“I once heard that you only die when no one remembers you anymore. But, death has many forms. I have thought about death a lot. I am an old man after all. I have lived an honest life; my family always had food on the plate when I could work. That’s the least I could do, to be honest. Times have changed though. I have moved from being the head of my family to a liability. The pension made it better. My life brought some extra money into the family. Not a lot though. Just enough to keep me relevant. I used to look for the postman at the end of every month for the money order. It’s not like I got money every month, but once in three to four months, the postman would come and I would bask in the glory of my pension for a day. Those were happy days. Being rare made them all the more special. Waiting almost became a ritual.
Then, it stopped. I waited for half a year. Sometime you have to wait longer. Government is slow. Then I finally caught hold of the postman and asked him about my pension. I even told him that I would give him 10 rupees extra next time for bringing it. He told me that he can’t anymore. ‘The government has changed the way you get pension’, he said. I have to add my Aadhaar number to the pension register and then, I will get it in my bank account. The bank is far away. I can’t go there by myself. Old bones make it hard to move. At least the postman delivered it at home. I finally convinced my son to take me to the local pension office to add my Aadhaar number. Then, I waited again. This time the wait was different. I didn’t know what I was waiting for. I don’t know much about banks. My son deals with these things. I asked my son about it. ‘It hasn’t come’, he said. I am not sure if he checked it. He is busy too. There is only so much time in a day.
I went to the public hearing. They were calling out names. I asked Mangal what it was all about. He told me that they are calling out names of pensioners who were declared dead by the government. I asked him what he meant by ‘declared dead’. Mangal was just about to answer, when they called out my name. ‘Government thinks that you have died, Kaka’, he said. I didn’t know what to say. They called out my name again. Mangal shouted that I was sitting right here. I still couldn’t say anything. I remember my first thought though. ‘At least I don’t have to wait anymore.’”
— Respondent 121, resident of the village Bawadi Guanr in Barar, Rajasthan, declared dead by the government on March 3, 2016 (personal communication, 17 November 2017).
The story above is a fictional oral account of a peculiar form of marginalization that happens through mundane bureaucratic re-categorization of citizen data records in India. In 2010, the Indian government began collecting fingerprints, iris scans, and facial photographs of every resident along with their basic demographic information—name, age, gender, and address—to give them a unique 12-digit Aadhaar (translation: foundation) number. The number is posited as a resource for state agencies to seamlessly and efficiently include registered citizens in welfare programs. This account, set in the Indian state of Rajasthan, is fictional interview transcripts in the aftermath of a bureaucratic change from money orders to Aadhaar-enabled bank transfers in the delivery of welfare pensions for the elderly in October 2015. Pension of ₹ 750 [~$11] per month is given to people of 75 and above age in India. After the change, several pensions went uncollected. In March 2016, the state government began efforts to ascertain why pensioners weren’t collecting their pensions. The government revoked pensions of about a million pensioners. Primary reasons for revoking pension were either that the pensioner was dead or their record was a duplicate database entry. When Right to Information activists held public hearings to confirm these reasons, they found many pensioners who were alive but declared dead in the database.
This fictional transcript illustrates my understanding of the distance enacted in using biometrics to uniquely identify a citizen as a data record. A data record has a life of its own. Bureaucratic re-categorization of their data as defunct records severs the relationship between citizens and their record despite the one-to-one correspondence between them. In my ethnographic fieldwork, I explore how citizens leverage their new biometrics-based relationship with the government to claim citizenship entitlements and the emergent challenges of governance through data. This fictional whisper from the field describes these challenges: it captures the lived experience of a pensioner in the moment they realize that they have been declared dead by the government. It is a part of a collection of three stories along with ‘Action at a Distance‘ and ‘Whose fault is it anyway?‘. Together, they provide my sense of how citizens, bureaucrats, and designers of Aadhaar’s identification infrastructure rationalize such failures.
Source: Ranjit Singh, ‘The Living Dead’, in Annie Sheng (ed.), Whispers from the Field: Ethnographic Poetry and Creative Prose (Ithaca: Cornell Council for the Arts, 2018), pp. 29-31.