What we’ve learnt about identities over the past six months

Episode 6 - Article 3

Over the last six months, our research team has spoken to hundreds of people whose lives are being directly affected by the implementation and use of identity cards in India.

As we wind towards the final report, we thought our readers might benefit from a look into the minds of the researchers who have been the first point of contact on the ground. What have they learnt from this process?

What is the single most interesting observation that you have made during this research so far?

Sarita Seshagiri (SS):

That identity artefacts live on in some form or the other, even after the individual they belong to is no more. There is no complete death of one ID or the other (date of issue and expiry notwithstanding), because some content of that artefact would have been the basis for creating another.

Ananya Basu (AB):

The contradictions that arise between one’s identity on paper and the way one actually wants to identify, especially in terms of geographies in the case of migrants. The voter ID card which is the primary identity document in most cases was what was referred to as the pehchaan patra (identity card) by most respondents who were migrants. This pehchaan patra is usually registered to their area of origin, where their home is. Unless there is no other way, migrants generally prefer to retain their original voter cards, linked to this area. This is especially true for those who have migrated to a different place. There is a tussle in their minds about where they belong. A part of them knows that they might never go back to their place of origin but when asked to introduce themselves they’d still claim to belong from there.

Holding on to a document that affirms their origin on paper, I felt, could be a way to keep that link alive.

Janaki Srinivasan (JS):

I have been fascinated throughout by how ID cards simultaneously say too much and too little about a person. They can say too much about a person, hence the widely-raised concerns around privacy (and that we raise as well, in our report). But IDs also say too little – because they include details that institutions would like of someone, which is often not how that someone would describe herself!

Supriya Dey (SD):


Generic identity systems – their processes as well as the artefacts they use – pay no attention to citizens with special needs, such as the visually impaired or senior citizens with multiple disabilities.

Are there regional differences in the interviewees’ attitudes to identities in India? If so could you name one that stood out for you?

SS: In Delhi (because we don’t want to and ought not to generalize for the rest of the northern states), the ID card was seen as necessary for ensuring national security and to not be perceived as a ‘terrorist’ in its absence. This is probably due to Delhi’s historically strategic position in the country (as a centre of political power, and its geographical proximity to the borders). However, in Karnataka, ID cards were seen as something that should be kept handy in order to deal with specific situations (travelling by air/train/bus, having a sidewalk shop and having to deal with street-side goons or cops). What was CONSISTENT however for BOTH Delhi and Karnataka was the importance given to ID cards if it facilitated further access to services, benefits or entitlements.

JS: What I found significant was how differently and how frequently migrants and non-migrants ended up thinking about identities (both in a broader sense and in terms of ID cards). As someone who had moved to a new city, all migrants (temporary and permanent) spoke of their difficulties in getting their first ID card, or in deciding what IDs to make that were associated with their “native” place and which ones with their new homes.

SD: Interviewees’ attitudes to current identity systems were a complex function of the social, political and economic conditions of each location. Motivations to procure identity artefacts differed, yet these artefacts provide to each one a sense of security.

The travelling acrobats from Shirdi move from state to state along with their families “for food and water”, as long as they “get some income”. Yet, for Nasher, “there is no life without wife and child”, and he procured all the required ID artefacts for his children, rather than himself. “My life is now wasted, but I want a better future for my children. Let us not have any money. But our children’s money should be safe.” He hopes the ID artefacts will ensure the financial security of his children.

In Assam, responses from interviewees on ID artefacts reveal their inherent fear and apprehension of not belonging, “I don’t have any tension. I have all the essential documents; I can show my documents. They can’t send me to Bangladesh,” said a defensive Alvira.

What is the one thing that governments who want to implement identity systems should consider before embarking on such a project, in your opinion?

SS: They should not replace or supplant existing social systems built around trust, social capital and interpersonal networks. In this, the role of intermediaries is especially critical. Right now, intermediaries (lower ranking officials or staff in grassroots agencies who are part of the social network of villagers themselves) function as mere dalaals (touts), who try to make a quick buck on the side while attempting to help people navigate through the system. Why not empower them and encourage them to behave better, giving them direct and structured access to information without having to resort to possible unlawful means?

AB: There are already various kinds of identity systems in operation, so any new system needs to take these into account. The biggest issue in India is the exclusion of most vulnerable sections from ID systems. Any country with sections of population that are ignored, vulnerable and marginalised is likely to face this issue. The effort should now be towards empowering individuals already enrolled in ID systems, not just registering them onto a database for provision of welfare schemes.

There are already various kinds of identity systems in operation, so any new system needs to take these into account.

Control over and access to data also needs to be considered. While the requirement for the government to have access to information of residents and citizens is understandable, any access that third party agencies and private corporates may have could breach individual privacy, as in the case of Aadhaar data that private companies also have access to.

JS: That identities are not fixed, they are not singular. People deploy different identities in different circumstances, and their identities change all the time, for perfectly valid reasons (i.e. a need for different identities is not necessarily about being a crook or trying to game the system). An identity system must, at the very least, allow people flexibility in how they enroll into and change their details on an identity system, as well as in their usage. Since an identity system includes not just an ID card, but the legal and social ecology within which that ID can be used, this flexibility should apply not just to an ID card, but also to whether it is made mandatory, what privacy choices people have within it etc.

Do you have one recommendation for ensuring that the needs of under-served populations (people with disabilities or otherwise marginalised) are catered to when it comes to identity cards and systems?

SS: There ought to be some means that can weld together people’s dynamic lives with their static identities on cards. Smart cards perhaps. The status and changes in the former should constantly get updated in the latter. It should update spatially and even temporally. That way, such individuals do not lose out on services and benefits that they are entitled to just because they cannot physically present themselves to authenticate a transaction.

