Essay P2

Physical identity artifacts matter, even in the digital era


LEAD AUTHOR: Emrys Schoemaker

A photo of Dilip and his son holding up multiple cards

Dilip and son have different family names on multiple cards

So when I go to get medicines or go out, then I don’t take this big handbag. I take this small purse (takes out a small clutch from inside the bag to show us). I keep whatever I need to take in this and leave all other IDs and cards inside this big bag. I take just this small purse with the Nimhans card and medical prescription inside this purse and leave all the rest here in the bag. And if I have to go out of town then there is another bag in which I keep just a few cards from this big bag and take that other bag (Ishmat laughs).

Ishmat, housewife in Bangalore, India

Despite the value Ishmat places on the physical artifacts which help her present her identity, many argue that digital identity systems offer superior ways of managing identification, authentication, and verification. For example, in India Aadhaar was launched explicitly as a 12-digit Universal Identification (UID), not a physical card. As Planning Commission Deputy Chairman, Montek Singh Ahluwalia said in 2013, “The (Aadhaar) number comes in a form of card. But that card is not an identity card.”1 Indeed, this ambition is reflected in the goals of international organizations who see digital identity as a means to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 16 of providing “legal identity for all, including birth registration, by 2030.”2 As the World Bank’s World Development Report 2016 puts it: “The best way to achieve this goal is through digital identity (digital ID) systems, central registries storing personal data in digital form and credentials that rely on digital, rather than physical, mechanisms to authenticate the identity of their holder.”3

Many users we spoke to echoed these official perspectives, describing benefits afforded by digital identity systems over physical identity artifacts. For example, respondents described the convenience and reassurance of being able to quote the number of their PAN card—Permanent Account Number—the number provided to taxpayers by the Tax Department of India—compared to having to remember the 12-digit bank account number or risk losing the PAN card itself. Others described the confidence that a number based system provided, emphasizing how they were quite relaxed at the prospect of losing bank passbooks or Aadhaar card because they knew all they had to remember was the number in order to get a replacement.

Others said they believed digital systems were helping to resolve these discrepancies.

There are such people, who have a different name showing up in their Paani (property) papers. Such instances are rare in recent times, because it will be entered in Anganwaadi around the same time that they also get their Aadhaar card. They also have to get their birth certificate. And parents are supposed to get bank accounts for their children if they want to avail of various schemes. With all these ID document processes happening near about the same time, it is easy to quickly catch any discrepancy in names and other profile details.

School principal, Garudahalli

In other words, there are a number of reasons why users, as well as institutions value digital identity systems over physical artifacts.

That being said, the focus of this chapter is how many of the respondents we spoke to, such as Ishmat quoted above, highlighted the continuing importance of physical, material identity credentials in supporting their identity practices. Respondents described a number of reasons why material artifacts (still) mattered, from the value they play in accessing services and benefits, to benefits obtained from having a physical credential to carry. Respondents also described the intangible value of credentials as symbols of a better future, and highlighted the complexities resulting from loss of artifacts.

Users value material artifacts

So for the sake of developing trust with the other person, we need to keep these cards. See, we are not as educated as you people. You can speak well. But what about us? We are a wandering lot. Here today and there tomorrow. So we should keep all these ID cards safely…. See, this is a place where we are staying now. This place belongs to someone. We are not owners of this land…. Now if this owner comes and asks about our presence on his plot…say he wants to farm here. He will ask who gave us permission to stay here. Then what should I answer him?… And when someone like that comes here, we will show our ID and say ‘we are here for a few days to show our talent…acrobatics’ and then we will leave.

Nasir, itinerant circus performer, rural Karnataka

For many people, as for Nasir, the physical identity artifact has an intrinsic value. It serves a purpose that could not be replaced by a purely digital system. For Nasir, it is a way of demonstrating identity and reassuring strangers of their authenticity and, crucially, legitimacy. If Nasir relied solely on a number it would require whoever he was interacting with in a specific instance to have access to a means of verification to check that the number corresponded with the information he provided, a requirement that many, especially in rural areas, may struggle to meet.

