Essay I2

Intermediaries are critical–and need more support and accountability


LEAD AUTHORS: Savita Bailur

Photo showing queue at the Taluk office

Queue at the counter for caste certificates at the Taluk office

In the course of our research, it was consistently Individuals like Doddaraghu and Tangamma, the intermediaries we discussed in essay V4, who are critical gateways to ID systems. Complex socio- technical systems serving millions of people can never meet the needs of all users, all the time. The result is a long tail of use cases—of users— that struggle to interact with what is often an opaque, faceless system that doesn’t support their needs. That these are most often edge cases and less common situations means that those most affected are often already marginalized in some way for being poor, or uneducated, or illiterate.

Yet when an individual wants to access food subsidies, pension payments, voting, driving a car, or other social services, the onus is on them—not the state—to prove their eligibility. For many people, navigating the formal identity systems to do so can range from challenging to impossible without help, creating demand for identity intermediaries such as Doddaraghu, Tangamma, all SIM card vendors, LPG distributors, Aadhaar franchisees and other intermediaries discussed in essay V4 who can facilitate interactions with the system.

Whether these are formal intermediaries who specialize in offering a specific service—for example, expediting caste certificate applications—or system agents who act outside their formal role to provide help to those in need, our research has shown that these kinds of facilitation provide a critical interface between dynamic, messy human lives and rigid technological and bureaucratic systems. Instead of ignoring their presence, policymakers should seek to explore and understand their role first, as they represent windows into the frictions and pain points of any identity system. This doesn’t mean that policymakers should seek to eliminate their existence, but rather recognize and understand their presence, mitigate exploitative tendencies through awareness and transparency, and reward positive behaviors through appropriate incentive structures and accountability.

Knowledge and transparency

One key reason people seek out help from intermediaries is because they don’t possess adequate knowledge to navigate the system. This knowledge gap can be due to the supply side (the processes and requirements are complex and not explained in sufficient detail in easily accessible formats), the demand side (the individual has limited capacity to find relevant information, due to constraints in education, literacy, confidence, social position, geography, etc.), or, most often, a combination of both.

India is infamous for its complex bureaucracies and multi-level government structures and processes, and we encountered multiple examples of how this manifested in identity systems administration and the challenges faced by individuals. For example, individuals trying to change the name or phone number on their Aadhaar card, or simply get a ration card, which appeared the most convoluted of all ID processes.

Of course, the value of many intermediaries is predicated on the user not having access to information on how the system works. Much of this information is currently disseminated through technology, including websites (e.g.,, which has a “Most Searched” feature—with the main results coming up as birth certificates, UIDAI procedures, and class textbooks). Most of those we spoke to were either not literate enough or did not have the skills to navigate websites like this (and many of the links on the websites do not work).

Photo of a sign for an advocate and notary

Intermediary help in filling form

When people can’t determine which forms or supporting documentation are truly necessary, or how long an application process takes, or what the actual fees are, intermediaries step in to mitigate the uncertainty. If an identity system increases its public outreach and information dissemination efforts, the value proposition for these intermediaries drops. While increased transparency may eliminate work for some intermediaries, we believe that roles based solely on information arbitrage are more likely to exploit consumers and deliver lower-value services.

In addition, our research showed that many intermediaries would welcome increased knowledge and awareness of system functionality. As described in 2S4, we heard from many intermediaries that uncertainty around process often left them feeling vulnerable, as they were shouldering liability for individuals without completely clear knowledge of how their efforts would be received by the system. For example, Mahadev, who as an Aadhaar franchisee, felt caught between UIDAI’s decisions and what he had to tell a member of the public if their form was rejected, or Doddaraghu who gave rations out of goodwill if a card was lost, because he knew the delay in reissue would impact on the individual.

By making key information more accessible, system designers and policymakers can increase awareness and transparency in the system, boosting user confidence and reducing some cases of exploitative information arbitrage. Improved transparency and knowledge would especially benefit agents of the state, who often have to take on the liability of acting outside their formal roles in order to facilitate transactions.

