ID Justice as Fairness?

Inspired from Chapter 8 of the new book “Data Justice”, I read Rawls’ (1971) work on “Justice and Fairness” in the light of digital ID, and draw on it to imagine what a “fair ID” may look like.

Our research on the incorporation of Aadhaar, the world’s largest digital identity platform, into India’s Public Distribution System has revealed three forms of data injustice over users. A legal injustice occurs when fundamental rights, such as the right to food, become conditional to successful authentication with digital identity systems, authentication whose denial results in exclusion from essential services. An informational injustice is produced when information on how digital identity data are used is hidden from users, or worse, when users are placed in a condition of inability to enquire on such information. Finally, design-related injustice is perpetrated directly through technology design, and harms users through the technical features of digital identity systems.

But if these injustices play out in the digital identity world, what does it take to achieve forms of “fair ID” that overcome unjust practices on users?

Food supplies, Taliparamba municipality, Kerala, November 2011

Reading Chapter 8 of the new book “Data Justice” by Lina Dencik, Arne Hintz, Joanna Redden and Emiliano Trere’ inspired me to go back to John Rawls’ (1971) essay on “Justice as Fairness”, where the relation between the two concepts is problematised. While notions of “justice” and “fairness” are often used as synonyms, such an interchangeability of the two terms is mistaken, Rawls argues. He notes that “the fundamental idea in the concept of justice is fairness”, which makes fairness a fundamental idea on which the notion of justice is built. In Rawls’ view, the one concept constitutes a fundamental condition for the other to unfold.

Rawls’ essay goes into greater detail of the notion of justice. Having stated the “elimination of arbitrary distinctions” as fundamental to justice, he develops a conception of justice articulated on two principles: “first, each person participating in a practice, or affected by it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all; and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone’s advantage, and provided the positions and offices to which they attach, or from which they may be gained, are open to all.”

In my read of Rawls’ work, both principles act as a guiding light in the making of fair ID. The first one, centred on “an equal right to the most extensive liberty” is most clearly seen in the light of its negation, and of the consequences it has on users. Told earlier on this blog, the story of Aisha – whose long wait for a ration card denies her access to food rations – illuminates the consequences of negation of the fundamental liberty to avail the right to food. There are two dimensions to the injustice that Aisha suffers: a relative one, viewing her case in comparison with that of users that, equally entitled as her, can access food rations, and an absolute one, resolved in the bare denial of the right to food to a below-poverty-line woman and her household. Both dimensions impinge on the systemic denial of a condition of impartiality, which is a fundamental trait of fairness.

The second principle, for which “inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone’s advantage”, is again reflected in the inequalities reinforced by digital identity systems within existing programmes. In the case of Aadhaar-mediated access to India’s food security system, systematic inequalities are produced between Ankita, whose right to food is subordinated to capture and usage of her Aadhaar credentials, and the households queueing together at ration shops in the hope that at least one member will be able to authenticate, and hence collect the ration. Hope that, if unfulfilled, will leave the household without the rations through which their right to food is substantiated. And hope that is denied in principle to persons whose bodies who are unreadable by biometric technologies, and for whom the idea of an authorisation-authentication nexus is broken at the basis by the impossibility of authentication.

Following Rawls, fairness is not justice. But it is a fundamental condition for it, the conditio sine qua non for the equality of rights and abolition of arbitrary inequality on which injustice is predicated. How can these principles be infused in digital ID architectures?

As highlighted here, the importance of ID fairness becomes most notable when facing the consequences of its denial. The stories of Ankita, Adeela, Aisha, and the users of India’s food security system narrated in this blog are painful illustrations of such consequences. And at the same time, stories of fair ID emerge: reading on Kenya’s civil rights organisation Haki na Sheria, which is conducting mobile birth registration to ensure citizenship rights across the country’s population, leads to visualise the equality envisaged by Rawls into practical acts of production of digital ID. It is on such practices of fairness, and on the possibility of embodying them through digital identity architecture, that more light needs to be casted by research.

Rethinking Design-Related Injustice

A “dark side” logic dominates the discourse on design-related injustice in digital identity systems. Here I dispute this view, noting how it is the very substance of biometric social protection, rather than a peripheral side, to be harmful for its users.

When Soumyo and I first introduced the concept of design-related injustice, in relation to the use of Aadhaar within the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Karnataka, we had in mind a more circumscribed notion than what came next. We had theorised design-related injustice as the injustice resulting from misalignment of technology with user needs. Our theorisation came from witnessing entire families queuing up in the ration shops, in the hope that at least one household member would be able to authenticate through the biometric recognition of the Aadhaar system. While combating erroneous inclusion, i.e. the provision of rations to non-entitled users, the system did nothing against erroneous exclusion, i.e. the exclusion of genuinely entitled beneficiaries, a problem that the introduction of Aadhaar in the PDS actually magnified.

