MOHAMMAD Asif Iqbal’s exclusion in school at a young age due to visual impairment perhaps made him determined to fight for an inclusive society.
Having lost eye sight completely at the age of 16 due to a genetic factor, this 34-year-old is currently part of the country’s ambitious Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) project after having taken a year-long sabbatical from his job as senior consultant at Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC). His task: to make sure that the disabled community is able to enroll in UID. And to do this, he has been touring the country to create awareness and hold workshops with NGOs who would encourage and bring disabled people under the UIDAI gambit.
Iqbal did his schooling in the US and completed his college degree in commerce from Kolkata. He did his MBA from Symbiosis, Pune, and became the first blind student to have passed from the institute. Kolkata-based Iqbal spoke to Rashmi Menon of Deccan Herald about his plans to make UIDAI accessible to the disabled.
What prompted you to take a sabbatical from your job to work in UIDAI?
Earlier this year, I attended a conference organised by Nasscom in Kolkata, where UIDAI director general R S Sharma had given a talk. After the talk I approached him and expressed my desire to be part of the project. He introduced me to Raju Rajagopal who handles civil society outreach section and was invited for a meeting where I met Nandan Nilekani. Once they accepted my proposal, I spoke to my boss in PwC, who in turn spoke to the head of PwC and I was given permission to take the sabbatical. So, I will draw salary from PwC, while I am working in the UID project.
How do you plan to make UID disabled friendly?
My role is to make sure that the disabled community is not excluded from the UID project. So, my first priority is to ensure that the UID website and Adhaar manuals and documents are disabled friendly. I am visiting NGOs for inputs and also lobbying with UID’s head office in New Delhi to get more work done. I will also hold sensitisation session for registrars in state governments and enrollment agencies. For instance, if a disabled person comes for registration and if the biometric fails to register, the registrar would tell them to come later. We are going to explain to them that there are policies that are clearly laid out that if one biometric doesn’t work then the others should be used.
I am also conducting workshop for NGOs and disability groups on ways to enroll different categories of disability and benefits of having UID. The hope is that once they are convinced, they will create awareness and many more disabled people will come forward to register.
How are you going about making the websites and manuals disabled friendly?
I am reaching out to various networks of disabled groups about their feedback and conference with vendors and lobbying with the New Delhi office on how to resolve the problems and whether to outsource the work. So it is a huge challenge working with the government; but so far so good. Patience is the name of the game and it will happen.
How will the UID benefit a disabled person?
One of the main problems a disabled person faces is producing a lot of documents — ration card, pan card, etc — to get disability certificate for railway concession. While the UID will not resolve all the problems, it intends to create a platform wherein the future dialogues with the railways, health or social welfare ministries will pave the way for them to store the UID numbers in their databases. Once the authentication process is in place, the hassle of producing multiple documents every time could be spared. There will be no question of rejection of applications or harassment of a disabled person.
What are your observations about the government’s role in making the processes disabled friendly?
Actually, the government does a lot for the disabled community but still it somehow does not reach the beneficiaries. I believe that funds are not an issue but it’s not being properly utilised. So, while the government tries to ease processes by conducting camps for disability certificates and other documents, the exclusion still remains. For instance, there are around 3 lakh disabled people eligible for disabled pension in West Bengal. However, the government budget is just for 8,000 people. This gives rise to people using reference to get into the quota list.
Can UID help create a national disability registry?
Absolutely. It is definitely one of the future benefits one can perceive from UID. Once disabled people have registered for UID, NGOs and disabled groups will have to lobby with state governments to create a national registry. A mechanism could be set up where the government can create a national registry with the UID numbers that will show not only the number of disabled people but also the different types of disabilities. But again, the UID is just a platform and it is the job of the state governments to push for a common registry.
(Published in Deccan Herald)