Indeed, the people we spoke to carried a diversity of material artifacts, used them in diverse ways, and reported many different reasons for carrying specific credentials at specific times. For many people these included driving licenses, ATM cards, and bus passes. Others described carrying occupational credentials, such as artisan ID cards, student cards or workplace identity cards. Physical credentials were also described as being important for people accessing public welfare facilities such as ration cards, with people highlighting the ration card or Below Poverty Line card to outlet managers.

During the demonetization events of 2016, the materiality of ID cards became critical, especially when people had to produce their PAN card, or voter’s card, or the Aadhaar to deposit, withdraw and exchange cash. People value material artifacts for their role in enabling access to services as well as instilling confidence in their entitlement to those services.

There are many ways in which people use physical artifacts, and many reasons why people value having a credential they can hold, carry, and show. For instance, people who drove vehicles invariably carried the original driver’s license with them. But this was nuanced by descriptions in which the driver’s license was carried on the person whilst the car registration documents, the RC, were kept in the glove compartment.

For many respondents, the physical artifact was important for intangible reasons, such as descriptions of possessing an Aadhaar card but never using it and keeping it at home, because having one “is about being Indian,” said one respondent outside an Aadhaar centre in Bangalore. Possessing physical artifacts was also seen as important in order to prove one’s bona fide presence, legitimacy, or existence, especially when questioned by someone of power or authority (such as government officials). This was particularly the case for vulnerable individuals, such as street hawkers. As Vishal, a pani-puri seller in Bangalore said, without an identity credential.

If they [Municipal Corporation] see you are standing with your things in a certain part of the sidewalk, they will come and disband your setup.

Vishal, pani-puri seller, Bangalore

The cost of loss

The significance of material artifacts is highlighted by the complications and vulnerabilities arising from their loss. A sudden change in verifiable status can impact on an individual’s capability to exercise agency in a given situation. For instance, we saw how important it was for Ramesh the rickshaw driver we heard from in essay P1 to be able to prove his identity to the policeman. Others described how without a photo identity card they were unable to travel, such as Tenzin, a Tibetan refugee in Delhi described they always need their Aadhaar card to travel.

Wherever we go, right? When we travel…be it the train or by flight. They ask for the Aadhaar.

Tenzin, Tibetan refugee, Delhi

The lack of a physical identity artifact can also prevent people from being able to access welfare benefits and entitlements. As Mansoor, a street hawker in Bengaluru, said I cannot avail of medical subsidies until I get my BPL card. I had applied for it, but until then I have to pay. The delays and bureaucratic hassles involved in registering for new credentials or replacing lost ones often force people to relinquish their claim to services they are entitled to. Many respondents described how difficult it was to negotiate between the multiple authorities required to validate a new card or changes to an old one. As Ishmat, a homemaker in a squatter colony in Bangalore said, My son’s name is wrongly spelt in the Aadhaar. Now I cannot access the ration facilities from my ration card until this is set right. So much walking around…an entire day goes in that. I have left it and now take my ration from kaka ki dukaan. For many, the cost of time spent registering for, replacing or amending identity credentials is too high and so people, often those who most need them, are excluded from the benefits or services to which they are entitled.

The cost of loss can be mitigated by the design of identity systems. Although the loss of any artifact causes complications, differences between systems mean some costs are higher than others. For example, replacing a voter card was perceived to be a significant problem, since it meant having to apply for an altogether new number. In comparison, respondents were more sanguine about the loss of a bank passbook because it was easier to replace. As Shailaja indicated, differences between cards are important: If I lose these two, it is stressful (pointing at the Aadhaar and voter’s card). Even if I lose the ration card, I can get a new one. But the Aadhaar and voter’s card are very difficult to replace. I will not get the same number…. If I lose that [bank passbook], I can tell the bank and they will reissue the new passbook with the same account number. The important point here is how users perceive the process: in actual fact, the Aadhaar number remains the same regardless of how many replacement cards are issued. The materiality and design of artifacts matters, and issues such as ease of replacement shape how users such as Shailaja perceive the value of their credentials.

In principle, the introduction of digital ID systems such as Aadhaar make it easier to replace credentials, something that a number of respondents recognized, and valued. For example Asif, who works at a leather factory in Kesarpur, rural Delhi, said, We can easily make a new card. It is easy to just print it from a computer…. However, although the digitalization of identity systems makes replacement easier, the materiality of the artifact continues to matter, as people continue to find value in the use of physical credentials.

