Tunni Rai: A life without identity

The BBC speaks to Tunni Rai, a security guard who has lived the last 65 years without any identity papers

Tunni Rai was born in 1947, the year India got its independence. He has spent most of his life without an official identity. As India carries out the world's biggest biometric identity creation scheme, Tunni Rai describes how he has struggled without official proof of existence.

I was born in my family hut in a village in Bihar state. My father never got a birth certificate for me. He would tell me that I was born the year India was freed, so that is how I know I was born in 1947.

India's identity divide

  • Only 58% of children born in India are registered at birth
  • Many families don't know about the need for a birth certificate
  • More than a dozen other documents can be accepted as proof of identity
  • Lack of papers can hamper access to public services and banking
  • Unique identity (UID) scheme launched in 2010 is world's biggest biometric ID project
  • 200 million Indians have already signed up, target is 400 million by the end of 2012

It has been difficult for me to get an identity because I did not have any proof of my existence and almost all my life I have spent without an official identity.

After a BBC team came to talk to me earlier this month, I came to know that a voter's identity card had been sent to my village. A few months ago, some photographers came to our village, took our pictures and scribbled down some details for this card.

But even this is full of errors: my name is written as Tunni Singh, my birth date is given as 1950, and my picture looks like somebody else's.

Life has been very difficult without an identity, it has dragged on with many cruel twists and turns.

'Worthless existence'

I hail from Bhikhua village in Patna district. I have three sons and two daughters. I have never gone to school and I am unlettered.

My father Ishri Rai was a marginal farmer and had five sons. I was the eldest one. Like my father, I started farming in my childhood.

I have faced many difficulties because of a lack of proof of my identity. I remember one incident which jolted me, leading me to realise that I led a worthless existence.

Many years ago, one of my grandsons was bitten by a stray dog in my village. The villagers told me to take the child to a government hospital for an anti-rabies injection.

Start Quote

My only identity is my honesty. But does honesty pay?”

End Quote Tunni Rai

I took him to Patna Medical College and Hospital, which is just 30km (18 miles) from my village. But when I reached the hospital, the doctors asked me for proof of my identity.

When I said I had no proof, they refused to administer the injection to my grandchild.

I returned, cursing my fate. Thank God, my grandson did not get rabies and survived without taking the injection.

I was dragging on with life tilling a small plot of land in my village when tragedy struck my family.

Tunni Rai with his newly discovered voters identity card Tunni Rai says the picture on his voters identity card does not resemble him

Again, I faced the biggest difficulty of my life for want of any documents, card or identity proof.

One night in October 2009, some thieves went up to the electricity pole passing through my farm to steal the wires. One of them was electrocuted and dropped dead on my farm.

The next day, the police came to the village and without sending the body for a post-mortem examination accused me murder.

Despite my best efforts and running from pillar to post, I could not prove my innocence as everywhere I was asked for any sort of pehchan patra (identity proof) in order to get help.

Hard to prove

In most of Indian states, births have to be registered with local authorities within 21 days. A birth can be registered after 30 days with special permission and on payment of late fee. After a year, a birth can be registered with an order from a local judge or magistrate.

In practice, many people do not have birth certificates as their families did not see the need for one, and the closest municipal office could be miles away.

Those without a birth certificate may be considered to be registered if they have attended school, and many Indians use their school certificates as a form of ID. Ranjana Kumari from India's Centre for Social Research says that many people can obtain ID as long as they can provide witnesses who can vouch for them.

However, some Indians, particularly those from rural areas, may not know how to navigate the system, so may not be aware that it is possible to get forms of ID that can help you through life.

Lawyers asked me for identity, officials told me they could not believe me because they weren't sure of my identity.

Eventually I and my family surrendered to the court and were sent to jail. I could not mount a defence because lawyers asked me for my identity and residence proof to prepare the legal papers. I had none. So I could not be represented.

I spent six months in prison before I got bail. But I couldn't muster the courage to go back to my village.

I lost everything. I borrowed money by mortgaging my farm to support my family.

I came to Patna and started working as a security guard. Fortunately, one of my relatives was working in the same security service so they did not ask me for any proof of identity.

Fate has been cruel. Once I was a farmer, now I work as a lowly security guard.

One of my sons, Sunil Kumar, is a daily wage labourer in Patna and earns 200 rupees ($3.71) a day, but not regularly. My younger son Binod Kumar is a contracted police driver and earns the same.

My elder son, Anil Kumar, stays with me. Life has been cruel to him, too, as he lost his mental balance when he was abducted for a forced marriage some 11 years ago.

Tunni Rai Tunni Rai has never voted

I earn 5,000 rupees ($92) a month for my 16-hour job guarding an apartment complex. Most of my earnings go towards medical treatment for my elder son and fighting the murder case, which is still ongoing.

My case has been bundled with that of my family, who are my co-accused. As some of them have identity papers, I am able to fight the charges with them.

I have never voted because until now I didn't have a voter's card.

I have not been able to open a bank account or get connected to the electric grid in my village, as both require identification papers.

I do not have a mobile phone as that requires proper papers, too.

Furthermore, I could not benefit from any of the government's welfare schemes because I have no identity.

I have not been able to transfer my ancestral land into my name.

I face this challenge of being an identity-less person daily in some way or other but now I'm used to it.

Yes, I wished that I could have opened a bank account in my name. But, I think, the time for all such things has passed.

My only identity is my honesty. But does honesty pay these days?

Does it help one opening a bank account or getting a doctor give your grandson an anti-rabies injection?

I don't have much faith in the voter's identity card - at this stage in life how does it matter? How will it help me? What difference will it make if I vote for somebody using this card?

Tunni Rai spoke to Amarnath Tewary in Patna, Bihar

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