Digital Governance in India’s Northeast – the case of Aadhaar in Tripura

This January 28, the Unique Identification Project of India (UID) or Aadhaar completes eight years since its launch. Much has transpired in this period. From the dizzying number of executive orders, the much delayed UIDAI Act 2016, to its chief architect, billionaire Nandan Nilekani’s exit, not just as the chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) but as a prospective politician itself. Yet, the Janus-faced UID stays on, as the object and conduit of the present disposition’s technological fantasies and as a bête noire for activists supporting civil liberties.

How has Aadhaar been received in the northeast? If numbers are anything to go by, then the region has been good at keeping Aadhaar at bay, as the five states of Arunchal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Assam, appear at the bottom of the Aadhaar enrolled states. But what about Sikkim and Tripura? Very few people know that when the project of Aadhaar began in 2009, Tripura was one of the first states in the country to achieve highest enrollments. The article below provides an account of the manner in which Aadhaar had been a central strand in Tripura’s quest for digital governance, and reciprocally, what the UIDAI, in its early years, stood to gain from Tripura. The piece illuminates the story of Aadhaar and digital governance in Tripura through the eyes of five people – a bureaucrat, a manager of a private company, a historian, a technology analyst and a village level entrepreneur. While Tripura is not what comes to mind when an average Indian thinks of Aadhaar, it is precisely for this reason that this is a story, which  “the nation needs to know”. 

It’s a warm day in early December and I’m on Agartala’s busy commercial street – Hariganga Basak road – five kilometers away from Akhura, on the international border with Bangladesh. I have just been turned away from the gates of the Tripura Government Museum, unable to produce the two-rupee coin that would give me a peek into the lives of the millennium-old Manikya dynasty. I scamper around the surrounding market looking for change. The rickshawallas, taking a break between rides, answer my enquiry with a question – am I really searching for shutta in this town?  It’s a curious situation – the market will not yield that denomination and the state does not except anything more. Eventually, on the pretext of having friends joining me, I thrust a tenner into the gatekeeper’s hands and walk into the museum, empty save for a drowsy attendant.

The first few rooms house worn out hunting instruments, undecipherable remnants of an anthropological past and a random selection of Indian sculpture through the ages. Higher up, however, the focus changes. In a gallery dedicated to a series of life size portraits of the Manikyas, I detect a cultural transformation that had been attributed to the Bengal Renaissance. Birendra Kishore Manikya (king from 1909 to 1923) is represented wearing sparse Bengali attire – a dhoti and kurta – as opposed to the princely robes and ornamental jewelry of his 19th century predecessors. In popular accounts, the Manikyas are best remembered for their resilience, having been rulers of Tripura since the 15th century. Eventually, however, repeated attacks by the Mughals to appropriate a coveted breed of royal elephants, and later political manipulations by the British for land acquisitions, led to a loss of “Chakla Roshanbagh” or “Circle of Lights”, the plain lands that now border Bangladesh. As the Sultans of Bengal occupied the region, both political and cultural transformations ensued. In parallel, changes in governance were taking place. Both Maharaja Birendra Kishore and his successor Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore (king from 1923 to 1947), in addition to keeping up their liberal foreign policy that welcomed Bengali immigrants, began allocating huge tracts of land to their displaced guests. These immigrants, mostly from the Sunderbans to the West of Tripura, sought refuge for food and shelter, though in later years as British imperialism peaked, members of revolutionary Communist groups such as Anusilan and Yugantar from West Bengal, also sought, and were readily provided, political refuge. The Manikyas of course were not without vested interests. The local practice of shifting agriculture or jhuming had never been a profitable activity. On the other hand, efficient plough cultivation by the immigrant Bengalis, revived the dwindling economy of the region. 

Post 1947, the political imperative of a divided region translated into a staggering  2000% rise in immigration between 1947 and 50-51. Given its scale, this kind of migration could not have been couched in the language of legality or illegality, terms that are now routinely used in the context of immigration into Tripura and border states at large.

In Tripura, these practices tend to over-determine the manner in which the state is ‘seen’ by its citizens – as an arbitrator of a lawful existence, regulating access to food, shelter and physical security through the production and circulation of these documents.

This narrative leap into the discourse of the legal and illegal has been achieved through historical interventions by the Indian state to identify and categorize its population, producing in every instance a ‘document’, whose form has changed  along with technological advances. Today’s smart chip ID cards, for instance, are  the micro equivalent of the super computer. In Tripura, these practices tend to over-determine the manner in which the state is ‘seen’ by its citizens – as an arbitrator of a lawful existence, regulating access to food, shelter and physical security through the production and circulation of these documents. This perception of the state by its citizens distorts even initiatives such as the Unique Identification (UID) Programme, brand named Aadhaar, which had hastened to define itself as nothing more than an enabler to service delivery. (It is another matter that the lack of clarity on what Aadhaar will eventually do also relegates it to the historical category of ‘documents’).

