Essay V3

Enrolling into ID systems exposes vulnerabilities for many


LEAD AUTHOR: Savita Bailur

Photo of people queuing and sitting at the enrolment centre

Aadhaar enrolment centre

In Bangalore, you have to go to a hospital called Minto. It is in Market [Chamrajpet]. You get their blind certificate from there. And for the disabled ID card, you have to go to Victoria [hospital] and do it there. To make a disabled ID card, it is a very big process. You have to go to both Minto and Victoria mostly three or six times. For the children who are admitted in our school, after that they have to go to the Women and Child Welfare Department and then get it signed by our director.

John, teacher, Bangalore

John is a teacher at a school for visually impaired children from challenging economic circumstances. He himself has been blind from childhood and shared his experiences of getting many different kinds of identity credentials, from Aadhaar to a blind certificate and disabled ID (two different cards). John’s experiences (which we will discuss below) raised two critical points—what happens if you are “different”—i.e., face challenges of disability, literacy, sexuality, or any other? And what happens even if you are not but feel vulnerable simply because of lack of knowledge? How do these vulnerabilities play out at the point of enrollment?

Dignity in difference

The Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development1 state that legal, procedural, and social barriers to enroll in and use identification systems should be identified and mitigated, with special attention to poor people and groups who may be at risk of exclusion for cultural, political or other reasons (such as women, children, rural populations, ethnic minorities, linguistic and religious groups, migrants, the forcibly displaced, and stateless persons). One of our aims in the research and in this set of essays is to understand to what extent barriers are being recognized and mitigated across India in terms of identity systems. Starting with disability—the Indian Census of 2011 states that 26.8 million (roughly 2% of the population) are disabled2 but there is little written on how obtaining identity artifacts intersects with disability in India. What we hear from John, however, is that the process is complex and time- consuming. It took him three consecutive days to apply for his Aadhaar and he did not get it for two years (he took a break in between because he was so fed up of following it up). He says:

I had to go three or four times [to the Aadhaar center]. I hired an auto for getting an Aadhaar card. It took three days, one day after the other…. Sometimes it was a rush. Sometimes when I went, the server [assistant] wasn’t there. It’s expensive.

John did not complain about the process of being identified as disabled—his recounting was more factual than feeling exploited in any way, although he did state that the process was long. However he also stated it was frustrating because of the time taken, the fact that he got pushed about in the center, that there were no forms in Braille and no specific help. He told us there was no raised lettering on any of the cards he holds, other than an ATM card. Even remembering an Aadhaar number is a challenge for him—he asks why can’t it be a combination of my surname and numbers, something I can remember? [we note that the Aadhaar number is meant to be zero-knowledge (random) precisely to protect privacy, cardholders themselves might not understand this. It is revealing that he felt so disillusioned that he decided to take a break midway through the process because he was tired of trying. He also mentions his dependence on others—to take him to and from the Aadhaar center, to accompany him when he punches in his ATM number; to fill in forms (though he uses a screen reader where he has access). This question of vulnerability links to another on the extent of guardianship others may have over identity artifacts for those who may be disabled.3

We heard another experience in Garudahalli where Mariswamy, the postmaster and head of the dairy cooperative, tried to get disability benefits for his neighbor, Padma Akka, a mentally challenged senior citizen, but felt the authentication process was demeaning. The doctor’s test to see whether she was disabled was to ask Padma Akka to sign in English, and when she could, Mariswamy recounts that the doctor shouted at them to leave, considering her ineligible for benefits. Similarly, Ahmad told us he had to be fingerprinted three times for Aadhaar: see I am a construction worker. My fingers are all grazed with handling cement, bricks, and mortar. The marks on my fingers have been rubbed off by the kind of work that I do. As we discuss in essay V4, such procedures are challenging for intermediaries, but also need to be imbued with dignity.

