In September, a nondescript tribal hamlet in India suddenly found itself in the national spotlight when the PM turned up to launch a project to issue Unique Identification (UID) numbers. But the excitement faded fast.
This brand new road is a source of excitement for the village children
In the lazy midday sun, it is playtime for the children in the tribal hamlet of Tembhli in India's western state of Maharashtra. Using sticks, they roll old tire tubes and stones along a concrete road. They are excited to have such a smooth surface to play on.
Three months ago, this road did not exist. But in September the otherwise sleepy hamlet saw a flurry of activity as it prepared to receive Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, who were coming to distribute the first set of Unique Identification (UID) cards.
Titled "Aadhaar," meaning support, the project aims to equip each Indian citizen with biometric identification numbers based on thumbprints and iris scans. This ambitious scheme has come under heavy criticism for several reasons, one of them being the claim by some experts that it will result in the invasion of privacy. But the Indian government has defended the project, claiming it will help poor and disadvantaged citizens avail public welfare schemes more easily.
Road construction has been left incomplete in some parts of Tembhli
After years of feeling abandoned, the villagers of Tembhli were initially thrilled to be chosen for a visit by no less than the prime minister himself, but their elation did not last long.
The attention bestowed on them by the government was only fleeting, says 28-year-old Sunanda Karma Thakre, who with her husband is one of the many who usually migrate to the neighboring state of Gujarat to find work.
"We were about to leave for Gujarat this year too, but then we heard of the prime minister’s visit. We decided to stay, thinking the ministers would help us find work here. But that did not materialize," she points out.
"If they come again, we will tell them about our troubles. But all these government officials only came to us around the time of the PM’s visit. Now no one seems to be interested in listening to us. No one has stepped into the village since then. Even the roads that were being built lie incomplete and some of us still don’t have electricity."
Sunanda Karma Thakre is a skeptical about the new biometric UID cards
Lack of work opportunities drive laborers away
Laborers in Tembhli struggle to find occasional work as farm hands in the nearby fields, which fetches them barely a euro a day. By comparison, the state of Gujarat, especially the Saurashtra region, offers plenty of employment opportunities on the sugarcane plantations, cotton and groundnut-crushing factories, or on farms. This work can fetch a laborer between two to three euros a day. This ensures that when they return to Tembhli at the beginning of monsoon, they have a decent amount saved up.
While it may seem to be an advantage in terms of income, migration brings with it a host of other problems. The migrants often leave their homes behind to live in dire conditions in Gujarat, often without shelter. On top of this, they have to uproot their families every year, taking their children out of school, causing a high dropout rate and increasing illiteracy.
Immediate needs have to be addressed
What is important right now is to address the villagers’ more immediate needs of employment and housing, says Madi Raju Makkan, a member of the Tembhli Gram Panchayat, or village council.
"Implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme should begin as soon as possible. The government makes promises and then doesn’t follow up on them. That is why the people lose all hope of getting work and leave for Saurashtra. There are many in our village with a 'below poverty line' status, who don’t have proper houses to live in. Many public schemes in the village are incomplete and our village is often inundated in the monsoon floods. We have lodged many appeals, but the government has not taken any initiatives to act on them."
Many migrant workers are forced to live on the streets
The Unique Identification (UID) cards are supposed to change matters. Villagers can seek loans and open bank accounts more easily. Officials claim the cards will help improve execution of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, although it is not yet clear how this will work.
It may be too soon to tell whether these cards will make a difference. However, as the initial hype and excitement fades away, there is increasing disillusionment among the people of Tembhli as they realize that while the UID card is a much needed proof of identity, it will not give them what they want most of all – a chance to earn a better living.
Author: Pia Chandavarkar (Tembhli)
Editor: Anne Thomas