Essay V1

Like an “identity mosaic”, people select and combine identity elements for transactions during the course of everyday life


LEAD AUTHOR: Savita Bailur

Photo of some tents

Suleiman the stilt walker and the tents they live in

All the clothes in Bara Tooti had special pockets for money and important papers: a breast pocket sewn on the inside of the shirt, rather than the outside; a pouch stitched into the waistband of a pair of faded trousers; an extra pocket-inside- a-pocket. Every mazdoor was a walking album paneled with money, papers, phone numbers, and creased photocopies of ration cards.

Rehaan, for instance, always carried two tattered photocopies of his ration card (registered back home in Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh), a copy of his class five mark sheet that looked like it had survived a flood, a small black telephone diary, and his entire medical history in the form of a prescription for a painkiller—all secreted in various pockets on his person. In a plastic bag that never left his side, he carried a blurry x-ray of a large translucent bone gleaming against a greenish black background.

Aman Sethi, A Free Man (2012, p. 18)

Rehaan was not one of our respondents but his dynamic, non-formal existence while keenly protecting his identity artifacts resonated in many of our interviews. In ‘A Free Man’, the journalist Aman Sethi spends five years shadowing construction workers in Sadar Bazaar, one of the oldest areas in Delhi. Most of those living in Sadar Bazaar are migrants, obtaining piecemeal work (painting, carrying loads, building) through word of mouth. They are sometimes exploited, sometimes exploiting, but always exercise jugaad (creativity; innovation) appearing and disappearing around Kaka’s tea stall with regularity. In Sadar Bazaar, skills are a critical differentiator, to the extent of standing in the right line to be chosen in the mornings for work, as is word of mouth, but identity documents are just as critical.

We conducted similar interviews at a location our interviewees called “The stand” in the area of Hatigaon in Assam—here, daily wage laborers would stand waiting for work with their tools. Most did not have IDs with them (kept at home for safety) but said it would be a problem if they were asked to show them as they would have to return home and by then someone else would be hired.

This essay focuses on the tensions our research uncovers, between the dynamic, often non-formal, and unpredictable life an individual may live, and how identity artifacts are static snapshots of an individual in time and space. It is critical to recognize this tension between formal static systems and dynamic everyday practices to influence policymakers and designers in developing systems that accommodate the complexity of everyday life.

Identity artifacts have to withstand difficult circumstances

Like Rehaan’s tattered ration card photocopies and marksheet “that looked like it had survived a flood,” many of our interviewees mentioned the materiality and tangibility of identity documents having to survive years, seasons (e.g., floods) and moves between homes. Ajit, a pani puri seller, told us that his daughter’s birth certificate had been eaten by a rat, so he had to have another made by a doctor friend. Tarini, a flower seller in Bengaluru, talked of all her documents perishing in a fire. Suleiman was one of a community of travelling performers we interviewed in rural Karnataka. He carried all his identity cards (voter ID, Aadhaar), had them all scanned in a Google Drive, but also carried a photo album of photos of himself with eminent politicians and police to help get out of any problematic situations. Rahul, a Madhubani artist in Dilli Haat, says “in Rajasthan [his home state] we will always keep 10 photocopies of the same document. We store it all in a trunk.” In the shifting sandbanks of the Char in Assam, where your entire home (and therefore your permanent address) can become flooded, residents told us they kept their ID documents in a plastic bag in the rafters as it would be the last place to be submerged. Many spoke of multiple photocopies and laminated photocopies for safety.

Others face more concerns that they simply don’t have access to historical artifacts, particularly in Assam with the National Register of Citizens. Nilakhi, a housewife from Guwahati, says:

I was married very early…. My parents died within a few years of my marriage, and since then I never went back to my parental home in West Bengal. Now suddenly, I am required to provide documents to establish linkage with my father [for the National Register of Citizens].… I will have to go back to West Bengal…it might not even be possible to trace those documents. The government should relax the process for people like me who have migrated from other states.…

Photo of Ashruthi

Ashruthi with her ration card at the ration shop in Garudahalli

All these examples showed the challenges of obtaining and maintaining identity artifacts through time, between moving locations, and through changes of circumstances. Yet, the challenge is that this places greater burden on those who have less access to resources and knowledge about how to do this.

