“I do not understand why certain activists blame Aadhaar in this pension case. Aadhaar is designed to store only four data attributes about a person and their biometric information. It only guarantees uniqueness of their record with us. If you ask the database to confirm a person’s identity using their fingerprints, we only certify that the fingerprints on Aadhaar record matches with the fingerprints on your biometric reader. We provide identity verification services to any agency that wants to use it to do their own work. We do not participate in how they do their business. If they mess up in using their Aadhaar-enabled data, how can you blame us for it?
Right from the beginning, we said that there should be adequate data protection laws in the country. Situations such as this require citizens to have a legal recourse. We are also contributing to policy developments in this space, but it takes time. In an ideal world, all personnel involved in maintaining government databases should know the best practices for data collection and curation… ensuring data protection and citizen privacy. But, we are not there yet. It is a larger change in the way Indian bureaucracy works. When we started, we had to learn a lot more about how government works before we could intervene into it. That process is still going on. All of this takes time.
You can look at it as a kind of teething trouble. Maybe bad design. But failures are also a part of the learning process. You cannot create a foolproof system in one go. You try something, see if it works, then try again. Make it better. Some failures are costlier than others. In terms of price, number of affected lives… there are so many unintended consequences. Should we stop? When should we stop? It’s not like the ‘established’ system works any better. If we can make it easier to deal with government services, then we have to push despite failures. Learn from them. Not repeat them. We could certainly use all the help we can get to improve things. The blame game does not help. We need conversations not confrontations.”
– Respondent 11, Member of Aadhaar’s design team involved in making technical choices for its implementation and use (personal communication, 23 December 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 dives into the problem of attributing accountability for infrastructural breakdown in Aadhaar-enabled services. It is a part of a collection of three stories along with ‘The Living Dead‘ and ‘Action at a Distance‘. Together, they provide my sense of how citizens, bureaucrats, and designers of Aadhaar’s identification infrastructure rationalize such failures.
Source: Ranjit Singh, ‘Whose fault is it anyway?’, in Annie Sheng (ed.), Whispers from the Field: Ethnographic Poetry and Creative Prose (Ithaca: Cornell Council for the Arts, 2018), pp. 35-39.