Identity Crisis

Maddening and mindless application of KYC norms poses existential questions
Recently, I had gone to Pune, where my daughter just relocated to pursue her graduation. My first action was to try and get her a mobile phone—of the prepaid variety. Every service-provider refused to accept either a college identity card or my driving licence (with a Chennai address) as a supporting document for ‘proof of identity’. They wanted her to produce an address proof of Pune only. Why? Why cannot an Indian, with a valid document of identity and address, not get a prepaid mobile phone anywhere in the country? The requirement of law is to have both. Why should there be these geographic boundaries? Security cannot be the reason. I could easily take a Chennai phone and use it anywhere in the world. Anyway, as a compromise, they were willing to accept a ‘bona fide’ letter from the college which certified her ‘permanent’ address and also gave her hostel address! The college declined. 

More rigmarole was to follow. I wanted my daughter to get a learners’ licence for a vehicle. For a temporary address, the authorities accept a letter from the hostel where she is. For ‘permanent’ address, however, they need a parent’s address proof of the hometown. Sure, no problems. I whipped out my driving licence issued at Chennai. Alas, the motor vehicles officials at Pune do not trust the documents issued by their counterparts in other states. I had to get something else, which could be a copy of a BSNL telephone bill or my passport etc. Strange are the ways in which KYC is being implemented.

Finally, I had to ask a friend of mine at Pune to buy a prepaid subscription for a mobile phone and pass it on to my daughter. Then I found out that virtually everyone does the same thing! So, to the regulators, a structured lie is more acceptable than the plain truth. No wonder our red-tape and the babudom will ensure that frustration knocks at your door on every possible occasion.

I have been on the move constantly. I have not lived in an owned house. I have been in rented houses throughout and keep changing them ever so often. So, I guess that all identity documents are denied to me. I am desperately hanging on to several documents bearing different addresses. The sad part is that none of the addresses reflects where I actually live. Thanks to Internet billing and banking, I am able to pay off everything in time.

Luckily, the telephone bill address change got done quickly for my new address. With that, my banker agreed to the change. Armed with both, the demat account also got done. Here, I am stuck. My wife also has a demat account, but since the phone is in my name, the demat change cannot be effected. The demat service-provider is unwilling to accept the fact that my wife lives with me! Even an affidavit will not do! So, again, I am banking on the Internet to take care of this.

Nandan Nilekani has his task cut out. I just want to remind him that there are many like me, who believe that the earth is flat and keep moving. Make sure that we don’t become victims of repetitive identity crises. Maybe a combination of biometrics and imagery will address the ‘who am I’ question. As regards the address, leave it to self-declaration by the individual or something simple and practical. Do not make it a chicken-and-egg situation. Remember, all Indians are not privileged enough to have their own home. Also, even if they have one, there is no guarantee that they will be able to dwell in it. Also, there are family units of husband, wife and children and each one of them will not have documentary evidence. Maybe post offices can help in address verification. And, more important, have harsh penalties for frauds or deliberate errors. Mr Nilekani, you will go down in Indian history as the man who gave every Indian an identity. Good luck to you. Talk to people like us to understand the dimensions of the problems. We may not have the solutions. Guess, that is what you are there for. 
The author can be reached at
[email protected]

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