What’s in a card?

Biometric technologies, increasingly inscribed in social protection programmes, crystallise the role of identification as a precondition for users to access vital entitlements. Such a role has, however, an overarching history of non-digital artefacts behind its consolidation.

“For the third time, I have not received my ration card”. Aisha is in her early 50s and lives in the slum colony of Karimadom, at the periphery of Thiruvananthapuram, capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala. In telling her story, she does not show anger or resentment. She is only tired, extenuated by a wait that has protracted for months and that still denies her access to the Public Distribution System (PDS), India’s food security scheme on which millions of households depend for subsistence. The PDS provides essential commodities – primarily rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene, with more supplies varying across states – to below-poverty-line households at highly subsidised prices. But in July 2010, the state of Kerala registered a backlog of over six lakh (600 thousand) ration cards stuck between user application and release, essentially preventing an equal number of households from accessing a vital anti-poverty programme.

Now, in August 2012, Aisha needs her ration card. For beneficiaries of the PDS, obtaining food rations is conditional to being recognised as entitled users, in virtue of a targeted system where the ration card – on which a stamp is put by the ration seller every month at collection point – determines entitlement. Ration cards in Kerala have different colours according to poverty status: they are blue for above-poverty-line (APL) recipients, pink for below-poverty-line (BPL), and yellow for Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), the poorest of the poor who are entitled to greater quantities of subsidised goods. For the third time, Aisha spent the day queueing by the local Taluk Supply Office, the bureau where ration cards are dispensed, hoping in vain to collect a document which appears to be stuck, with many others, in the burgeoning backlog for which the Kerala Rationing Officer responds.

Food supplies, Taliparamba municipality, Kerala, November 2011

The PDS is India’s largest food security programme. Its origins lie in the rationing system introduced in colonial Bombay in 1939, at a time of low production of foodgrains per capita and high reliance on imports. In 1965 it took its current form as a subsidy system in which essential goods are procured by the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and redistributed across the country’s 29 states and 7 special territories, through ration shops which disburse monthly quotas of subsidised items. From 1997, the programme is targeted (with the one exception of the state Tamil Nadu) to users below the poverty line, with special provisions of larger rations made for households qualifying as AAY, the poorest of the poor.

Ration cards are no digital object. Rather than the document itself, in 2010-2011 the government of Kerala digitised the Ration Card Management System (RCMS), a workflow management programme instituted by the Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies. In its essence RCMS was an e-governance solution to computerise the main phases of the ration card release process: application by the user; processing by staff at the TSO; and delivery of the document to the user on TSO premises. Digitising the ration card flow would help process applications more smoothly and effectively, as the Rationing Officer bureau staff discussed with me in December 2010. While narratives of repeated frustration at the TSO, like Aisha’s, abounded in the press at the time, the logic of “digitisation for development” resounded strongly and enthusiastically in officials’ voices.

Fast forward to 2022. Biometric identification, which in the Kerala PDS takes the form of Aadhaar, is increasingly required for users to claim entitlements under the PDS. Launched in 2009, Aadhaar is the flagship programme of digital identity for India’s residents: its free-of-charge enrolment captures essential biometrics (fingerprints and iris scan data) and basic descriptors of enrolees, who are in turn enabled to use these to authenticate for governmental schemes and services. In their very architecture, Kerala’s ration shops changed significantly from the pre-Aadhaar days: while authentication was initially ration-card based, it is now a biometric point-of-sale machine that recognises the user, matches their credentials with their entitlements as registered by the Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies, and disburses rations if successful authentication occurs.

While Aadhaar is largely hailed as overarching model of foundational identity, the use of digital identity as a precondition for entitlements – subordinating service access authorisation to authentication of users – is by no means unique. Evidence on digital identity’s role as an enabler of entitlements is wide: during COVID-19 in Colombia the Ingreso Solidario scheme featured data cross-checking from different government databases, with the apparent purpose of identifying needy households. Information was combined from existing digital data repositories, with little explanation on how decisions were made: in a similar trend, Peru saw the handling of information by the programmes Yo Me Quedo en Casa and Bono Indipendiente as partially obscure, with ‘incertitude being the rule on the determinants of entitlement assignation.

Much discussion is on how digital technology carries responsibility for the exclusions, distortions of monitoring and policy redirection connected to biometric identification. Evolving along these lines, the discussion takes me back to the early days of my Kerala fieldwork: the ration card itself, of which the Aadhaar-based PDS constitutes an augmentation, remains a starkly non-digital artefact, with an inner physical architecture as a booklet with a set of empty spaces for monthly food stamps. The role of identification as a precondition for entitlements is very alive today: as Joseph Atick, the Executive Chairman of ID for Africa, recently noted in a public address, the importance of ID has shifted from being based on identity alone to identification-enabled service provision. Much can and needs to be said about what digital identity systems do to the ability, of lack thereof, of people to access life-saving entitlements; at the same time, the very non-digital roots of the targeting principles inscribed in such technologies need thorough illumination.

It’s 2022, and I just came across this little one from 2012. At the time, my research on Kerala’s Ration Card Management system was met with surprise – most people were puzzled meeting a young PhD student asking questions on that complex ration card workflow, and many offered encouragement to switch to a topic on which “more data” would be available. If back then the question on “what’s in a card” remained very open, the work of colleagues in the digital identity space now offers a much clearer picture of the design behind such a role. While digital identity is capable of massive reifications, the materiality of the authorisation-conditional-to-authentication principle offers illuminating explanations on what digital technology really effects in the identification space.

About me:

My name is Silvia and I am an information systems researcher with a huge passion for fieldwork, technology and, most of all, human rights. I work as Associate Professor at the University of Oslo. Unfair ID is my book project, and at heart, it a life journey inside the injustices produces by digital identity systems.

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