Proof of Address Obsession: Digital New India & Lame Bureaucracy

T K Arun

Readers of a premium business newspaper in English are unlikely to have encountered in the flesh the difficulty ordinary people have, when asked to provide proof of address. But it is a very real and major hassle that makes the life of migrant workers difficult and eats into their work time and productivity.

Take someone who lives in a rented room of a tenement and receives her salary in her bank account. Her bank debit card gets spoilt and does not work at ATMs any more. She applies for a new card. The card is sent to her address in the bank’s records. But since the account was opened, she has had to shift her rented residence twice. The current occupants of her former residence are willing to receive the card on her behalf, but the courier will not give it. She has to get her address changed in the bank’s records to get hold of a functional ATM card.

Past Participle

The bank will not accept her new address on her say-so, but needs her Aadhaar card to attest that the claimed address is, indeed, authentic. Now, she has to change the address in her Aadhaar demographics. This, actually, is the simplest step, even if it entails getting a gazetted officer, a municipal ward member or an MLA to certify, on the prescribed form, that she lives at the address as described.

A bank can empty out an account, if a cheque bearing the account-holder’s signature that the bank recognises as authentic asks it to. Why can’t the bank change the address based on the strength of the same signature? It will not. It wants proof of address. This is ideology, and procedural inertia, not sense.

The notion that every responsible human being is bound to a parcel of land and that every parcel of useful land should have an individual attached to it has its roots in medieval European serfdom. Vagrancy was deemed a crime, based on this ideology. Material life has changed, but the hold of ideology on official thinking and procedure has not loosened.

The Economic Survey 2015-16 estimated that as high as 29% of India’s workforce are migrants. At a conservative 20% of the workforce, the number of migrants would be 100 million, in the most dynamic segment of India’s population. These 100 million people are hostage to the demand for address proof they might not be able to comply with.

Imagine Columbus stepping ashore on that island in present-day Bahamas, and announcing himself as Columbus of Genoa (or Barcelona, as he pleased). How would it be, if the native American had greeted him with a demand for proof of address? When someone from Jhumri Telaiya goes to Bengaluru and lands a job, it is as much a journey of adventure and conquest for him as it had been for Columbus to discover India across the Atlantic.

In today’s world of ubiquitous mobile phones with geolocation coordinates, the old notion of a fixed address is wholly obsolete. You need a person, call him. If he does not take the call, find out his coordinates from the cell towers his phone has used and the GPS location of his phone. Trace his location from the digital transactions he makes, whether payments or money transfers.

Recording someone’s permanent address or a temporary address is no guarantee that he or she would be found at that address. The chances of his being available at the end of a phone connection are far higher.

Triangulate Today

Every phone connection calls for Aadhaar authentication. So, even switching phones would not evade traceability. The only recourse is to renounce the phone altogether. The Stone Age would, of course, be an impenetrable hiding place. But how many can afford to go there?

Government policy has been trying to cope with the increasing mobility of the population. Portable health records are in the offing. Ration cards are already portable, in theory. Attempts are on to enable migrants to exercise their right to vote by either allowing them to remotely vote in the constituencies back home where they are registered voters or by enrolling them as voters in their new locations.

Why not extend the underlying logic to accept that the bond between man and land has been snapped? The moment agriculture ceased to be the primary means of subsistence, permanent settlement ceased to have much meaning. Work in a factory still meant physical proximity to a place of work, and job-hopping was not all that common. In the service industry, particularly with the work-from- anywhere (WFA) norm, things have moved on.

Today, a generation of young people sees little point in investing in property. They are ever-ready to move, in pursuit of better opportunities to realise their potential, to another city, another country on another continent. Their savings are secure in financial instruments. Their data is stored in the cloud. Evermore convenient transport allows them to visit family and friends when they want to.

What is their permanent address? Proof of address is just a spectre from the bureaucratic past that has come to haunt their present and blight their future. When they state their address, of the moment, just take it in good faith.

This article was first published in The Economic Times as Why a country like India must not fuss over ‘proof of address’ on 28 April 2022.

Read more by T K Arun here:

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Why capital inflows are a pain and not a growth fuel?| 17 February 2022

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About the Author

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TK Arun is a Senior Journalist and Columnist based in Delhi.