Complexity places additional burdens on those who have less time and resources

All those we met suffered the tension between the timelines and procedures of identity systems and the impact of these on their lives. Life is dynamic— birth, migration, marriage, death are emotional circumstances which need documentation. Shailaja in Bengaluru and Jubina in Assam were examples of two women separated from their husbands who had to seek work and obtain new identity documentation on their own in unknown cities. Some requirements seem irrelevant to document— when opening a bank account, Shailaja had to enter her husband’s name, even though they have been separated for years. At other times, requirements are excessive and expensive. Anjali, a housewife in our peri-urban research site of Kesarpur, states:

Anjali: We need separate, signed rent agreements for every ID needed. It has to be in the name of the person whose work it is.

Interviewer: You don’t have a template agreement with both your names?

Anjali: I had given away that signed copy. Gave a copy for the gas connection, for the bank, all originals.

Interviewer: You make a new agreement every time?

Anjali: Yes.

Interviewer: And you pay money to get it made every time?

Anjali: Yes, around Rs. 150 ($2).

Similarly, a young social worker in Bengaluru who lived with her grandmother said:

my parents passed away.… Nowadays they ask me to link my Aadhaar card with everything. Our gas is in my granny’s name and electricity bill in mother’s name. Now with whom should I link things? When I went to NIMHANS [hospital] for a course, they asked me to get a BPL card [below poverty line] for a free course. We didn’t have one. I went to the Food Office to get a BPL card. I couldn’t get it in my grandmother’s name as she is old and couldn’t be there in person. I asked to have it in my name and they asked me if I was married. I said no. He said he can’t. I should get my parents. I was annoyed by his response. I asked, do you want me to get my parents from heaven? He said why have you come to eat our heads [bother us] in the morning. Get your husband or get some man. After I heard this, I just left.

This disconnect between the time the state might take and how it impacts on an individual’s life, due to redundant processes and forced dependencies, has major implications. Ashruthi is a daily wage earner in Garudahalli who earns a living collecting firewood, spreading dung, and sifting maize. She recounts the loss of her ration card:

A photocopy will help me apply for replacing the lost ration card. But I cannot avail of ration at the cooperative society here. You cannot take ration with a photocopy…. If you get a letter from the Food Inspector with his stamp that your ration card is missing and that you have applied for a new one, then you can get ration. You need an affidavit from the court for that…. But it can take as long as five or six months or sometimes you can get it within two or three months.

Even if individuals are aware of where they need to go to obtain identity documents, the time taken to do this impacts greatly. Consider this interview with Mansoor Ali, a pavement seller of socks and underwear in City Market, Bengaluru’s grey market:

Interviewer: Can you tell us why you are not renewing your driving license?

Mansoor Ali: Now Madam, I have all these responsibilities. I have to run my shop and I have to maintain my family. Or do I go all the way to Rajajinagar and spend hours there to renew? If I do this every day, how will it work out? I have to go there and also pay up. And there is money to be given to run the household too. So I went to Rajajinagar and gave money to this broker.

Mansoor has to make the decision on taking the time out and potentially losing sales, driving illegally or using an intermediary. Unfortunately for Mansoor, the broker only renewed the license for one year (as opposed to five) and so when we met Mansoor, he made the decision not to review it after this. A similar story is recounted by Ankur, a garment factory worker in Kesarpur: “to do this entire process of making a local ID will entail my taking a whole month off from work. I have tried myself. For around 15 days I gave it my best shot. I went to the Choupal [office] inside Kesarpur. The office is downstairs where forms are filled for applying for Aadhaar cards, voter cards and ration cards.… We used to go every day to the office. Five times my form was canceled. 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 four to five 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 signature and the room agreement. Then one has to run around to get the signature, if somehow we manage that and resubmit, then again it gets canceled; 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 ($3.00), while some will ask for Rs. 300 ($4.60) to make the agreement. Then again the form will get canceled because I haven’t attached a police verification form. So then we have run to the police station to get their stamp.”

