Essay P3

Every identity transaction means something to the people involved


LEAD AUTHOR: Emrys Schoemaker

A sign reading 'Do you want PAN card?'

Intermediaries register PAN cards

Introduction: intended and actual use

The design of digital identity technologies is commonly informed by thinking about specific functions and intended uses. For example, the World Bank’s World Development Report 20161 emphasises the importance of being able to prove identity as “essential for people to access a range of rights and services such as health care, enrollment in school, social welfare, and financial services.” More explicitly, the multi- stakeholder Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development2 emphasizes the importance of designing systems for specific functions, stating that identification systems “should collect and use only the information necessary for the system’s explicit purpose.”

Kajol’s account of opening a bank account shows that in practice, whilst systems and technologies are designed with intended use cases in mind, identity credentials are used in interactions that have more layers of meaning than can be encompassed in narrow definitions of intended use. Our research found diverse practices and meaning embodied in the obtaining and using of artifacts, as well as in the broader interactions in which identity artifacts are used. We also found that some credentials remain valued and in use even as new artifacts or systems of authentication are introduced.

The nuance of obtaining identity artifacts

The first principle in The Digital Principles for Identification for International Development is Inclusion, and it emphasizes the importance of making sure that identity systems strive for “universal coverage from birth to death, free from discrimination and accessible to all individuals,” and in terms of non-discrimination, it states that “Legal, procedural, and social barriers to enroll in and use identification systems should be identified and mitigated.”3 Yet many of the respondents that we spoke to emphasized that accessing and obtaining identity credentials was often complex, and relied on established personal relationships and was shaped by social contexts. For example, Husna, an ASHA worker in Assam, North India, described how registering for an Aadhaar card went faster after she told them she worked as an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA): I mentioned that I had been working as an ASHA member since 12 years, but our Anganwadi is not efficient. Officials processed my paperwork much faster….

Beyond personal relationships, the wider context of social identities was also significant in shaping how people obtain identity artifacts. In Assam, for instance, members of “scheduled” tribes are granted specific benefits as part of wider affirmative development plans. As one Assamese student described, Yes, some want to be ‘Scheduled Tribe’, others want to be ‘Scheduled Tribe’ from the hills, some others want to be ‘Scheduled Tribe’ from the plains…. They want to be categorized to have certain political claims and benefits in terms of reserved jobs and education. Personal relationships and the wider social context shape how people register for identity credentials.

The use of identity credentials is, like the interactions through which people obtain artifacts, characterized by layers of meaning and complexity that are outside the functional, intended use cases that dominate most debates on identity technologies. For example, as we noted in essay P2, many respondents described various ways in which artifacts are used for purposes outside their “design” remit, from the use of driving licenses to verify age to ATM cards as symbols of social status. These many unintended use cases are significant elements of the ways in which identity credentials are used in practice.

The respondents we spoke to also described how interactions that are mediated by identity credentials are characterized broader forms of meaning and significance. For example Kanaila, a rickshaw driver from Delhi, described how he gave a photocopy of his voter ID card to verify his identity before the owner would rent the rickshaw to him, but that the real authentication came from a mutual acquaintance: One fellow is there from my native village who came here as a laborer but gradually he became owner of almost 50 rickshaws. He introduced me to the person from whom I take the rickshaw.

Meaningful interactions

Common accounts of identity credential use highlight their intended use, perhaps the nature of the interaction in which they take place and the purpose of the interaction. For example, the World Development Report—Spotlight on Digital Identity notes that of developing countries, “55 percent have digital IDs that are used for specific functions and services like voting, cash transfers, or health.”4 Yet our study participants described many interactions built on relationships and histories that make artifacts redundant or unnecessary, and in which their use is largely a formality. For example, Doddaraghu, a ration shopkeeper in Garudahali, rural Karnataka, described how when people come to get their food allocation, one of the most common interactions in which people have to verify their identity, the artifact and the person holding it do not always match:

Often the card holder himself does not come to the shop. His daughter comes with the card. Then we see her face and the face as shown in the card and we can tell. Actually such problems hardly arise. We keep seeing the people, who come and take ration from our shop. We also interact with them every day. We know who all are in their family.

The point here is that the relationship Doddaraghu has with the family is a sufficient source for the authentication of the welfare distribution. The layers of time that make up the relationship are sufficient to substitute for the artifact and enable the interactions to proceed. We heard similar accounts of biometric authentication being sidelined in favor of personal knowledge and relationships. For example, in banks, illiterate users’ fingerprints are often not digitally scanned for verification. Instead bank officials draw upon a user’s personal circle of trust-based relationships. In such cases, the tacit knowledge that constitutes relationships is sufficient to bypass formal methods of authentication.

More broadly, our work was a reminder that elements like social status, expectations, and cultural values were often at play even in small interactions. For example, a common feature of many interactions that are mediated by biometric verification is a failure of the reader to recognize the thumbprint, because the individual’s thumbprint is worn, because the reader is faulty or any number of other reasons. When this artifact failure occurs, the agent’s common response is to hold the individual’s hand and attempt to force them into the “correct” position. This physical guidance is usually fine between men but when it is a man physically assisting a woman these invasions of personal space are deeply problematic, especially in a context where women’s personal space and integrity are key to maintaining both her own and by extension the family’s dignity and social status. The frequency and commonality of these failures mean that the importance of the interaction overrides cultural norms and women must put up with having a man invade her personal space. These interactions, which last mere moments, can pass by unremarked unless one pays attention to the experience of the interaction.

