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India's census fights caste system with technology

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Someday soon a man in a pressed cotton shirt and tie will arrive in Gayriawas, India.

This is an uncommon sight in the rural village with its dry fields. It's not very often that government officials come to visit.

Babu Dhula, a 57-year-old grandmother will watch as the man makes his way from door to door, spending time in each house. At hers, he will ask the same questions as everyone else. Personal questions - name, address, family details.

According the government office that sent him, these measures will create a better life for Dhula. As part of the 2011 census, they are issuing identity cards to each Indian citizen over the age of 15.

The official says this is an important first step in alleviating India's extreme poverty. For others though, it's the country's engrained caste system - a question left out of the census for the first time - that really keeps citizens from accessing services meant for the poor.

Dhula, like most of India's poorest, was born in this rural village far from the government-run hospitals. That means there is no official record of her birth. Across India, people without identification are forced to pay bribes to a local official in charge of distributing government services like the Below Poverty Line Card.

Dhula has heard of this card before. With it, she could get 25 kilograms of rice per month, one kilogram of sugar and 5¬ to 10 litres of kerosene oil - but she can't afford to pay the bribe.

"What happens when there is a lack of identity is that people are not able to verify who they are," said Nandan Nilekani, Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, during the launch of the UIDAI project. "Because they cannot verify who they are, they cannot...get on a BPL list. If they are not on a BPL list, they are not able to access the ration card."

The issuing of identity cards - complete with photographs, fingerprints and iris scans - is a valiant effort. But while it may help alleviate poverty in urban areas, it misses a key aspect of Dhula's identity that is still very much alive in the country.

Dhula is gayri - a member of a low-ranking caste in India's abolished yet underlying social system.

The system, which has roots in Hinduism, defines people based on occupation, culture and socio-economic status. They have virtually died out in the cities. In Gayriawas, it's stil very much a part of Dhula's life.

In Gayriawas, the official in charge of BPL cards is also part of a higher caste. In this position of power, he may still demand a bribe, with or without Dhula's identification.

The census is rightly attempting to identify individuals outside of a predefined group and move towards a casteless society. And, Nilekani is very much correct is in his assertion, "Technology has gone from being seen as something forbidding to something that is empowering."

Focusing on technology is a step forward in redefining identity. By rejecting this longstanding system, the government is sending an important message that caste discrimination has no place in India's future.

But, identity cards only address half the problem in rural India.

On top of taking photographs and asking questions, what the government official needs to see is that lack of identity is only part of what keeps India is the grip of extreme poverty. By extending this advanced technology to water projects that nourish the dry land or alternative income projects that help Dhula collect an income, then we can truly find her way around the caste system and help create a new national, social and individual identity for India.

But, for the moment, no matter what her new identification card says, Dhula is still gayri.