Although the World Bank Principles on Identification1 raise the point that all supporting documents for identity artifacts need to be easy to obtain, what we consistently found in our interviews was that this was not the case and in fact places an additional burden on those who have the least resources. Three Nepalese cooks in Bengaluru told us of their attempts to get ID cards. Taki, the eldest, said: we tried to get it done. We gave money to someone, but they ran off with the money. They said they would get it done but did not do anything. Just stole our money.

Life is communal and dynamic, an identity card is individual and static

While an identity card focuses on an individual, it cannot capture the multiplicity of relationships and family structures. The ration dealer at Garudahalli, our rural research site, talked about how daughters who marry may have their original ration cards as well as new ones from their in-laws:

This village is in the border. They have land in Andhra Pradesh, but people come here as well. So, they could come here as say daughters- in-law. They will marry into families here and come here. And then they get themselves into ration cards held by their in-laws.… And the same woman gets to enjoy ration benefits even back in her father’s place as well.

This practice is meant to change with the linkage of individual Aadhaar cards to communal ration cards but was narrated by many we interviewed, where ration cards were left in the home state to be used by the remaining family. This raises questions around the underlying assumption at the heart of most identity systems that users hold a singular, sovereign identity that is a “social island,” like information pieces that are separate from each other, yet in practice this is not the case.

The requirement of a permanent address causes the greatest challenge

The biggest challenge for many of those in the demographic we researched was that of a permanent address, needed for all identity artifacts. As Jubina, a nurse originally from Shillong, working in Guwahati, stated: for me I feel sometimes permanent address is not always possible. Sometimes we shift places like in my case I have my EPIC [voter ID] where the address is somewhere else and now we have shifted to somewhere else. Now that is a problem.

Receiving any mail to an address is also problematic for those without a permanent address. Suresh Singh, an Aadhaar center franchisee in Kesarpur accepted that making a ration card is very challenging. Everyone lives on rent here. Today it is one address, tomorrow it’ll be another address, this causes problems in verification. That is why we ourselves haven’t got ours made.

Movement complicates changing minor details such as contact numbers. Tenzin, Diki, and Dolkar are three sisters who were goat-herders in Tibet and now sell souvenirs in Delhi (Tenzin is also training to be a beautician). Although they have been living in Delhi for around four years, they have not yet managed to update their bank details to include their Delhi mobile number rather than their Ladakh number:

Interviewer: Which bank is your account in?

Tenzin: [Mentions bank name].

Interviewer: Can you not give an application at the branch here in Delhi?

Tenzin: We cannot do that here. We have to apply for that there (Ladakh)

Interviewer: Can’t you send that application through someone going to Ladakh.

Tenzin: No one’s going there that we know.

Interviewer: You have no connection with Ladakh now?

Tenzin: We do have a connection. But the thing is to go there physically.

Interviewer: You could give an authorization letter to someone going there and…

Tenzin: I don’t know.

The sisters felt stymied that they could only act on this when back in Ladakh—a 1,000 km, 15 hour bus journey through the Himalayas or one hour by plane. Further, after the above conversation, they were frustrated with our questions, asking: are you saying that these are some of the things to be followed for safety? We responded with we are not telling you, we want to know from you but Tenzin again stated what are the things to be done for safety…that is what you want to tell us? This gave a sense that they felt bound by a “formal” process at odds with their lived experience.


Bureaucracy is challenging enough to deal with, without added complications of changes in location, not having a permanent address, living in communal networks and enduring fragile circumstances. These are not constraints unique to specific demographics2 but they have greater impact on those who live non-formal lives. One question is of the validity of a permanent address, perhaps an outdated concept in times where we are moving from one place to another more than ever before. Another is around making systems more responsive and flexible, so there is not a five-month delay for a ration card, impacting on someone’s ability to feed themselves. Designers of identity systems and users may never have the same set of priorities (notably security versus flexibility) and while perhaps this tension cannot be permanently resolved, we need to consider how to build for a brave new world.