On 22 December 2017, I was in the queue at the Airtel gallery to transfer service provider for my mobile number. I took the token and was waiting in the queue with the token number 37. In front of me was a 82-year-old gentleman, who wanted to transfer a subscriber identification module (SIM) to his own name. The SIM belonged to his daughter and was being used by him. He had all his documents in place including Aadhaar and other identification papers.
I was watching while the Airtel representative began to take care of this gentleman’s transfer formalities. The minute the she realized he is over 75, she bluntly said, “we don't issue SIM cards to people over 75 because they die soon”. (Yes, she said that! Or rather the colloquial – woh off ho jate hain). I was appalled on hearing about this policy. She further added, it is not official, but we are asked not to give SIM to elderly people. I saw the gentleman's face, he was helpless and disappointed. He also probably shocked that the representative was mentioning the possibility of death right in his face. The gentleman wanted a phone in his name, instead of that of his daughter, who lives in Dubai. He needed to change it to his name because it is now necessary to link his Aadhaar to his phone and his bank. The bills go to her address and if the bill payment is missed, his phone is disconnected by the service provider. He wanted the bills to be sent to him. Apparently, where Airtel is concerned, this cannot happen because he is above 75.
This ageist discrimination is scary. His second son-in-law , Mr Suhas offered to help the gentleman by taking a phone in his name. But this only means a sense of dependency that he was trying to avoid, to begin with. There are many people in India who are alone by choice or by compulsion. What would be their plight? If your service provider rejects you a mobile SIM, who would come to their recue?
The reason the service providers give is that, especially for senior citizens, their Aadhaar and fingerprints often fail to match. One wonders why our fingerprints are needed by the telecom operators? When I posted about this incident on Facebook, my schoolfriend Neeraja narrated the same story. The non-matching fingerprints due to age and getting rejected by the service providers is not a singular story.
I tweeted about this incident and Sucheta Dalal responded promptly, followed by Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, Member of Parliament from the Rajya Sabha. They are taking this issue with the minister and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).
I went to the Airtel gallery again after tweeting this and asked the person whether I can get a SIM for my grandfather who is above 75. They said it is difficult. I have made an audio reording of this conversation. The issue here is not to penalise one representative but bring about clarity and transparency in dealing with the senior citizens when they are buying a new mobile SIMs. I request that service providers make their policy transparent and make newspaper announcements for the senior citizens.
As Sucheta Dalal linked the tweets to the @Airtel_Presence, I received a standard bot response from Airtel signed by Dushyant and Soumya. They asked for my number, which is provided but did not get a response from them yet.
The entire transaction and thousands of transactions of such kind are getting recording on the CCTVs in the galleries. All that they need to tell if there is an unspoken policy not to issue SIMs to the elderly and they need to come clean about this discriminatory diktat and if so how they plan to train their representatives and display clearly the information for the seniors in their galleries.
Remember, this is the same Airtel, which was recently penalised Rs2.5 crore by Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) for opening payment bank accounts without the consent of subscribers and diverting their subsidy to those accounts.
Harassment of senior citizens because of failure of finger print matching is rampant and UIDAI has promised alternatives. Although Iris scans are an option, they are expensive and most authentication centres do not have the facility. Moneylife has already written
how telecom executives are asking seniors to get telephones issued in the names of their children. But this defeats, whatever pointless objective there may have been in mandating a linkage of Aadhaar with everything.
That senior citizens are not even being given SIMs by telecom operators like Airtel is a terrifying new development that disempowers senior citizens!
According to a media report
a 73-year old has taken the issue of failure of biometrics to the Supreme Court of India and UIDAI has been asked to find a solution. However, in practice there is no clarity as yet, while instances of senior citizens being harassed continue.
Can Aadhar identification lead to disempowerment of senior citizens who prefer to be independent or may have nobody to take care of them? It is probably something that senior citizen organisations may want to take up more agressively with the UIDAI and the government.
I had gone to change my number from one service provider to Airtel. Now I wonder if it was a worthwhile move?
(Dnyanada Deshpande is a former journalist and now works as Strategy Head at the World Resources Institute.)