A transgender activist we spoke to expressed similar concerns around dignity when being identified as trans-gendered:

The government wanted us to get checked by the doctors. We were born as male only, with all male genitalia, but mentally we feel very strongly that we are females. When the situation is like this, how much does the government or the doctors know about us to judge us? This being the case, we don’t need you to certify us. We are also human beings. We live in the same society as you.

Following the Indian Supreme Court’s recriminalization of homosexuality in 2013 (Section 377), there are serious concerns amongst LGBT activists around prejudices in identification processes. A particular concern in Karnataka was Section 36A of the Police Act, which give police powers to “control objectionable activities of eunuchs”4 and that a transwoman has to register her residential address in a police station. The same activist interviewed said “if they (the individual) wants to go elsewhere, they should take permission from the police station. Now, if a child goes missing in that area, the police use their authority to enquire or to take in their into custody without any prior information. Their power makes us criminals…and all this information about the individual is on an Aadhaar card [i.e., they will know where she lives—so have the possibility of harassing her]. Who is responsible for this?”

Many others we spoke to shared their concerns around enrollment because they were “different.” One person told us that an Aadhaar center franchisee was known to be unhelpful—and downright rude—to those outside his religion. In Kesarpur and Assam, as we have discussed in essay V2, migrants felt the barriers to obtaining a local identity were a form of exclusion. The attitude of the intermediary (essay V4) is also critical. John’s concluding words on disability remind us that dignity is essential in designing the process of obtaining and using identity artifacts. When we asked him what advice he would give designers, he said: anything that makes our lives easier. You don’t want to keep asking people for help.

In the 1970s hit movie Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (Conqueror of Destiny), Vinod Khanna’s lawyer character says Talwar ki ladai talwar se, pyar ki ladai pyar se, aur bekaar ki ladai sarkar se or a sword fights with a sword, love fights with love, and a jobless person fights with the government. Only an unemployed person fights with government. It is popular rhetoric in Hindi movies—Identity Card, Jolly LLB, Khosla ka Ghosla, Well Done Abba, and others—to mock pedantic or zealous government officials. The majority of users we interviewed did not see themselves as meriting “special circumstances” but precisely the contrary— it was because they felt so invisible, insignificant, and helpless against the opaque juggernaut of bureaucracy that they felt vulnerable. Ironically, for example, Mariswamy—the postmaster who helped Padma Akka mentioned above—felt that the latter would have been more likely to get her BPL (below poverty line) certificate if she was lower caste (i.e., with a caste certificate, although we should note that we do not know Mariswamy’s caste as this might influence his statement as well). Challenges of literacy and lack of confidence in a bureaucratic context compounded this vulnerability.

Maqbul, the bank agent in Assam, told us that 75–80% of his customers could read in Assamese, but not in English. He told us that the forms issued by the bank were in English and that there should be one in Asamese; he reasoned that it could be because s Parvati, a domestic helper, spent the entire morning in the bank trying to obtain an ATM card, only to be denied one because she could not sign the back of it (all the steps in the process until then accepted fingerprinting).

Intermediaries are critical at the time of enrollment, and while, as we described in essay V4, they may face their own challenges, they can be obstructive too. Dayanand, a 35-year-old security guard in Delhi, spoke of the challenges getting his Aadhaar card. He decided not to use a broker because they quoted him Rs. 200 ($3) to get an Aadhaar card but he did not get his card for one year. When he went in person to the Aadhaar center to inquire, he found out it was returned to him by the landlord where he used to live (at his sister-in- law’s) saying they did not live there (“my brother- in-law and mother-in-law stay there, they received theirs”). Others in Kesarpur spoke of the “lala” or building manager of each building who intercepts post and returns it at whim. Jafar’s was one such example when his ATM card was returned twice:

