Stories From The Other Side of the Transaction

Episode 4 - Article 1

The Paan and the PAN-Wallah

After lunch on a hot day conducting interviews in Delhi, one of the Identities Project researchers felt like having a ‘paan’, a betelnut digestive in India which invokes Marmite-like reactions from many – you either love it or hate it. The café owner gave us directions to the paan-wallah at the top of the street, then he laughed and added “Oh, he also makes PAN if you want it – he is the PAN-wallah too” (PAN stands for Permanent Account Number – needed as income tax ID in India). We interviewed him and joked he should have a sign saying ‘paan and PAN here’. Later that evening, we had a prolonged team discussion on the many layers of intermediaries which emerge in India – formal, informal, enabling, constraining, fee-based and volunteers.

Access to identity systems is almost always mediated through other actors – both formal (like Aadhaar agents) and informal (like the PAN-wallah), and both have different kinds of motivation.

What are the day to day practices ‘across the desk’ from the end user or citizen? What motivates these intermediaries to be helpful or unhelpful? Are they themselves supported enough by their institutions or not? What kinds of innovations (‘jugaad’) develop amongst mediators to negotiate the confines of the state? And finally, how can we better understand the reasons why practices and workarounds may have emerged, and feed them up to systems designers?

PAN card agents proliferate.

The many varieties of intermediary

Early in our research, we spent many weeks at Garudahalli, a village about three hours north of Bengaluru. In addition to the fifty or so interviews with residents, we also talked to the intermediaries who enable these processes – the Panchayat (village government) office; the SIM card provider, the ration dealer and so on. Around midday on one working day in December, we were talking to Tangamma, a teacher in a local school. Tangamma and her assistant were responsible for the care of around fifteen children aged between 2-5 years, providing their food card (which then leads to their name being added to the ration card), their birth certificate (which then leads to getting the school certificate later or directly to an Aadhaar card), as well as loans and benefits for local women.

Half-way through the interview, a group of women came in, and Tangamma broke off to talk to them, the started to make a few calls. When she came back to talk to us, she was frustrated: “It’s been three months since these women and their children went for enrollment at the Aadhaar center, and they still have not received their card. So I called and spoke to my supervisor (at the district office). She has asked me to note down the Aadhaar enrollment number of these people, along with their names and date of enrollment. She wants me to WhatsApp her. She said she will follow up.” To show the waiting women she was serious about following up, Tangamma wrote down all their details and took a photo of her notebook to send to the supervisor. But since she had no data remaining on her phone, she asked us to also take a photo and send it to her supervisor on her behalf.

When we were drawing our ‘village map’ of intermediaries in Garudahalli (to be published), we remembered we had sent a message by WhatsApp on behalf of Tangamma

Echoes of Tangamma’s commitment to help, and her palpable frustration about constraints, played out repeatedly in different ways during our research. Intermediaries went out of their way to help others – Doddaraghu, a ration dealer, said he often gave advance rations to newcomers if their ration cards had not been set up, or stepped in if they needed form-filling help. He said “They are supposed to take it [the form to the office]. But if they say it is difficult for them, they say ‘brother, please help me and submit it yourself,’ and I help them by taking it.”

There were helpful intermediaries, but also those we observed or heard of that were indifferent, or deliberately obstructive. Jamima – a cart-seller in Kesarpur, a peri-urban garment factory site near New Delhi – told us how school teachers refused to help in filling out Aadhaar forms for their children. An applicant for Aadhaar told us in passing of a rumour that the Aadhaar centre franchisee was known to be unhelpful to members outside his religious group, although we could not verify this.

Intermediaries can be frustrated and vulnerable themselves

The Principles of Identification state that “currently, most legal identification is provided by or on behalf of governments. In the future, other models may be possible, but governments should retain the ultimate accountability for legal identification

But the Principles don’t go into how this provision happens in practice – what is the role of the intermediary, the broker, the agent?

Akhil Gupta uses his example of Malik, a Block Development Officer, in his book Red Tape. Malik only comes to hear of a pension scheme awareness camp to be held in the following week from a villager who walks in to ask about it. Gupta writes:

“It would be easy to adopt a cynical perspective on the motivations of state bureaucrats and politicians and blame them … Like any other class of people, bureaucrats sometimes fit that image. However, like Malik … many hard-working bureaucrats were often frustrated by their inability to work effectively to bring about real changes in the lives of the poor.”


Michael Lipsky wrote in 1980 about ‘street-level bureaucrats’ – those who have to translate and simplify what seem sometimes as bloated policies issued from a faceless state. Often in our research, the level of confusion about identity cards processes was so high that we heard people ask us: “So, are you doing these interviews because the government is thinking about another type of identity card?”. This is how many citizens see the state and identification, and this was where the pivotal, applied role of the person on the other side of the desk came in – but they too are ‘at risk’ in a sense, because they are not always up to date with the latest policies, or they have to use their discretion to help users.

