Before I moved to Delhi, a friend told me, “You are moving to the city of migrants and djinns”. All this while I believed I am the migrant, now I am not sure.
I have been living in Delhi for over five years. I built a career here, made some of my best friends here and I love this city in a way in which I don’t love my hometown. But can I prove I live here? No, I cannot. For nearly a year now, I am caught in a circular process to procure a proof of residence in this city. But for all the talk of uniting the country so that people can settle anywhere they want, our system is still tuned to exclude, not include.
I have linked my phone number to my PAN, my PAN to Aadhaar and my Aadhaar to my bank account. Every time I link two “identities”, something else pops up. Every day, I, the citizen, am trusted less. But I, on the other hand, am expected to trust the government without doubt, without questions.
To open a bank account in Delhi, you need a Voter ID, an Aadhaar or a driving licence with your local address as proof of residence. Interestingly, to get your Aadhaar or Voter ID address updated or to apply for a driving licence, you need a bank statement with a Delhi address. How to get one without the other is a question there are no answers to.
Most government websites for documents like the Aadhaar mention rent agreement as an acceptable address proof, provided it is registered. This means it has to be made at a court. Most house owners, however, prefer a notary agreement, primarily for two reasons — it is cheaper and it has little legal value and won’t help the tenant in case of a dispute. Tenants do not have much to say about this. In any case, they are not asked.
But while the government does not accept a notary rent agreement as a valid document, it does nothing to stop their use and a useless piece of paper is handed over everyday to hundreds of people.
Another document that government websites identify as a proof of residence is a landline telephone bill. A relic, the landline has a way of making us realise its importance from time to time — sometimes as a valid document and at harsher times, for its operability during a clampdown.
I happen to have a landline number from a private service provider, courtesy a broadband connection. When I offered that as a proof of residence, I was told only a BSNL landline bill would be accepted.
It was heartening to know that while the company’s financial challenges and its employees’ struggles to make ends meet do not receive much attention, its document continues to be held in high regard. Anyway, the private service provider’s bill did not help my case.
A significant aspect of such a frustrating system is its potential to breed corruption. When an individual keeps going in circles but does not get work done, he will eventually head towards touts. When a landlord refuses rent receipts to his tenant for filing HRA claims, the latter forges his signature and makes a fake receipt. In many cases, that is his first act of fraud.
If any Indian is asked what is the central question in his mind at this point, the answer, in most cases, would be linked to identity. Who is he? Which side is he on? Where does he belong? Can he prove he belongs?
And if I, living in the capital with all means of communication at my disposal, cannot prove that I belong here, I can only wonder how those who have not heard from their loved ones in two months can feel or prove that they belong. How can those on the verge of being declared foreigners because their names are not on a list prove that they belong, to their family, state and country?
In the Smart Cities of our Digital India, papers are still believed more than voices. And, there are two places where what is written, or not written, about a person is believed more than what they say about themselves — the prison and the asylum. Don’t know which one we are in.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 14, 2019 under the title ‘Where Do I Belong?’. firstname.lastname@example.org