so then they asked whether there was any issue with address. I said that no it is the right address but there are around 200–300 people in one building and around 100–150 rooms. And whoever goes to the building like the postmaster will first meet the landlord, the lala, who sits there, otherwise he can’t go up or go to any rooms. And if it’s any government official then the landlord will always ask why are you here, what do you want? I think in my case it was definitely the landlords who refused to take the ATM cards, because I submitted the correct electricity bill and the address was right so why would my card be returned? So I asked the postman and he said that he didn’t know whom he spoke to but they had not taken the ATM card. Then I thought that the only way out was to play on people’s greed…I told him that I’ll give him money so he said okay and took my phone number. Then the next time that he received the ATM card he called and then I went myself and collected the ATM card. The same thing happened with my brother who is here now. We opened an account for him in the bank and had to go ourselves to receive the ATM card on Saturday.” It is the powerlessness many felt here that arose as a broader vulnerability, where the only solution is to pay off others to expedite processes.

It is the piecemeal information passed largely through word of mouth as well as long processes without updates that lead to dependence on intermediaries. When we observed and interviewed those waiting to obtain a caste certificate in rural Karnataka, the queue at the intermediaries sitting on the ground in front of the government office was longer than at the government office itself. The consensus between those in line was because intermediaries guaranteed it within a week and required fewer IDs, while the latter asked you first to come back after three weeks with the acknowledgement slip to check progress. Even though the intermediaries charged Rs. 300 (around $5.00) and the government office ($0.50), paying 10 times as much was considered acceptable because many applied for caste certificates under deadlines when applying for jobs which were reserved. We talked to Partha waiting in the government line, whose friend had told him about positions at the Karnataka Milk Federation, where he would earn better than his mechanic’s job. The friend had told him to apply through reservation as he would have a better chance, so he had come for his caste certificate. However, as he could not afford to pay Rs. 300 to the intermediaries, he gave the official an extra Rs. 15 to see if that would help “speed up the process.”

Finally, as we began our research our hypothesis was that rural demographics would find access to identification more challenging than urban ones. We presumed—as has been prevalent in the media5—that it would be precisely the challenges to literacy, knowledge of government processes, uneven power dynamics, or slower, non-technologically dependent systems (put simply, for example less access to information online) that would impact rural demographics more. To some extent this was true. Information available online (on obtaining identity credentials, access to benefits, etc.) was clearly not accessible for those rural interviewees we sampled. At the same time, we found the use of intermediaries common as in the caste certificate example above, and many migrants returning to their villages to “get IDs made” because of access to community groups, personal networks and because it was “easier there.” The vulnerability then, was not about being urban or rural, but who you knew or who you could pay.


Designating some demographics as vulnerable implies that others are not. While we saw that the point of enrollment exposed vulnerabilities such as literacy, a lack of bureaucratic confidence, feeling vulnerable because of being different in some way, we also realized that rather than vulnerable populations, there were also vulnerable circumstances (in the midst of the research, one of our research team lost a family member and commented that the death certificate was insensitive and intrusive, asking questions on diet, whether the deceased smoked and so on). These vulnerabilities have added implications in terms of the networked nature of data held for identity credentials. The Principles on Identification state that in the absence of strong data protection laws, regulatory frameworks, and practices [currently in India, there is no privacy law], identification systems may reduce trust and undermine individual rights to privacy and consent regarding the use of their personal information. In some cases, they may put vulnerable groups at serious risk of harm.6 We’ll return to these issues, in light of the ways in which vulnerability is fluid, shared, and widespread, in the essays in section 3.

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

  2. Social Statistics Division, “Disabled Persons in India: A Statistical Profile 2016” (New Delhi: Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, 2017).

  3. Zubeda Hamid, “Disabilities Rights Bill: Activists Worried over Guardianship,” The Hindu, June 17, 2015.

  4. Sangeeta Bora, “Transgenders: Our Fight Will Not Stop till Sec 36A Repealed,” Deccan Chronicle, January 27, 2016.

  5. Nikhil Dey and Aruna Roy, “Excluded by Aadhaar,” The Indian Express, June 5, 2017, ; Anumeha Yadav, “Can Biometrics Stop the Theft of Food Rations? No, Shows Gujarat,” December 17, 2016.

  6. World Bank, “Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development: Toward the Digital Age.”