Material artifacts, agency, and efficiency

Many of the people we spoke to found value in the materiality of their artifacts and the possession of a credential they could hold. Importantly, physical artifacts can be empowering in less tangible ways than more immediately apparent access to services they offer. Many respondents described how possessing a physical credential signified social status and was valued for the way it articulated certain aspects of an individual’s identity. For example, an ATM card was described as important because being able to carry and show it communicated the “tech savvy” level of technology literacy required to operate an ATM machine, as well as the financial status of having a bank account. Cards such as voter ID cards were described as being empowering through their function as a status symbol, whilst others described how artifacts generated a sense of belonging. As Shailaja said, describing her voter’s ID card, It is a symbol to show them (government) that we are living. Without this card it is like we are dead. For Shailaja, and for many others, physical credentials are material embodiments of intangible yet highly valued aspects of identity that grants a deeply rooted sense of agency and legitimacy.

A sign for getting Xerox copies of ID cards

Materialising digital photos

Physical artifacts were also described as creating a very functional sense of belonging and legitimacy. This was particularly apparent in contexts where citizenship was contested, such as in Assam, India. Since Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971 one of the most credible ways to authenticate legitimate Indian citizenship is by carrying a photocopy of family’s name on the 1971 electoral roll, a document that has recently been used to verify citizenship in the National Registration of Citizenship (NRC). As Abdul, a shop owner in Guwahati, the capital of Assam, said, At the time of NRC we gave documents to prove that we are Indian. We submitted documents of our parents, our grandparents. Authenticating citizenship is complex, and important. Being able to register on the NRC, and having a material artifact to authenticate belonging has an important value for those who fear being marginalized or even deported.

The agency associated with material artifacts was also described in more practical, pragmatic terms. This was particularly the case in relation to the ways in which people had exercised creativity or jugaad (Hindi for “creative workarounds”) to circumvent constraints and obstacles in the access to and use of identity credentials. For example, a number of respondents described how they balanced protecting original credentials with the need to use them and the risk of their loss by making high-quality color photocopies, regarded as more authoritative than black and white copies. As Dilu, in urban Delhi, said on a brief glance at our researcher’s Aadhaar card, I will tell you this…it is a printout that you have got from the online image. It is not original. Whether creating high-quality copies or other creative arounds to achieve the tasks that required the use of identity artifacts, many others emphasized how material artifacts were intimately linked to the exercise of individual agency.

Material artifacts matter to people for many reasons, from intangibles such as social status and a sense of belonging to practical, tangible benefits such as accessing benefits. Regardless of the reason, for the vast majority of people that we spoke with, physical artifacts are the only point of engagement with identity systems. They understand and value artifacts for the diverse reasons that they present, but the wider system architecture remains an abstraction outside of most users’ knowledge or understanding. In many cases and for most of the time, this may be a sensible way of managing the cognitive load that a full systems comprehension would demand, yet as the implications of complex digital identity systems such as Aadhaar begin to emerge, the need for an understanding of the system behind the artifact will only grow.


The materiality of physical identity credentials matter to users in many ways, and play many different roles in their lives. Possessing a physical artifact is important when accessing benefits, but also delivers intangible benefits that strengthen an individual sense of agency and empowerment. Significantly, Aadhaar was intended to be solely a number with no accompanying card, but as we have shown, many value the material nature of the artifact. Paying attention to the material aspect of ways in which people prove who they are reveals how the possession of identity credentials can enable forms of agency whilst their loss can create or exacerbate vulnerability, themes that we pick up in more detail later in this report. Although both policymakers and frontline bureaucrats argue that digital identity systems can deliver benefits in the form of efficiencies and reducing complexities, this does not mean we should ignore the durable importance of physical objects in supporting identity practices.


  1. Staff Writer, “Aadhaar Is a Number Not an ID Card, Says Montek,” The Hindu, February 2, 2013.

  2. United Nations, “Sustainable Development Goal 16,” 2017.

  3. World Bank, “World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends” (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2016), 194.