What happens when a country gets a new identity card?

Episode 3 - Article 3

Identity is a multi-layered concept. For residents of India, the portfolio of cards they’ve used to prove their identity – which has been ever-expanding since the first ration card was introduced in 1947 – has grown yet again, as the Aadhaar system is added to the mix.

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) established Aadhaar in 2009, but most people only obtained their Aadhaar number in the last few years. Since its launch the scheme has had its detractors and survived numerous political issues – including a change of government, from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to the incumbent National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition. Its place in the wider discourse about identity is complicated, especially with regards to data privacy and security, given the use of biometrics as part of the data collection process.

Older forms of official identity – like voter ID, PAN and ration cards shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. People are often still holding onto their older systems and cards as part of a portfolio of credentials

Many people find value in the efficiencies that Aadhaar brings, particularly migrants, who form a significant proportion of residents in the bigger cities of India. But our research is finding that there continue to be uses for the other, older forms of official identity – like voter ID, PAN and ration cards – that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. People are often still holding onto their older systems and cards as part of a portfolio of credentials.

Mangalwati and Ankita are an aunt and niece duo, originally from Rajasthan, who have lived  in Delhi for 30 years. They sell costume jewellery. As with almost all the people we’re speaking with, they have multiple identity cards: in their case, voter ID, ration, and Aadhaar. But the Aadhaar card, over time, has become the most requested form of ID, says Mangalwati:

These days everyone is clamouring for Aadhaar. Wherever there is a requirement for photo ID, they ask for Aadhaar.


Ankita, in particular, lost hers and had to re-apply after informing the police. She emphasises that it’s the most important card now, a fact she realised during the recent demonetisation-imposed cash crunch. She was in a tricky situation without her Aadhaar if she wanted to exchange the cash she had in the banned 500 and 1000 notes for legal tender denominations, as banks wouldn’t accept other forms of ID.

Sanket, a wallet salesman from Lucknow who moved to Delhi five years ago, tells us something similar about the universal applicability of Aadhaar as a form of identity:

“Now the Aadhaar card is the most important document. It can be used anywhere. Sometimes I had to show my Aadhaar card to the police whenever my things are seized by them. That happened to me a number of times. They write the name, address etc. If we show the Aadhaar card, they note down the number and allow us to move on. It’s a proof that we are Indian citizens. It’s a proof that we are not terrorists.”

Magesha, who is from Chennai but has been living in Delhi for 20 years, is a mobile phone SIM card salesman. As a small business owner, he is matter-of-fact about Aadhaar’s ability to simplify his customers’ lives when it came to getting a new mobile phone connection:

“There were a lot of problems before the Aadhaar card. It [the SIM card] took one or two days to activate. Now it takes six to eight hours for a person who is not local, and is done immediately if that person is local.”

He says that this is thanks to the collection of biometric data as part of the Aadhaar process:

“With a biometric machine, it works faster. We enter your Aadhaar card and your fingerprints. They [the telecoms companies] get your data.”

Magesha is clear about the responsibility he has when it comes to verifying the documents of people who come to buy a SIM card from him. Biometric verification means he refuses to provide one to anyone who wants to buy on someone else’s behalf. This is interesting to note because previously it wasn’t uncommon for people – including Sanket, featured above – to get SIM cards using someone else’s identity card (in Sanket’s case, a relative’s).

For Magesha, “another reason [for insisting on proof of identity] is that when cybercrime started to increase, we got alerted from all police stations that we should not provide the SIM card to anyone who comes with someone else’s ID card. If anyone comes with his brother’s ID card, for example, we cannot provide it [the SIM card].”


Aadhaar here has become a synonym for official identity. You’ll note that this also echoes Sanket’s feelings about Aadhaar proving that an individual is a citizen, that “we are not terrorists”. This is a noteworthy observation, because Aadhaar in itself isn’t actually proof of citizenship, only of residence. This confusion explains the confidence with which most of the people we interviewed viewed Aadhaar, in terms of national security: if you’re officially “verified”, then the implication is that you’re not a terrorist.

