. Mizoram, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh have saturation rates above 70%, but even that places them in the bottom seven, along with Jammu and Kashmir. Only Tripura has managed more than 89% enrolment.

In Meghalaya, an opt-out campaign among Aadhaar users has been gaining ground since last month, with petitioners complaining that they were coerced into giving up their data, in spite of repeated Supreme Court orders that Aadhaar would not be mandatory. While it started in the Khasi Jaintia Hills, campaign organisers say it seems to be spreading to the Garo Hills. In 2013, enrolment had been stopped after protests that it would allow so-called illegal immigrants to settle in the state.

In Assam, which is currently updating its National Register of Citizens, a project that aims to identify the “original inhabitants” of the state, enrolment was stalled earlier this year.

In Nagaland, there have been calls for exemption on the grounds that it goes against Naga customary laws, protected under Article 371(A) of the Constitution. Under this law, acts of Parliament must be ratified by the state legislature before they can apply to Nagaland. Tribal customary laws held sacred the idea of free social benefits enjoyed collectively, argued a memorandum to the state government, and “any denial in the name of identity numerisation is inimical to the social and religious identity of the Nagas”. Besides, the memorandum said, the imposition of Aadhaar impinged on the Naga right to self-determination. Another objection to Aadhaar is that it excludes Nagas living in Myanmar, who have daily ties with villages on this side of the border and who are imagined as part of a greater Naga homeland.

Common threads

Though articulated differently, the protests against Aadhaar in all three states have common threads running through them. First, indigenous student groups whose politics are centred on an ethnic identity have been a component of the protests. In Meghalaya, it was the Khasi Students’ Union which led the opposition to Aadhaar in 2013 and they are now part of the Meghalaya People’s Committee on Aadhaar. In Assam, the All Assam Students’ Union, which led the anti-foreigners’ movement in the 1980s, has called for the citizens’ register to be updated before Aadhaar enrolment started. In Nagaland, the memorandum has been sent by Naga Students’ Union, the apex students’ body in the state.

Second, the demand for exemption is beginning to gather political resonance. In poll-bound Meghalaya, the Congress chief minister said he does not have Aadhaar either, since he shared the concerns of his people. When Aadhaar enrolment was stalled in Assam this year, it was widely perceived to be a political decision, with the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state more anxious to stick to its poll promise of rooting out so-called illegal migrants than pushing biometric enrolment. It remains to be seen how the anti-Aadhaar campaign plays out in Nagaland, which faces both polls and the prospect of a political settlement between the Centre and rebel groups that could change the administrative set up of the region.

Another fear, shared by some religious groups in Christian majority states like Meghalaya and even Mizoram, is that numerical identities seem to reenact certain Biblical prophecies. But even this objection might be read as a demand to be recognised as distinct from the Hindu majority states of the mainland.

Citizenship concerns

Most importantly, the anxieties around Aadhaar in these states are linked to debates around citizenship, to contested ideas about who may belong and on what terms. In the tribal states of the North East, it is often imagined as belonging to a certain regional entity rather than the entire country.

Both Meghalaya and Assam saw long-running agitations against outsiders encroaching on lands meant to be reserved for “sons of the soil”, changing the demographic composition of the area, entering electoral rolls through political patronage and altering political outcomes in a region where self-determination was held sacrosanct.

The denizens of the imagined Naga homeland live within India’s borders and without, while many populations settled inside the state do not belong, according to this formulation. Besides, Naga democracy, based on village republics and collective decisionmaking, distances itself from mainstream democracy, and imagines a different kind of relationship between the individual and the state than the one mediated by Aadhaar.

While the government has clarified that Aadhaar provides an identity for individuals and is not a guarantee of citizenship, the identity project in the states of the North East was initially linked to the National Population Register. This list flows from the Citizenship Act of 1955 and the Citizenship Rules of 2003. It is mandatory for every “usual resident” of India to register, though it does not account for the collection of biometrics. This is eventually supposed to go into the creation of a National Register of Citizens, which would help check illegal immigration.

As Aadhaar changed in its contours and intent, all biometric data collection was transferred to the Unique Identification Authority of India. In Assam, it was separated from the process of updating the National Register of Citizens. But in other states, it is still feared that Aadhaar would help outsiders make their way back into electoral rolls and then claim citizenship in a particular state.

Going ahead, the identity project will have to answer these anxieties, negotiate these collective demands for autonomy from the state, even as it deals with concerns about individual autonomy.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.

Play

SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.