Information, Infrastructure, Inclusion: Research Notes on Materiality of Electronic Governance in India

The proposed paper builds on my ongoing research on the history of computing by the Government of India to foreground aspects of a research agenda about the materiality of informational practices, deployment and operation of network infrastructures, and the politics of inclusion. The first part of the paper provides a brief overview of policy initiatives, household surveys, and technological visions of establishing a national identity number/card in India, since late 1990s. The second part focuses on the recent attempt to deploy the Unique Identification Numbers, or ‘Aadhaar' numbers, as a government-wide common database platform for identification and verification of subjects for various government schemes and platform. This discussion of the Aadhaar project highlights both the role played by the and a substantial shift in the very infrastructural imagination of the electronic governance apparatus in India. Following this discussion, the third and final part of the paper will share early notes towards a research agenda to foreground infrastructure as an entry point to study the material politics of inclusion and development through electronic governance in India.


A Recent History of National Identity Cards in India


Taha Mehmood begins an extensive survey of the ‘contested history of National Identity Card in India' with the Kargil War of 1999 and the subsequent report of the Kargil Review Committee. The same demand came back in the aftermath of the attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001. In 2007, the ‘Entitlement Reform for Empowering the Poor: The Integrated Smart Card' report by Planning Commission, presented a futuristic scenario of welfare delivery through Multi-Application Smart Cards, conceptualised as a ‘multi-storied building wherein each scheme is “housed” in one floor. While the unique ID will manage the main entrance to the building each Scheme administering agency will have the “key” (password) to enter that floor only'. This remains one of the most succinct description of the desired function of the unique identification number, later re-branded as Aadhaar number. The terms ‘unique identification' and ‘citizen ID' were used by Nandan Nilekani when within a month of the declaration by the Empowered Group of Ministers regarding the making of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), he wrote on how a ‘single citizen ID' can get rid of the phantoms that haunt the welfare delivery systems in India. In the same article, Nilekani provided an early road map of the approach of the Aadhaar project, and critiqued the (then) ongoing folly of identifying the ‘issuing [of] smart cards as the main challenge of implementing such a system', whereas ‘[i]t is in making the back-end infrastructure secure and scalable, providing a single record keeper for the whole country and integrating the agents who issue these numbers that it gets tough.' This position of Nilekani has defined the problem statement of the Aadhaar project since.


Aadhaar Project as a Digital Identity Platform


The Aadhaar project, instituted through the Unique Identification Authority of India in 2009, is an exercise in re-addressing the nation, in making the population of the country addressable through unique identification numbers with verifiable authenticity (understood as one-to-one correspondence between a number and the resident it refers to). The identifiable population that it creates is not meant to be the same as the ones that already exists on the various governmental databases, but most importantly it is meant to resolve the disjunctures and impossibility of interoperability between the multiple databases of governance in India. The Aadhaar project plans to do so by claiming both systemic integrity – by undertaking a completely new and systematic registration of individuals residing in the country – and referential validity – by ensuring continuous (biometric) re-verification of the linkage between an Unique Identification Number and its assignee. This paper, however, does not attempt an examination of either of these two claims – systemic integrity and referential validity – of the Aadhaar project, but of what kind of material and logical infrastructure of management of governmental data it is proposing and deploying. The Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR) rests at the centre of the information infrastructure imagined and under deployment by the Aadhaar project . On one hand, it is the centralised repository of all the assigned Aadhaar numbers along with the corresponding demographic, biometric , and additional information collected during the ‘enrollment' process; and against which the de-duplication exercise takes place when a new bundle of demographic and biographic data enter the Aadhaar system for assignment of a new Aadhaar number. On the other, it receives the electronically shared information by the Aadhaar number holder for ‘authentication' of the one-to-one correspondence between the number and its holder, and sends the verification result as a Yes/No message. The CIDR, thus, performs a fundamental and critical infrastructural operation for linking the distributed agency-specific databases operated by government bodies of all scale and size, inherited from the past decades of information systems for electronic governance. CIDR, hence, is not simply a database of identities, it is a database of identifiers. Inclusion, in the logic of this identification database, is transformed from a matter of being included in the political processes of negotiating the forms and models of development, to being included in the algorithmic processes of targeting, delivery, and continuous re-targeting of re-distribution of surplus and access to various governmental services.


Information, Infrastructure, Inclusion


The discussion of the Aadhaar project and the conceptualisation of inclusion through intertwined terminologies of ‘access' and ‘delivery' call for a political economic appreciation of this model of electronic, or networked, governance. These terms – access and delivery – stand for an ideological collapsing of the agencies that provide welfare-services and uphold human rights, and the diverging modalities of relationships between those who access services and those who deliver them. This conceptual blurring of governmental, semi-governmental and private providers of welfare and infrastructural services deeply undermine the available and effective modes of demanding of services and rights by the citizens. The universalising infrastructures of networked governance, such as those (claimed to be) enabled by Aadhaar project, are developing the material basis for seamless information sharing between various agencies, public and private, that will deliver such services. The ‘architecture of participation' (to borrow a phrase from Tim O'Reilly) in such networks simultaneously determine the spaces of exclusion in the networked society. This paper highlights the need of reading the politics of inclusion/exclusion in the networked societies through its very material basis – the infrastructures of information gathering, archiving, analysing, and sharing. Building on my ongoing work on the Aadhaar project and how it engages with the electronic governance apparatus in India, I argue in this paper that a discussion of inclusion and development in the networked society needs engagement with the materiality of the network itself. A focus on the actual techno-political qualities of and embodied imaginations within these information infrastructures is critical to move beyond the ideological trap of ‘access' and ‘delivery' of services, and to foreground questions of ‘ownership' and ‘effective usage' of the network.