Incentives and accountability

Often the points of friction where intermediaries step in are due to misaligned or insufficient incentives within the system or with relying parties. For example, many Aadhaar centers are run by 3rd-party firms contracted by the government, and those firms earn money to enroll people, but not to amend their credentials, for example changing their address or telephone number. This leads to very long queues and poor experience for those seeking to make changes, and thus drives people to seek ways of circumventing the formal process.

Indeed some intermediaries we spoke with justified “earning a bit on the side” because of their poor pay. For state agents and regulated firms, the decision to go outside their prescribed role to help an individual is often done at personal risk and cost. Finding ways to better structure incentives for these employees (such as giving them data quotas to use on their phones) could help ensure high levels of service without increasing their vulnerability.

System designers should also recognize that while the dual role that some intermediaries play can be beneficial because they are able to “bend the rules,” it can be just as problematic because they can use power at their discretion. This dichotomy is especially prevalent in rural areas, where traditional village political structure means panchayat officials are expected to be both formal agents of identity systems (i.e., with power to sign off on various paperwork) but also often bestow, or withhold, informal assistance based on longstanding personal relationships. We also saw intermediaries in Kesarpur wielding power against migrants as a form of exclusion.

Policymakers need to first observe or be aware of this dual behavior and research the everyday practices at centers where intermediaries are key. We then need to put in place the checks and balances of intermediaries by taking into account what they risk or gain by playing the role of an agent, and most importantly where they stand in a system of connected power nodes (for example in a rural context, the taluk office, panchayat, Anganwadi and government school are important power nodes in the rural set up). Such monitoring, accountability, and regulation should ensure that they cannot result in an incestuous appropriation of power, particularly against particular class, caste, religion or other demographics. Stronger regulation is needed, and is being implemented.1

Related to this, when some of our users reported injustice in being denied credentials by intermediaries, it seemed that they did not have recourse (e.g., Jamima’s children being denied Aadhaar, and so unable to attend school or Immama’s papers being thrown in her face were just two examples of these). Importantly, exploitative behavior doesn’t always come at the point of enrollment, but sometimes even earlier, when feeder documents are needed. We saw this in Kesarpur with the landlords and company owners emerging as critical obstructive intermediaries, creating challenges in obtaining “proof of address” documents such as electricity bills in contexts when rental agreements are temporary and utilities such as electricity may be stolen in any case.

When this appears to be a form of exclusion, there is insufficient information available to users on how to report this behavior or on grievance redressal. The current complaints mechanisms and effectiveness of them need to be evaluated, as the general response from our research was that they were not easy to understand (and there was a fear of approaching local police who may collude with those who wielded the power). India has a strong Right to Information movement, and while there are concerns on how it is currently under-resourced, strengthening the link between RTI and challenging when using intermediaries to enroll in identity credentials (for example, a dedicated phone line for this or localized WhatsApp number a user could call), would strengthen the government’s commitment to accountability. Although currently users can report malpractice at UIDAI contact centers, or go to an online portal where one can register a complaint, but none of those we talked to had tried this.

Trust plays a large part in how end users approach intermediaries and many non-profit organizations are trusted more than either government or private sector, because their intentions were altruistic. In our research, we saw the importance of sanghaas and labor rights organizations very helpful to individuals (especially women) while John, the visually challenged teacher mentioned it would be helpful to have NGOs as “one stop ID shops” for those who were disabled, because they would be more sensitive and specialized in dealing with disabilities. Policymakers need to understand how NGOs are helping end users get access to identity credentials, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances. Second, they need to address the resourcing they have in place, as the lack of funding was mentioned by Jafar Akbar of the Migrant Rights Group in Kesarpur, as well as Hasiru Dala, the waste recyclers community in Bengaluru.


Our research found that in the demographics we spoke to, intermediaries were critical in facilitating identity transactions. The challenge is that as the legitimacy of these intermediaries varies, so does their accountability. By tracking and understanding the different roles intermediaries play in a system, designers can identify key pain points and the relative impacts they have. Formally acknowledging these roles and incorporating them into the system design process can enable more of the benefits of intermediaries while mitigating their most negative impacts. Not every intermediary function should be seen as a problem to solve, and instead of banning their presence, policymakers should think about regulating their actions.