The families queuing together at the ration shops, as well as the frustration of those users for whom authentication did not work, resulted in our first idea of design-related injustice. Its basis was the concept of design-reality gaps defined, with Richard Heeks, as gaps between users’ reality and the world of technology designers, whose assumptions may be very different from the reality lived by users. A common design-reality gap emerges when the two worlds are markedly distant from each other: that is the case for the Aadhaar-based PDS, whose designers make the technology capable, at least on paper, to fight erroneous inclusions. But they do not fulfil the main need of users, that of combating exclusion errors that leave people in hunger, hence generating the misalignment that our original notion of design-related injustice spoke about.

Queuing outside the ration shop. Bengaluru, Karnataka, April 2018

The concept, however, evolved significantly over time. Sasha Costanza-Chock’s amazing book “Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need” has marked a cornerstone in that evolution, theorising how injustice can be directly embedded into technology design. Opened by the example of airport scanners and the injustice performed through them on transgender bodies, Costanza-Chock’s book has inspired our rethinking of the injustice performed through biometric technologies on people accessing food rations. Such a rethinking is along the lines of a more thorough notion of design injustice: one of which misalignment with user needs, initially central for us, is a component of a wider ensemble. An ensemble in which injustice is the substance, rather than just a “dark side”, of systems that regulate access to social protection for millions of people globally.

At least two considerations inspire this thought. First, technologies like the Aadhaar-based PDS embody a nexus – referred to as the authentication-authorisation nexus – which subordinates authorisation to essential services to the correct authentication of users. This is made to combat the leakage rates that diminish the effectiveness of large anti-poverty programmes, including India’s PDS. Biometric authentication of users is made to ensure they are genuinely entitled: but at the same time, it does nothing to combat the harm suffered by those for whom authentication doesn’t work. My older Karnataka fieldwork revealed that authentication failure is not only due to the misreading of bodies, but also to hidden issues – such as failed connectivity of point-of-sale-machines to the central ID database – which result into the outright injustice of denial of food rations to users.

Secondly, design-related injustice is reproduced across systems. Before switching to Aadhaar-based authentication, the Karnataka PDS adopted an independent system – based of weighing scales, in turn connected to biometric point of sale machines – that presented similar issues to the Aadhaar-based PDS. In the older system, machines would announce the food quantity weighed through a speaker: that speaker however was often muted, as we found in our work across ration shops in 2014-2015. Most importantly, that system also excluded non-recognised users from food provision: but a backup system made it possible to sell rations outside it, based on manual verification by the ration dealer. In the Aadhaar-based system instead, while the injustice of exclusion is reproduced, no backup system is available, which may contextualise the hunger deaths written on by the Hindu for excluded users in the Jharkhand state.

The embeddedness of injustice in the authorisation-authentication nexus, and its reproduction across different versions of biometric authentication systems, leads to a fundamental rethinking of the notion of design-related injustice that we had originally thought. We had theorised a bare misalignment with user needs, thinking the problem was with the gap between the designers’ world and the need of users to access the rations which builds up their livelihood. But field stories show that injustice operates at a much deeper level, which can be seen as a form of injustice that is directly perpetrated through technology design. The evolution of design-related injustice can inspire, we hope, data justice research on digital identity beyond the case of India’s food rationing system.

The Guilty Party?

Biometric authentication in India’s Public Distribution System is designed so that the ration dealer, from whom food rations are collected, is constructed as responsible for diversion of goods to the private market. Our work in Kerala in 2011-2012 problematised this assumption, asking questions about the role and financial sustainability of ration shops in the state.

“Only fraudsters will not want it”. It is August 2012 and we sit in a telecentre in Malappuram district, northern Kerala. Telecentres are government-coordinated, but privately managed, one-stop shops where users can access a computer and connection to the Internet, at a time where this – especially in rural districts – is far less than ubiquitous in Keralan society. Telecentres grouped under the Akshaya telecentre project, an award-winning project which connected villages throughout Kerala through low-cost telecentres accessible to poorer citizens, are already a fundamental interface for Internet access in poorer villages. Since early 2012, they are also in charge of Aadhaar registration, the process through which user credentials are collected in the national biometric identification programme.

