Making Identity Systems Work: Bureaucrats Are Users Too

Episode 4 - Article 3

Our episodes so far have been focusing on the users of identity systems – but there’s one group of users we haven’t examined yet: the people, bureaucrats and officials, working the identity system frontline.

In this story, we look at identity transactions from the perspective of the bureaucrats and frontline staff who are responsible for implementing identity systems in India. Are they following process blindly?

Who do they take their lead from? Answers to questions like these can help us understand how and why systems work the way they do. After all, every person who needs to get their identity verified has to interact with someone who officially signs off on the verification – we shouldn’t ignore one whole half of those transactions.

Mahadev is a manager at a Karvy Aadhaar Enrolment Centre (AEC) in Bengaluru – a company that has an agreement with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) for Aadhaar enrolment. He tells us that they accept 18 different types of document as proof of original identity, and 13 types of document as address proof, though UIDAI actually has a list of 35 documents that can be presented for the latter. The responsibilities of the AEC include collecting an applicant’s photo and biometric data. Mahadev clarifies, however, that the actual verification of documents and issuing of the Aadhaar card are UIDAI’s responsibility. He clearly delineates between the AEC and UIDAI’s work – and acknowledges that rejection of an application by UIDAI based on mismatched details is not the AEC’s fault.

In Delhi, we spoke to a domestic helper while she was trying to get her Aadhaar number at a private intermediary’s office. She needed it to apply for a passport so that she could travel abroad with her employers. However, the only relevant documents she had – her voter and ration cards – were linked to her village address in West Bengal. Upon probing further, she told us that she did not want to apply for a passport from West Bengal because her employer could help her get a passport much more quickly through his connections if she were to apply from Delhi.

Multiple options were offered by staff at the Aadhaar application office, and rejected as none of them would help solve her problem. For example, a letter from someone like a gazetted officer or MLA would mean she needed to know someone of that rank from the list of officials published by UIDAI, but she did not. Similarly, getting a bank pass book would mean she had to open a bank account in Delhi, but to do that she needed an Aadhaar number, taking her back to square one. Someone then suggested a workaround: a letter with a passport-sized photograph affixed, from a doctor at a government hospital who could vouch that she was a local resident. This signed and stamped document would be “by far the easiest to obtain”, he said. Interestingly, this solution wasn’t part of the list of officially accepted documents – he simply offered a suggestion that he would be able to sign off on, probably assuming that the higher authorities would accept it. This is a good example of “jugaad”, or a hack, a term popularized by Jaideep Prabhu of the University of Cambridge. Shaamappa is a Gram Panchayat member in Garudahalli, in rural Karnataka, where he wields significant power.

The Gram Panchayat is the village body that helps local residents obtain documents like death certificates, as well as helping them with processes like linking their Aadhaar to their ration card so that food can be collected from the government.

Unlike Mahadev, who we spoke to in Bengaluru, Shaamappa perceives Aadhaar as a legally mandated document. Mahadev was aware that the Supreme Court had not yet ruled on whether Aadhaar cards were mandatory, while Shaamappa said that they already were.

Shaamappa, in his work with the Gram Panchayat, is a key figure for locals below the poverty line (Rs. 17,155 per annum being the urban poverty line and Rs. 11,680 per annum the rural poverty line), especially when they need housing or housing loans.

The Panchayat has its own method of verifying information – an informal process based simply on recognizing an applicant by face, or speaking to someone who can vouch for them.

Shaamappa is also responsible for providing identity cards for verifying a person is eligible to receive welfare. There are three categories of people who might qualify: those in extreme poverty (or “Anthyodaya”); those below the poverty line (BPL); and those above the poverty line (APL). For those asking for an APL card, the main factor is someone’s job – Shaamappa says “that itself gives us a fair idea of how much they must be earning.”

For a BPL applicant, it’s usually daily wage earners who qualify, while daily wage earners who also don’t have  children would qualify for the extreme poverty category “because they have no one to care for them and the government is the last house of appeal and mercy for them”. Though this part of the process is certainly subjective, he says “we take all IDs such as proof of residence, electricity bills, Aadhaar card and such” before actually handing out the cards.

58-year-old Doddaraghu is the proprietor of the local ration store in Garudahalli, and is responsible for distributing grains and other necessities like kerosene, sugar, and oil via the Public Distribution System (PDS).

Doddaraghu has to maintain strict records and makes sure that each ration card holder gets only the government-allotted amount. The only card people bring when they come to his store is the ration card, but their Aadhaar number does need to be linked to it if they want to collect what they are due, he says. He likes the linking of identities, and believes it helps prevent fraud, as the government has claimed. However, he says that just as with voter fraud, which is common in his area, as his village is on the border between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, people do sometimes have duplicate Aadhaar numbers too. He is not exactly sure how this happens.

Doddaraghu doesn’t always separate the personal from the professional, and occasionally gives people he recognizes their grain allocation even if they don’t have their ration card – though he does ask them to apply for a new one by submitting a letter of request to the local Taluk (administrative district) office. Some people ask him to submit it on their behalf; in these cases he willingly takes on the additional role of an enabling intermediary.

The anecdotes above indicate that there is no single fixed process followed by everyone charged with identity verification .

There are also a number of different agents in the process as we have indicated in this story, from staff at a private intermediary’s office to managers of official Aadhaar Enrollment Centers and ration card shop owners, to name just a few.

Circumstances and roles of these enrollment agents vary hugely between urban and rural areas, and in a country like India, there are also significant variations between states and regions. Ultimately, it is useful to keep in mind that street-level bureaucrats (a term coined in 1969 by Michael Lipsky) are also users of the system. Though they might not be the end users, they are very much part of the process and are rarely completely neutral as they might be expected to be.