Non-official, but institutionalized intermediaries

Tangamma and Gupta’s Malik are examples of formal agents. Those like the PAN-wallah don’t officially hold a position but have become informal intermediaries. These include people we talked to who sat outside the district headquarters in the 40-degree heat shielded by umbrellas, helping fill in forms for a fee. When we asked at the grille of the government office for information, we were told instead to go to these intermediaries who would explain the process of obtaining a caste certificate better.

Like the PAN-wallah above, or stationery and photocopy shops and agents who are attuned to PAN cards and Aadhaar cards, these intermediaries become unofficial sources of information – including what counts as proof of identity, whether an original is needed or a photocopy would do, how long the process might take, and so on. One of the aims of our research is to map these intermediaries, and intermediaries of intermediaries – both government, private and others.

Intermediaries who sit in front of the district offices

Non-official, non-institutionalized intermediaries

Another relationship to explore is that of family and friends. We frequently heard interviewees talk about friends who had helped them. Ajit, a pani-puri seller, said his daughter’s birth certificate had been eaten by a rat, but a doctor who they knew helped procure another one. In Assam, a Bengali interviewee opening a bank account said: “The bank staff know me from before. They are also Bengalis. We know each other well. The manager of that branch, he is my brother’s friend. He did not feel the need to ask me anything”.

Women often asked their fathers or brothers to help them, but in some cases also deliberately aimed to build their confidence. Moromi, an 18-year-old, lower-middle income woman we interviewed in Guwahati, said her father filled in her PAN and voter identity forms to help her, but “for a few of the forms like bank forms, I filled it up because my father wanted me and my sister to learn how to fill up the form”. These examples demonstrate what we know – relationships matter – but the last example also raises the question of how much we don’t know about capacity building and intermediaries, both their own and that of others, and both formal and informal intermediaries.

Our transaction stories method

One of the research methods we were excited about was a Rashomon-type method where we hung around sites of identity transactions, observed, made notes on and interviewed multiple actors – suppliers, providers, bureaucrats, and citizens. As both the World Development Report 2015 and the GSMA case studies of identity systems in Pakistan, Tanzania and Côte d’Ivoire illustrate, emotions, thoughts and previous experiences all contribute to behavior. Every identity transaction requires an information exchange with elements of both codified and tacit exchanges, although the fusion of technology and politics is pushing increasingly toward the former. Although codified transactions are more efficient, recordable, reproducible, and visible, agents and intermediaries often have to ‘bend the rules’. At the heart of our transaction stories, we wanted to illustrate these tensions:

  • Both sides feel.
  • Both sides risk.
  • Both sides trust.
  • Both sides have expectations about what they (and the other) should do – and both sides perform for the other side according to these scripts
  • Both have likely been wronged and disappointed before.
  • Both think they how the ‘game’ works, and what each ID artifact means in the game.

What increases the tension in identity transactions is that both sides don’t necessarily agree on any of the above points, and that all but the first are made more complex when power is unequal, which it usually is. We will be exploring the results of our twenty or so transaction stories in our final report, including a visualization of these power dynamics.

The intermediary is a user too

Going back to Tangamma at the start of this piece, we wrote in our field notes:


After an hour or so, a village resident comes with another Aadhaar enrolment acknowledgement document and says she has not received her Aadhaar card yet. She says that the Panchayat office has advised her to quote her name, date of enrollment and her enrollment number to the Aadhaar office. Tangamma tells her that she has already got similar complaints from other women and will be looking into it shortly. She showed us a list she has made in the Anganwaadi register, and said “This is a list of everyone whose Aadhaar has not come yet. Here are their names, the enrollment number as written on their acknowledgement sheet and the date of registration. I will have to send this by WhatsApp”.

In the fieldwork for this research, we saw many instances where intermediaries helped people unfamiliar with identity processes, because those processes are new, or for reasons of literacy.

At other times – and this is true especially where people lack specific paperwork or proofs – they suggest workarounds, or leverage their social networks to get things done. At the same time, we also found instances of brokers (enrolment agents) who made it harder for certain demographics (for example, those of a different religion, caste, income group) to be included in an identity system. New, unscrupulous intermediaries can emerge, such as landlords in Kesarpur, our peri-urban site, who realized their power in providing proof of address documents, and either refused them, charged for them, or harassed those who needed them.

We need to understand that an intermediary is not a neutral channel. Because intermediaries are critical connectors and gatekeepers, valued for their social connections and for their discretion in dealing with borderline or tricky cases, it is hard to categorically associate them with either inclusion or exclusion. They can bring in people who might otherwise not have been able to get into identity systems, but at the same time, use their discretion to keep certain others out, even where they are technically eligible for inclusion. We have found again and again that it is impossible to think of intermediaries in identity systems without thinking about power structures and politics, even though identity systems themselves are portrayed as systems that treat everyone equally.

While we are still building our typologies of intermediaries, what we can emphasize is this: it is critical that new identity ecologies pay attention to existing and new intermediaries, and the influence they exert in including/excluding people. This is important because all human beings exercise biases and prejudices, because these intermediaries have access to so much personally identifiable information, and both are particularly problematic in the absence of privacy laws. We will discuss the implications of these in our next episode on vulnerabilities and privacy.


Read Article Two: How Your Feedback has Changed the Identities Project Research