Missing Pieces

A conversation with a woman user of India’s largest food security system leaves open questions on how her biometric registration took place, and how her data were handled by the responsible governmental agency over time. These important elements of biometric registration come across as “missing pieces” in the narrative of digital identity for development.

It is ration distribution day in Koramangala, the district of Bengaluru, south India, where we assist to today’s distribution of food rations. In 2011-2012 the state of Karnataka, of which Bengaluru is part, has conducted an independent registration exercise which captured the demographic and biometric details of users of the Public Distribution System (PDS), the largest food security programme in India. The purpose of that exercise, as we learned in August 2014 from the former Secretary to Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs, was to ensure the entitlement of each enrolee to the PDS, a system targeted to below-poverty-line households in the state. In its early version, based on point-of-sale machines attached to weighing scales, Karnataka’s biometric PDS linked users’ biometric credentials to their poverty status, on which entitlements of foodgrain and other goods are based.

The advent of Aadhaar, India’s national biometric identification system started up in 2009, changed the core of this registration mechanism. Strongly campaigned upon across India from 2010, Aadhaar’s registration of users results in capture of iris and fingerprints and releases a unique 12-digit number for each enrolee, whose usability is normally effective soon after enrolment. Importantly, the principle of conditionality of ration delivery to biometric enrolment did not come to India’s food security system with Aadhaar: Karnataka’s PDS database, long known as Ahara, leveraged the same principle to ensure the effective entitlement of claimants to food rations. At the same time, over the years Aadhaar afforded a much larger scaling of the same system, now making it possible to render the monthly delivery of rations – on which the PDS is based – conditional to correct authentication of users through the Aadhaar platform.

Ration shop, Bengaluru, April 2018

April 2018. Ankita, a middle-aged user whom we meet near a ration shop in Koramangala, has become well-versed with the biometric system for collecting her rations. The local ration shop is open for the first ten days of the month, and in case of any variation in times – the ration dealer comes across as well-known by their customers – a sign is normally put on the shop’s door. Ankita describes how she collects her monthly food ration, fixed at 24 kilos of rice given the 4-people size of her household, through her ration card combined with recognition of her fingerprints at the shop. It is, at the same time, more puzzling to learn her description of the process of Aadhaar enrolment through biometric credentials: as she tells us, “my husband did it for me”.

For how biometric data collection in the Aadhaar system is built, this cannot have happened. Aadhaar registration is personal and requires the individual to be present to it. Our conversation moves towards the details of biometric registration, a process of which Ankita has some vague recollection: she is, however, keen to tell us about ration delivery, and about the importance of the fingerprint reader for such a delivery to happen. Without the fingerprint reader, she insists, it would not be possible for the ration dealer to disburse the essential items that are part of her ration.

This conversation has been, and will always be, a puzzling part of my approach to Aadhaar. I speak with Ankita and realise there is a missing piece in my understanding of a process that, marketed as a powerful way to curb fraud in a large social protection programme, remains opaque to its very own users on how their data are handled. State and national-level sources speak about Aadhaar as a route to simplify social protection systems, “wiping every tear from every eye” as a Ministry of Finance report promised in 2015. But speaking to users, I still miss the piece on what happens to their data after Aadhaar capture. I don’t miss it from the authority responsible for Aadhaar: the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) is very clear on its legal framework, which is minutiously described on the Agency’s website. The missing piece, which systematically lacks across the narratives of the users I speak to, is the understanding that users, for whom the system is built, have of it.

I decide to ask Ankita. She has been through many forms of data registration – what she recalls on registering with Aadhaar, as a below-poverty-line user of a large food security system, is the missing piece that I struggle to find. She answers briefly, poignantly and powerfully. With no more detail of her registration process, she says: “if I can get ration, it’s ok”.

Ankita’s recollection of Aadhaar registration, and the process of biometric capture that came with it, is limited. What she focuses on is the outcome of registration, especially the core of what matters to her family’s livelihood: that is, the ability to collect rations from the ration shop. As users are made to choose between not registering with Aadhaar and not receiving food rations, the outcome of Aadhaar registration is what comes the center of the narrative, for the vital importance of what it enables.

In a later piece of work, Soumyo Das and I will refer to Ankita’s situation as informational injustice, a term to indicate the injustice suffered by users of digital identity whose information on how their data are captured and handled is incomplete. And yet, our conversation with her does not echo only the injustice: it reflects the functional importance of a system without which, as she remarks multiple times in conversation, there would be no way for her to access a fundamental food security system. In front of a firm conditionality, where either her data are given or essential food supplies are withdrawn from her, the question on how data will be used transcends the thoughts of the user herself.

I leave Koramangala with missing pieces. I miss pieces on a process that has become, by all means, the heart of people’s livelihood generation through anti-poverty programmes. As I try to make sense of it, I think of the importance of bringing anti-poverty programme users back to a position to enquire on use of their data.

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