It is 2012, and Aadhaar is nowhere near the staggering enrolment rates that will characterise the following decade. But the system’s message is clear. If all Indian residents are to be Aadhaar-registered with their biometric and demographic credentials, in a unique programme capable of combining such credentials with entitlements, large-scale leakage such as that affecting the Public Distribution System (PDS) of the country will be attacked at its basis. As the biggest food security programme in the nation, providing highly subsidised food to below-poverty-line people across the country, the PDS suffers from the systematic diversion of its commodities to the private market, where the same commodities are sold at much higher prices. Ration dealers, in charge of the ration shops through which PDS goods are redistributed through the nation, are largely seen as “the guilty party” for such diversion.

Food supplies, Taliparamba municipality, Kerala, November 2011

The new biometric technology is designed around their responsibility. Back in August 2012, Kerala is still to see the first pilot project that will link the PDS to Aadhaar, making access to food in ration shops conditional to the person’s authentication through the Aadhaar system. A few years later, when implemented, the Aadhaar-based PDS will require users to be enrolled in the programme, and to have linked their ration cards (displaying their entitlements according to poverty status) to their Aadhaar records. For ration dealers, this will mean a restructuring that ties sales of subsidised rations to successful authentication of individuals through the system, leaving no backup option in the event that authentication does not work or is not supported by the needed infrastructure.

Time and again, much has been said on the exclusion of users who, for reasons spanning from fingerprint readability to incorrect registration, have had their ration provisions discontinued since the incorporation of Aadhaar into the PDS. Less is known, however, on the ration dealers’ experience of the programme, and on the extent to which they were given a choice at the time of registration. But as we sit in the telecentre in Malappuram district, and I ask what will be of those ration dealers who will be unable or unwilling to shift to Aadhaar in their transactions, the response of the field facilitator is trenchant: “Only fraudsters will not want it”.

There is more to deepen on what is meant by a “fraudster” here. Ration dealers, through whom rations are distributed to PDS users across the country, have been seen as the main actors of a leakage that amounts to about 30% according to the lowest estimate for 2011–12. But what is the financial situation of ration dealers, and what scope is there for the biometrically reinforced policing of their role?

The 1990s were an extremely harsh decade for the PDS in Kerala. Started up as universal, the PDS became then targeted to below-poverty-line users in a way that left a minimal quota – approaching the market price – to users above the poverty line. Sudden and narrow, the move to a targeted system shrunk the customer basis of ration shops in the state, leading many to either closing down or resorting to debt. A wave of ration dealer suicides followed the shift to a targeted PDS, whose memory was still very vivid during my work in the state. Having been constrained by a structural adjustment programme that imposed tight constraints on the PDS, ration dealers became widely unable to generate a living from the shrunk customer basis that remained active in their shops.

A biometric system of transaction monitoring targets exactly the ration dealers. On the one hand, such a system leaves untouched the distribution chain before the ration shop: but it is here that a substantial part of diversion has scope for happening, across the multiple phases of transportation and storage of goods. On the other, the system targets the transaction point where “fraud” can happen, constraining the ration dealers’ opportunity to sell goods on the market for a higher price. This makes the ration dealer the targeted, “guilty party” in a biometric monitoring system: Aadhaar-based monitoring is here at the last mile, leaving open questions on a distribution chain that comprises of many passages, especially in foodgrain-consuming states.

The “guilty party” logic inscribed in the biometric PDS presents at least two issues. The argument that “only fraudsters will not want it” was powerfully articulated early in Aadhaar’s uptake, and openly stated as we assisted to the major campaign of Aadhaar enrollment in the state. But the issues of (a) not targeting transportation and storage, and (b) presenting no survival alternatives for ration dealers roughly affected by the structural adjustment that shrunk their customer basis, have remained. While designed to be effective in controlling the ration dealer, the technology leaves no option for them to rebuild business lives destroyed by a tight policy of structural adjustment.

Technologies crystallise the policies behind them. In constructing the ration dealers as “the guilty party”, Aadhaar’s biometrics dictate a clear causal narration of PDS leakage. While the exclusionary effects of the technology have been tackled by research, the assumption seeing the ration dealer as responsible needs investigation, starting from the structural adjustment policies that cut the PDS down to its bare essentials.

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.

“We Don’t Want Cash Transfers”

Enabled through digital identity systems, cash transfers are seen as a route to “development” which improves on subsidies. Our field stories from Karnataka, southern India, dispute this view, illuminating the concern of subsidy recipients for a possible transition to cash.

“Not at all”. Adeela, in the periphery of Bengaluru where we meet her, a long-term user of the country’s Public Distribution System (PDS), is adamant in her response to our question. We asked her whether, in the place of the subsidised food rations she receives under the PDS, India’s largest food security programme, she would prefer receiving a cash transfer of the same value. If functioning properly, such a transfer would allow her to buy foodgrains, sugar and other goods in regular shops, avoiding long queues at the local ration shop and the risk to have her households’ rations partially, or even completely, diverted to the private market.

