Enrolling in ID Systems Does Not Always Reduce Vulnerabilities

Episode 5 - Article 1

In our last episode we discussed the critical role of identity intermediaries such as the PAN card agent and the Aadhaar franchisee. Their positions are especially important when thinking about vulnerable groups. As The World Bank’s Principles of Identification state:

Legal, procedural, and social barriers to enroll in and use identification systems should be identified and mitigated, with special attention to poor people and groups who may be at risk of exclusion for cultural, political or other reasons

(such as women, children, rural populations, ethnic minorities, linguistic and religious groups, migrants, the forcibly displaced, and stateless persons). Furthermore,

identification systems and identity data should not be used as a tool for discrimination or to infringe on individual or collective rights.”

Critics of Aadhaar have largely focussed on privacy concerns, but there are also concerns of exclusion, bias and serious repercussions for groups such as senior citizens dependent on Aadhaar verification for pensions. These concerns are not unique to Aadhaar or the Indian context of course. There have been quite a few reports on identification exclusion in the United States, including immigrants, those homeless and out of prison in Ohio, the story of Alice Faith Pennington in Texas, and the intermediaries who are trying to help those in a catch 22 situation without IDs.

In this episode, we focus specifically on demographics who felt marginalized before, but also during and after identification processes – people who are registered disabled, identify as LGBTQ+, or feel discriminated against for other reasons, like caste, class, literacy, or income level. Again, this is not unique to India – a podcast which left an impression on us early in our research discussed how eligibility for benefits in the United States means major bodily and financial intrusion.

During our research, we asked what specific challenges those in our lower-income demographic faced. We also began to see that instead of just a focus on vulnerable groups, we needed to focus on vulnerable circumstances, and the policies that provide extra support in those situations.

The process of enrollment in ID systems needs to address dignity

Authentication (the first step of identification, followed by verification) can be hardest for the most vulnerable in society. Checking if someone is eligible for a government benefit may be demeaning, and depends on the discretion of intermediaries. We saw this in Garudahalli, near Bengaluru, when Mariswamy, the dairy co-op head, tried to get disability benefits for his neighbour, Padma Akka, a mentally challenged senior citizen:


“Take the example of our Padma Akka … she has no economic means, is mentally challenged and lives on her own. She was getting this pension but it stopped. So, my mother and I took Padma Akka to a doctor’s clinic at Madhugiri. We told the doctor, ‘Sir, this lady is very poor and is in need of financial help. He asked, ‘What? What is wrong with her?’ So we answered, ‘Sir, she has a mental condition…if you could examine her…’. The doctor then looked at Padma Akka and asked her, ‘Here, what is your name?’ She said, ‘G. Padma’ and he asked, ‘What is your father’s name?’ She said, ‘Gopalachar Garudahalli.’ He said, ‘Will you write your name?’ So, the lady goes and writes her name in English. Immediately the doctor said, ‘Hey! How are you a mental case?’ and he shouted at us. And with this turn of events, we quietly came back.”


A transgender activist had a similar concern around invasive identification.

Currently in draft, India’s 2016 Transgender Rights Bill specifies “screening committees,” doctors who will provide certificates for those who identify as transgender

As this article says, it “puts in place a surveillance and gate-keeping mechanism for an already severely discriminated-against community”. The activist we spoke to said:


“The government wanted us to get checked by the doctors. We were born as male only, with all male genitalia, but mentally we feel very strongly that we are females. When the situation is like this, how much does the government or the doctors know about us to judge us? This being the case, we don’t need you to certify us. We are also human beings. We live in the same society as you. So a universal certificate is necessary”. 


Reframing privacy away from being purely about personal information towards being about a consideration of harms has highlighted how identity credentials can actually increase risks for the more vulnerable. One example of this is around the stigma in needing an Aadhaar card to obtain antiretroviral (ART) drugs. An HIV/AIDS activist laid out his concerns:

“Now what has happened in HIV-positive communities, in all the ART centres, only if we have Aadhaar cards, the ART box is given. They are making it compulsory. Due to this, our identity of HIV positive is being shown. Now that Aadhaar is compulsory, few people don’t even have Aadhaar and even if they do, and because it is linked to everything, their fear has increased. It is already a stigmatised condition. Who have they asked before doing this? Have they asked our opinion?”

Declaring one’s identity exposes marginalized communities to risk

In interviews with those who identified as transgender, and with LGBT activists, there have been serious concerns around prejudices in identification processes following the Indian Supreme Court’s recriminalization of homosexuality in 2013 (Section 377). A particular concern in Karnataka was Section 36A of the Police Act which gives police powers to “control objectionable activities of eunuchs”, especially in conjunction with the ruling that a transwoman has to register her residential address at a police station:


“If they (the individual) want to go elsewhere, they should take permission from the police station. If a child goes missing in that area, the police use their authority to enquire or to take them into custody without any prior information. Their power makes us criminals … and all this information about the individual is on an Aadhaar card. Who is responsible for this?”

Identity systems that expose certain social relationships leave some more vulnerable than others

What some considered as potential harms of data was not always obvious. For example, Mansoor, a woollens vendor, did not mind sharing his Aadhaar card with us, but would not share the small pocket diary where he kept track of his lending and borrowing. He was keen to safeguard the privacy of his relationship and the identity of his money lender, since he said he has known him for several years and did not want anything untoward to happen because of us asking for the identity of the money lender.

What this means for people who design and implement ID systems

Identity systems unlock access to services and in theory enable a more efficient, equitable society. Yet, as we have seen from many critiques, especially with regards to Aadhaar, these systems also bring security and privacy fears.

We have been hearing people describe their fears about the harms that might be caused by privacy breaches – harms that disproportionately affect already vulnerable communities. We heard many concerns around identity cards, too – fears of them being lost, withheld, copied by others.

Though many saw the benefits of identity cards, we heard from many people who had major concerns. There were women who felt the time and process impacted hugely on their day-to-day lives; mothers who felt their children were being excluded because they did not have Aadhaar cards; there were those who were illiterate, those like the blind teacher, John who needed assistance [link to transaction story for this episode]; and some concerned about being excluded because of religion or caste.

We also realized that there are vulnerable circumstances rather than vulnerable groups – when a member of our research team had a loss in the family, they found the process of obtaining a death certificate lengthy and intrusive. Their feedback was poignant: “why do I need to write what their diet was like, or if they smoked or not?”

While we agree with the World Bank Principles that “social barriers to enroll in and use identification systems should be identified and mitigated”, we need to think clearly about what this means.

First and foremost, understanding “user” needs and concerns; then perhaps a code of ethics for intermediaries, stronger citizen’s rights with regards to identification processes, and more efficient and effective grievance redressal. In the words of the transgender activist: “when there is an identity card, it has to be beneficial for the people of the community. We do not want cards which create problems for the community.”


Read Article Two: What We Have Learnt About Attitudes to Privacy and Vulnerability