On standing in queues (or) How people die in queues

Indeed, queues are not new to Indians, especially the poor. It is only now, many of us who can talk about standing in queues are standing in queues, and therefore, we get to see and hear the plight of those standing in queues. Standing in the queue is an educative experience, in itself (for us, the so-called educated). The objective is irrelevant. Moreover, in today’s India, the more the time you spend on the queue, the more the points you garner for patriotism. I lose a lot of points writing such long, sob stories and shouldn’t miss a chance to gain some.

When I was on my third mission to get Aadhaar card, last Monday, there was again a long queue. After waiting for over an hour, they issued only 60 tokens at 10am. I was 70th on the queue.

There were a number of old people, who had come for the second, third, fourth times. Many of them had returned, even after registration, as their fingerprints had not been captured properly, and their cards were declined. One helpful staff member said that a new machine was expected to arrive in the next couple of weeks and that may be able to record their fingerprints. But most of the elderly decided to wait.

One old, illiterate woman, complained to the staff member that the people at the ration shop were insisting on her Aadhaar card. She showed him the acknowledgement for Aadhaar that she had received earlier. Her card may have been declined due to no fingerprints. He asked her to show that slip at the ration shop. She had done that already, and yet, they had refused to issue her the ration items. He, then, advised her to go to the Tahsildar, get his signature on the slip, and take it to the ration shop. The flabbergasted lady trudged away.

I keep asking my mother, who had been pressurizing us to get that Aadhaar, to tell the ration folks that there is a Supreme Court order against insisting on Aadhaar card. But she says all arguments are in vain. All that the staff at the ration shops know are verbal orders from above. And I am not sure, if this is a fight I wan’t to pick up seriously at this point. (Anyway, my objections to Aadhaar are not just about queues but I’ll keep them away from this post.)

Our next quest for Aadhaar was on Friday. My wife decided not to leave anything to chance and went to join the queue by 6.30 on a cold morning, chilled by the previous night’s rains. Surprisingly she was only the second person. I relieved her at 8.30. After a week of heavy rush, or due to the rains, the crowd was relatively lean that day. I kept hearing stories from those on the queue about their previous experiences. An old lady who was number 3 on the queue had gone for breakfast at some eatery nearby and was not back for over an hour. My wife had been worrying if she had fallen down somewhere. Another lady said the old woman came yesterday, couldn’t get a token and was in tears. She was coming from Periyanaicken Palayam, around 20 kms from that office. Everyone sighed with relief when she did rejoin the queue.

“I have had fractures on my leg, after a fall. My hip is broken. I had to go up and down to 4 offices, just to find out that I have to come to this office. Our ration has been stopped this month,” she told me later.

Person no.5 on the queue was an eighty-two year old man. His 6 sons and 1 daughter and their families had already taken their cards. At that time, he didn’t deem it necessary at his age. But now, some pension of Rs.1000 that he was getting from the government has been stopped, due to Aadhaar.

We kept hearing many more sob stories. Another old man was complaining that getting the right information was the most difficult task. If he sought some clarification on the documentation and such, he would be asked to refer to a poster with that information. He can’t read.
“Are they telling that the uneducated cannot live in this country anymore?”

There were also touts who had offered to take some of them to a private operator, nearby, for a cost of Rs.250-300. Without middlemen, I already had an appointment with the same private operator for the next week (but our conscience had pricked holes on our privilege and we decided not to go there). The cost quoted to us was Rs.150 per person. Even that was seen as unaffordable (or non-essential) by most of them.

After a combined wait of about 4 hours, we got the tokens. Some people from earlier queues, who, for some reason or other, were turned back after waiting a whole day despite having tokens, were given priority ahead of us. The operator and the machine struggled a bit to capture our young daughter’s fingerprints. Otherwise, our registration went off without much fuss. When we finished, I could see that the old lady (No.3) and the old man (No.5) were still standing, while the others were being attended to. I intervened, and heard the same story again, “Their fingerprints won’t get recorded easily. We will be making 60 others wait if we attend to them now.”

“I am eighty-two years old. I have been waiting since 6am and am starving to death. Should I collapse and die to get this Aadhaar? What is the need for a government that tortures its elders like this?”

“Why don’t you go, eat and come?” my wife asked.
“Will I not go, if I have money?”

We compelled him to come with us and bought him some bun, biscuits and tea. It must have been around noon. He refused the offer to eat lunch at a nearby mess, “At this age, if I eat food cooked badly outside, I’ll have diarrhoea for 3 days. I’ve learnt this after so many such experiences.”

So, yes, people dying in queues could have died anywhere. But why should they be forced to be on this queue at this point of time is a question that cannot be evaded.

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