Supreetha, a betel nut seller from Bengaluru, is about 25 years old with a three-year- old daughter. She is an example of how much Aadhaar has embedded itself into people’s lives: she planned ahead when her child was born, guessing that she would need an Aadhaar in order to admit her into school, and got her child’s Aadhaar card right after her husband and she got their own. This came in handy, because the school did indeed ask for the Aadhaar, and in fact made it compulsory for all students to submit it.


Supreetha echoes what Mangalwati from Delhi said about how frequently she uses Aadhaar compared to the other cards. Despite having ration, voter ID and PAN cards, Supreetha uses the Aadhaar more.

“Now, they ask for Aadhaar everywhere”, she says.

She used hers to open a bank account and get a gas connection since she first obtained it two years ago.

Jamima, a 40-year- old cart seller, is a widow who moved to Delhi from her village in 2003. The Aadhaar card was her first form of official identity when she moved to the city, through the government scheme running at the local school at the time, in 2011. Her first form of ID was her voter ID card, which she needed the help of her father-in-law to register for. Applying for Aadhaar, by comparison, gave her more of a sense of agency by requiring her to submit her biometric data and register for it herself. She used it to get a gas connection and then to open a bank account, as that was the only way to get the gas subsidy she was due – it could only be credited to an Aadhaar-linked account. Her Aadhaar also enabled her to get the education subsidy her daughters were due from the government. In fact, the latter was unscrupulously collected by a teacher in the government school for many years, until Jamima was finally able to submit proof of local residence.

However, as a reminder to us that Aadhaar isn’t a golden solution to every problem, it’s useful to remember that Jamima was only able to get her Aadhaar in the first place by submitting her voter ID as proof of address – and it went to her village, as that was where she was registered.

Overall, the impression we’ve gathered from our interviews is that Aadhaar leads other forms of identity from an impact perspective in the larger states – for example, many people we interviewed, and particularly informal street vendors, spoke about how it stopped them from being harassed by police or local strongmen. Some have spoken of how Aadhaar has given them an increased sense of citizenship and belonging. Other have told us that they find it reassuring that they can legally use a photocopy instead of the real card, and that if they lose their card they can easily replace it digitally.

That impact hasn’t been felt across the entire country, though. In our latest interviews in Assam and Meghalaya, we found that people aren’t as convinced by Aadhaar, or even the need for it. As these are states with exceptionally low rates of adoption – at seven and nine percent, respectively, as of April 2017 – this could reflect the fact that most people have yet to see an Aadhaar card in use, let alone experience the functions of the rest of the system.

In our interviews about identity with Maqbul and Narisa, who we spoke to in a community bank in rural Assam, they didn’t mention Aadhaar being required as a form of ID to open a bank account even once. It was trumped by voter IDs, ration cards, electricity bills, driving licenses, PAN cards, and the local government (panchayat) certificate. One of the reasons for Assam’s low rates of Aadhaar adoption is that the state government is concerned about an influx of undocumented migrants securing government ID illegitimately, and so the panchayat certificate has become a popular and effective stopgap alternative.

Mohsin, a 56-year- old cycle repair shop owner originally from Bihar but a resident of Delhi for 16 years, mentioned how he only got the Aadhaar because it was mandated by his bank. To him, voter ID has always been good enough:

“I only made it as it was necessary for the bank. I already had my voter ID, which is my ID as a citizen and I did not need Aadhaar. The voter card had all the information about me.”

Overall, our findings so far have been that the complexity of people’s personal sense of identity is often unrepresented by a single card like Aadhaar. It extends their existing forms of identity, rather than replacing them.

We mentioned privacy and security at the beginning of this article as reasons why many are not big fans of Aadhaar. For people like Mohsin, this isn’t a concern yet – he didn’t ask anyone at the Aadhaar Centre where he went to enrol what his data would be used for, and feels confident that his information wouldn’t be misused as long as he could control it:

“The educated people can be asked about it or people at the block level, but I do the photocopying and everything myself, and keep it with myself, and do not give it to anyone.”

This raises questions about the extent of public awareness of data-related issues – a topic we’ll be looking at in more depth in a later episode.



Photo credit: Emrys Schoemaker