Ishmat Begum takes a handbag off a hook on the wall of her small tenement home and lays out the rainbow of ID cards she keeps carefully tucked inside.
INTERVIEW WITH ISHMAT BEGUM (45), BENGALURU 2017
She points to the blue one:
If we show them this one, they give us tablets.
She pulls out another.
See, this is the ration card. I keep all these cards and documents right here. I arrange them all inside,
Now, what happened three months ago is that my son’s name is different in the Aadhaar card, as compared to the ration shop.
You may remember Ishmat from the first episode of our digital identities project. In this episode, we’re back sitting with her at her sidewalk stall as she explains why, for her, a new ID card has been so frustrating. While she doesn’t know exactly how the mistake with her son’s name happened, errors like this are unsurprising when it comes to signing up millions of people to a new identity system. An ID card such as Aadhaar is supposed to make life easier for people like Ishmat—it’s the one card you need to access every government service, plus a few private ones for good measure. But, of course, for many people their interactions with Aadhaar places them in a state of flux. As the new system comes in and lives adopt to the change, the long-term benefits or disadvantages may not be the same as the short-term ones being experienced right now.
For Ishmat and her husband, the change is unnecessary. To date, they’ve been doing just fine in the informal economy, relying on the fact that people know and trust them. They depend on neighbors for financial help, rather than official moneylenders like banks or microloan organizations. And when she went to the doctor for the first time to inquire about her health problems, she wasn’t asked for ID. When her children first went to school, she says,
“There was nothing like [Aadhaar] then. It is only now that they are asking.”
Now, Ishmat says ID is requested for all kinds of things, from new SIM cards to gas cylinders. “And if there is even a small problem with our gas subscription, then immediately they ask for all details. They ask for Aadhaar card and Voter’s Card and even bank account number. If there is a single mistake in any of them, our connection itself stands canceled,” she says.
“Now everything sits on their computer with specific names and address and details. And you have 24-hour booking. Earlier it was not like this. Earlier, we just had to give our gas connection number and it would get booked. Now after the ‘hello,’ we have to give details and then they send us a message. What will unlettered people like us understand from that message?”
She gestures to a man carrying a gas cylinder, who arrives during our conversation. “That is why we call this person, and we give him our name and account number and he drops off the cylinder when he comes this way. He knows us and we know him.”
PEANUT SELLER, BENGALURU 2017
For many people, personal trust works just fine as the basis for buying and selling things;
introducing an ID card into the mix just makes things more complicated, not less. Take Devi, a peanut seller also from Bengaluru, whom we spoke to while he was sitting nearby on another stretch of sidewalk. He told us about how he ended up with two names.
When Devi was a child, his father accidentally registered him for school as Devi, “a feminine-sounding name,” he says. “[But] because the school refused to admit me, my father changed my name to Dhinkar. But he had not foreseen that it will be a problem in the future for a person with two names. I use both names.”
The problem, in short, is that he’s registered under the two different names in different places, for different things. His Aadhaar card is registered in Tamil Nadu; his driver’s license is from the neighboring state of Karnataka. He has bank accounts in Tamil Nadu and Bengaluru, but he’s also known and borrowed from informal moneylenders for at least 15 years. The moneylenders don’t ask for ID, but the banks give him better rates, so for that—and for all the various government services he uses, including rations—he knows he needs to try and become one person again in the eyes of the law.
Devi and Ishmat have plenty of real relationships with their local communities and economies, but the state demands that they make those relationships solid in the form of new ID cards. Devi’s right in the middle of the transition between the formal and informal economies.
“You see this temple here?” he asks, pointing to the temple just beyond his peanut stall. “So these temple people see us sitting around and they know us. Next they auction the space around the temple for people. They quote a price on this area on an annual basis. After collecting money from each of us, the temple trust people give us a little counterfoil on paper. They never ask for [ID].”
While the experience of using IDs such as Aadhaar hasn’t been a bad thing, it can complicate parts of life that were relatively easy until now. For Ishmat and her husband, who have both been suffering from serious health issues for the last five years, going to fix their son’s name mistake just isn’t an option. It would mean a lost day or more of work, and they can’t put up with waiting around in the local government offices, Bengaluru One.
“They say, ‘Get the correct name on the card, and then take [the ration],’” Ishmat told us. “Such a headache is it. Who will go to Bengaluru One and wait? Now from the past six months we have not been availing of the PDS services. I am an ailing person, madam. Where will I go to this place and that to wait for hours and get a name change and a stamp? So I have left it,” she says.
INTERVIEW WITH ISHMAT BEGUM (45), BENGALURU 2017
Still, Ishmat doesn’t dismiss digitized record keeping as completely useless:
See, if we had to go to [the doctor], then we would have had to wait for 12 hours or 24 hours to get the report.
Now, you go up the stairs and get a CT scan done, and as we are even descending the stairs the report is all ready and even sent to the doctor. It is so quick. It has become easier for us.
Devi, too, is upbeat about what he’ll be able to do once his identity clash is fixed.
“It is my identity as a citizen of India to have this Aadhaar card. Yes or no?” he says. “Well, those benefits [of having a card] are for me to go and get.”