It’s April 2018. Cash transfers – conceived as transfers to bank accounts made for below-poverty-line recipients, designed to afford the same protection of in-kind subsidies – are being trumpeted as a solution to the issues of the PDS, India’s food security system that heavily subsidises basic-need commodities for the poor. The PDS is India’s largest food security system, build to provide rationed quotas of essential goods, whose content varies across states, at heavily subsidised prices. Highly successful in the early phases of its existence, with a foodgrain trade increased from 10 to over 18 million tons in 1965-1990, the PDS has been later criticised for an urban bias and for presumed leakage to the non-poor, due to the universal nature that the system originally held.

Such concerns led India’s central government, in June 1997, to move to a targeted system where subsidy is directed to households classified as below the poverty line (BPL). In a targeted system, leakage to non-poor households should be eliminated by design, with subsidy restricted to households classified as below state-level poverty lines. The measure was taken with in mind the idea to protect access to the PDS for the truly needful: and still, it generated the strong incentive for PDS agents to divert subsidised goods to private markets, so to benefit from the large price surplus available on them.

PDS allocations across categories of recipients, Karnataka, August 2014

Basic economic principles tell us that “cash transfers are better” for the overall economy than subsidies. Said in sheer economic terms, they eliminate distortion, i.e. the alteration in optimal market conditions caused by the intervention of the state. It is argued, along the same line, that “leakages seriously undermine the effectiveness of product subsidies”, because incentives to divert goods to the market ultimately lead to scarcity of goods remaining available to entitled beneficiaries. This is why, in conversation with PDS recipients, frustration is common: at the moment of collecting the monthly ration, the seller may just say “everything’s been sold”, with goods gone to market rather than to actual needful recipients.

Much debate exists on where the main problem of food distribution lies, whether in leakage or, effectively, in inaccurate determination of poverty status, resulting in needful households becoming unable to claim benefits accorded to them under social protection schemes. But whatever position is taken in such a debate, a common note remains: what counts, for recipients at the interface between recognition technologies and the goods they are entitled to, is their effective ability to access their entitlements. This is not to say that inclusion errors, which cause non-entitled people to be erroneously supplied services, are not problematic. But it is to say that exclusion errors, where genuinely entitled people do not receive their entitlements, persist with digital identification, which per se does not involve mechanisms to ensure access to basic-need goods where authentication fails.

But would cash transfers, then, not solve it all?

Let’s get into the argument that India’s Economic Survey made in 2016. In a chapter programmatically titled “Wiping Every Tear from Every Eye: the JAM Number Trinity Solution”, the Ministry of Finance sustained the point that, replacing the PDS with a proper cash transfer system, the distortion induced by subsidies would be eliminated. Such a cash transfer system would rely on three major pillars: a zero-balance bank account programme for all – became known as Jan Dhan Yojana, literally “bank account for the people”; the national digital identification system named Aadhaar; and mobile phones, through which bank transactions could be approved and received. Acronymised as JAM – Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhaar and mobile phones, the basis of the proposed cash transfer infrastructure would do away with the leakage caused by subsidies, erasing the diversion to the private market that characterised the PDS.

But Adeela’s reaction to the cash transfer perspective is a firm “no”. Echoed by the large majority of respondents we interviewed on this matter.

And there is an overarching reason for that. Subsidised rations are, indeed, not always of the expected amount. And can be delayed, diverted, even skip a month or more. But our respondents depict them as a material reality on their tables. It is the ration that people are used to, it is the ration that, differently from a money transfer perceived as risky and uncertain, brings essential goods to the table of below-poverty-line families since decades. And this, not to mention the intra-familial dynamics that enter the cash transfer distribution, as a respondent told us in a district neighbouring Bengaluru: “At least if we get ration, we have something in the house to eat”.

Not only does Adeela say no. But she is scared by the perspective of a shift that would dismantle the PDS in favour of cash transfers. For as much as economic principles can hold in theory, they need to come to terms with the reality lived by people for whom that ration, that materiality of food on the table, is everything that counts. A materiality that a cash transfer system, it is perceived (in a context of uncertain access to banking transactions), would tear to pieces.

In its guise as India’s Aadhaar, digital identity is a direct route for transition from the “suboptimal” subsidy system to the “optimal” alternative constituted by cash transfers. But the optimality of that alternative ends when talking to its very intended recipients. If it is to transform development policy, which it is doing with its entrenchment in food security systems like the PDS, digital identity needs to find safe, rather than feared, ways to do so.

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.