AB: Representation from these communities during the process of designing, decision-making and implementation of identity systems.

JS: People spend a lot of time getting, fixing and using their various ID cards. This is especially true of those who are least able to afford this time. For instance, low-income populations who most depend on welfare schemes that require IDs may have to give up their day’s wage every time they get involved in a time-consuming ID-related process. Every time a new identity system is introduced, this is the population that suffers the most. Therefore, the benefits of introducing yet another new identity system – however technologically disruptive it might be deemed to be – must be weighed very carefully against the costs and disruptions in people’s lives. Can an older system – that people know how to use or work with – be made to work better with some tweaks? That is a question always worth asking.

SD: Identity artefacts at the very least need to be embossed or Braille-enabled for the visually challenged. Also, the process of credentialing senior citizens and the disabled needs to be simplified, and authentication technologies need to cater to people with physical disabilities. Intermediaries need to be educated about the needs of these citizens. Lastly, fingerprint matching is clearly not the best authentication mechanism in many situations for the differently abled (because of how their bodies are built), and other fallback schemes need to be designed.

You’ve interviewed hundreds of people for this project, and encountered some over-arching themes which we look forward to reading in the final report. For now, could you give us one short anecdote or comment from the people you interviewed that you think is worth reflecting on, for everyone interested in this subject?

SS: There were some interesting observations from several interviews in rural Karnataka and some areas of urban Delhi. The question we asked was about privacy; or what they felt ought not to be revealed about themselves in their ID cards.

In most cases people responded that they did not know English, or were not educated to know much about such things. Then they recounted how they had strong and informal relations with each other, based on trust, years of familiarity (they’d been through highs and lows together) and shared context. The general sentiment was: “We don’t need IDs when we know each other so well. IDs are mere formalities. And what is there to hide about me in these IDs? I trust the ration shop manager to not lose my ID card when I have accidentally left it with him and he trusts me to not take more than my fair share of rations.”

Hence, when we introduce concepts like privacy or information-sharing to users, let us pause to understand what it means in their context. Let us not rush to push the mainstream/ top-down definition of privacy. Let us do a bit of lens reversal that is rooted instead in the user-space, context and circumstance. It is not always about individual privacy in the rural context. How about privacy for the sake of collective dignity?

AB: The lack of information regarding processes and ways of obtaining identity documents among low-income groups, especially migrant workers in a new place, is worth considering. While the requirements for making different identity documents is now available online on government websites, access to the internet is still a problem for many. And therefore people spend a significant amount of time as they go to and fro between different officials.

Here’s Ankur from rural Delhi on making a ration card: “We used to go everyday to the office. Five times my form was cancelled. And they won’t even tell us on the day of the submission what the problems are with it so that we can correct it and submit it the next day. They’ll tell us 4-5 days later. A number is given to the form and we are told to come back on some later date and then stand in queue on that day again waiting for my number to be called. When my turn comes finally at the end of the day, they point out the mistake, which again is mostly the absence of the landlord’s sign and the room agreement. Then one has to run around to get the sign, if somehow we manage that and resubmit, then again it gets cancelled; because that time they hadn’t given the full information that a room agreement is also required. Then for that we have to go to the court to get the rent agreement made where we have to shell out money, some will ask for Rs 200, while some will ask for Rs. 300 to make the agreement. Then again the form will get cancelled because I haven’t attached a police verification form. So then we have run to the police station to get their stamp.”

JS: I find that the buzz today around formal identity systems sometimes makes us forget that people have been finding ways to ‘place’ and verify people’s credentials for a very long time (with all the negative and positive implications of placing people in these ways). Talking to traders in a wholesale market in an old part of Delhi, we asked them how they found workers for their shops:


Interviewers: Now, your workers aren’t all from here are they?
Trader: No, mostly from outside, 80% are from outside
Interviewers: Do you ask for identity, proof when they join?
Trader: Most labour here is very old. Dates back to our grandfather or great grandfather’s times. Their sons, grandsons work here. This one (points to person manning front desk) is the 6th generation. Most of them come from Gurgaon or Sonepat.
Interviewers: And most of them are old/known?
Trader: Yes, mostly, or they’re through folks we know. If someone’s neighbour needs work, and he gets his neighbor work, he then has to take responsibility for this neighbour if he gets him work.
Interviewers: So, that is more important than an ID card?
Trader: Word of mouth, person to person, yes. Card has no value.


I think it is worth pondering over what these different ways of identifying people offer us, and how they differ from each other. Do these different systems prove beneficial for specific population groups? For different purposes/services? For instance, word of mouth identity systems might feel more trustworthy to people. But they might also restrict who finds employment along existing stereotypes around caste or religion. Can newer identity systems attempt to break this? Or do they end up achieving the same end, merely in a different way? I don’t have answers to all these questions. But what this research has taught me is that it is critical to constantly ask these questions in different settings, instead of assuming the superiority of one system over another.

SD: While interviews do reveal interviewees’ perspectives that governments need identity systems to ensure legitimate accessibility to services and subsidies where required and to weed out bogus recipients of such services, the interviews also reveal the lack of trust of the common man in the government’s (represented by the politicians’) ultimate motivation for identification mechanisms. In rural Assam, people were apprehensive on being asked about their resident status. They suspected the researcher of being a government agent who would gather data and misrepresent it. A prospective interviewee refused to be interviewed. “What do you want to know? We are legal residents of this state since generations. You people from the government come and collect information and go back and write whatever you feel like,” he said.

While their lack of cooperation and defensive attitude is a challenge for the researcher, it also reveals the underlying mistrust in the government’s identification schemes.