Interactions and jugaad

The interactions that identity artifacts are designed to mediate are commonly described as being smooth, functioning processes enabled by the intended use of identity technologies. Yet in our research, many of these interactions are not that simple. In these situations, many respondents, both agents and users described how they exercised creative ways—jugaad—around these obstacles in order to successfully achieve their goals. For example, Manjanna, the postmaster in Garudhahalli, was spending a lot of time writing the same address for his illiterate customers when they came in to send money to family or friends. To make things easier he created repeatable seals of illiterate users addresses, so that when his customers came in to send money he could just stamp the money order with the recipient’s address, making his and his customers’ life easier.

These creative solutions to complex problems are most apparent in circumstances when the goal of the interaction is important and the resources of the individual are limited. Accessing rations was one interaction that many people described jugaad practices. For example, Rahul, a puppet maker in urban Delhi, described how people share ration cards, even though they’re not supposed to: It happens like this. We give our ration card to one of our neighbors and say ‘OK today you get your ration with this. Take it for month. Next month I will use it for myself. We feel sad for our neighbors and their economic condition. So we let them have our ration. Negotiating the constraints of formal systems to meet informal needs requires creative practices such as sharing cards, and relies on trust that is grounded in established relationships. This common practice involves jugaad by both the users, as they share cards to maximize access to rations, as well as by agents, as they accommodate these practices that challenge the letter of the law.

Photo of Husna holding her documents

Husna protects documents in plastic

The exercise of jugaad by agents is particularly striking as it reveals ways in which agents seek to circumvent rules in their customers’ interests. For example, a loan provider described how they had to determine eligibility and suitability for one loan program over another based on limited information from the set of information given by applicant. They described how they used agreed formal data points such as income, assets, and ID credentials but also relied on other sources of information from family or friends. Similarly, government officials often use literacy as a heuristic to decide whether someone is eligible for government benefits. For example, although Padma, a young woman from rural Karnataka, had learning difficulties she could sign her name in English. The postmaster from Garudahalli described how when the doctor who was there to verify her eligibility for mental health benefits saw her signing her name, he shouted at us asking if this was some kind of a joke. The subtlety of relationships shapes the way identity artifacts are used, and the creative ways that people find to carry out their work. Often these processes are successful but sometimes, as with Padma, they can cause obstacles to successful interactions.

The enduring life of redundant artifacts

The introduction of new identity systems includes the replacement of old artifacts with new. Aadhaar, for example, is intended to be a form of identity and authentication that can replace many others such as ration cards, bank cards and so on. Yet many respondents described how they continued to use identity artifacts that were technically redundant. For example, Ashruthi, a daily wage laborer in rural Karnataka, described how she had to show both voter ID and Aadhaar card when applying for a girl child savings program. As she said, they asked for the voter’s card and the Aadhaar card for this scheme…. The Bhagyalakshmi bond is like the LIC bond. We get a card under this scheme and after the child turns 18 years, we can use it…. It is only for the girl child. For our daughters.

Thus identity artifacts can endure in ways that are unexpected and entirely dependent on local histories and social contexts. For example, in Assam, Northern India, it was common to find people describing the 1971 electoral roll as the most important identity document, with a number of respondents saying they carried it around with them on a daily basis. As Aneesa, a housewife in rural Assam, said: Those who had all these documents, had to submit…. They asked voter list of 1971 and 1966 and they even wanted some earlier documents. Whatever other old documents we had, we submitted all. These old electoral rolls indicated Indian citizenship prior to Bangladesh’s independence, and thus current entitlement to Indian citizenship status today.


All identity interactions are full of meaning and significance, imbued with the subtleties and nuance of relationships, histories, and contexts that constitute social life. Even though artifacts are designed to fulfill specific functions, they are often incorporated into interactions characterized by social dynamics of power and status. The processes of accessing and using identity artifacts is commonly characterized by barriers and constraints that shape how people interact and the way in which a specific artifact mediates the interaction. People exercise creative practices of jugaad to realize their goals, often subverting the intended use case of credentials to meet their needs. And as artifacts are embedded within social contexts of relationships and histories, so the life of artifacts is shaped by the particularities of social context as much as the intended use. When designers and policymakers are sensitive to the meaning and significance inherent in specific interactions they can better design systems and artifacts able to accommodate the changing lives of people, and the credentials they use to mediate their interactions.

A photo of a diagram drawn on paper

An example of all the processes needing an ID in a village

The ID journey

Tamang and Ramdhan are from neighboring villages in Assam. Both of them got to know each other only after they came to Bangalore and now work at the same institution as security guards. Tamang came a few years ago but Ramdhan has been here for 16 years. Ramdhan has a voter’s card, a PAN card, Aadhaar, a ration card and a Driver’s License. Tamang does not have an Aadhaar (yet) but has a Driver’s License (DL), PAN card, voter’s card and a passport as he was intending to leave India.

Tamang initially had a school ID and got a school certificate after 10th standard (grade). Following the 10th standard certificate, he got himself a PAN card and much later a voter’s card, because of a general election in the offing which made enrollment and distribution of voter’s card easy (doorstep as he called it) and a driving license. He got the passport only after securing his Gram Panchayat’s certificate (for proof of residence) along with the PAN card, voter’s card and bank statements of both his parents. Over and above this, he also had to show his own PAN card, voter’s card and DL. Tamang and Ramdhan share a smartphone—bought with pooled resources (as they work on the same site) but have their own SIM and passcodes for different apps.

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

  2. World Bank, “Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development: Toward the Digital Age” (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2017), 12.

  3. Ibid., 8.

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