In the context of Aadhaar in Tripura, this schism between the legal and the illegal is apparent in the enrolment process. As an Officer in the Tripura Rural Development Department (nodal office for Aadhaar enrolments in the state) said to me, “only those who have a valid POA [proof of address] and POI [proof of Identity] are allowed to enroll [into the Aadhaar database]”. The “Introducer” enrolment model that the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has developed for people (such as the homeless across the country) who are without documented proof of residence or identity but can produce a letter from a gazetted officer certifying their name and address, did not find favor in Tripura. Despite this restriction, the Rural Department along with its partners had completed Aadhaar enrolments of 89% of its 2011 population over a period of 14 months. Even if these figures dispelled a fear of illegality for the state, the overriding feeling the people I spoke to in Agartala conveyed was that of insecurity. In one instance, a rural resident locked up his “documents” in a trunk, ready to produce them on demand by the state, in another instance, a fish seller explained Aadhaar as an identity proof, which, because he is Indian, he had to procure.

When did state intervention begin? A professor of History at Tripura University, demonstrated the redundancy of such ‘documents’—simply because there are so many—by pulling out his wallet his Pan Card, Voter ID Card, Multi National ID Card (arbitrarily issued to a few people in border regions through the National Population Register exercise in 2006). Further, he recounted the issuance of citizen certificates and permanent resident certificates that characterized governance for several decades after 1947. Historically, however, the state emerged as the arbitrator of identity as early (or as late, if seen from the long established practices of migration under the Manikya sovereignty) as the 1950s when the state of Tripura became a part of the Indian union and was impacted by the famous Nehru Liaquat pact of 1952. One of the aspects of the agreement was the introduction of a passport for movement between international borders. Those entering with passports were registered at the Akhura border but with registration centres disbanded after 1971, friends and relations of ‘legal’ migrants now stood outside the realm of the state, disappearing through its 836 kms long Bangladesh border, a site that has since remained the grand stage of migratory politics. Subsequently, there were more migrants in Tripura without passports, than with them, which led to serious contestation over limited resources, land emerging as the most important and contentious object of interest.

In the course of this history, older means of identification took on newer forms (as in the case of entry coupons being replaced by citizen certificates). In other cases, the same document multiplied into several instances of its kind. Thus at a certain point in time, a immigrant to Tripura, in order to be recognized by the state (and thus assured of security, at least until the creation of the next database), wobbled under the weight of a citizen certificate, a permanent residence certificate, a ration card, a Multi National ID card, a voter ID while slightly more affluent citizens took on the additional burdens of a Pan Card. However, in the mind of the state these historical events get inverted. The officer at the Rural Department told me that the people of Tripura have historically displayed enthusiasm for being enrolled into government databases, irrespective of their nature. Clearly, he was speaking from outside a history of government-sponsored marketing, which in the present case of Aadhaar, and particularly in rural Tripura, had taken the form of ‘miking’ – a local term for the practice of announcers in roving jeeps informing people about the time, place and deadline of a particular government exercise. In addition, his department had offered financial incentives to volunteers of municipal corporations to get people enrolled into the Aadhaar database. The officer himself, having received an award in September 2011 for the highest Aadhaar enrolments in the county, displayed great enthusiasm in explaining to me the benefits of Aadhaar, meeting many of my questions with a studied grin and helping himself to liberal doses of self-praise for Aadhaar and his department.

The fear of ‘illegality’, the fear of being swamped by one’s neighbor is still a dominant state concern in the era of the ‘digital nation’.

He went on to describe the rigorous manner in which Aadhaar enrolments were completed for 80-85% of the population. “First a Panchayat meeting was conducted, after that we conducted miking in the entire area, we went to everybody’s house and called them to the Panchayat office for enrolments”. “What did you tell people during miking?” I asked. “We said this [Aadhaar] is a very important information, this is the main document in India, even on an international level Aadhaar has great significance… that’s why we asked people to come for enrolments.” He continued, “we did this for 15 days, ‪till 10-11 PM in the night. If we had a few more days we could get 90%-95% of the population”. “Didn’t people say that they already have several documents, like resident certificates, so why this?” I asked. “Yes, they did, but we convinced them that this is a very important document, you have to do this [get enrolled].” The office, however, was one of the few I have met who understood Aadhaar in concrete terms, instead of lingering over abstractions such as ‘development’. He explained to me, with a confident, clinical clarity, the 12 ‘sectors’ into which Aadhaar is destined to be embedded. Of these, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) enthused him the most.

The fear of ‘illegality’, the fear of being swamped by one’s neighbor is still a dominant state concern in the era of the ‘digital nation’.  On my first morning in Agartala, having visited the Rural Development Department in one of the several white washed buildings that house  the bureaucracy in a well maintained part of Agartala, whose exclusive feel is belied by its name – Gurkha basti – I asked myself a rhetorical question – who is this state?  The historian, whom I mentioned above claimed, off the record, that he knew exactly why the Aadhaar project was such a huge success in Tripura. “I can show you ‪the who’s who [of the legislative assembly]… most of these people who are members are born in Bangladesh”… “That is why they have a craze for this [Aadhaar number]”… “I don’t need [the Aadhaar number], it’s not important to me, documents are not important to my people, I don’t need it…” He was speaking from the vantage point of the minority tribal community, historically disadvantaged, exploited and driven to a minority in their own land by refugees. That he should refer to the migrated community as refugees, decades after many have gained Indian citizenship, suggests unfazed resistance, at least intellectually, even as the officer in the rural department insisted that, after years of insurgency, harmony had been re-instated between the Bengali settlers and the state’s nineteen indigenous communities.

Were the Bengali officials of the Rural Department aware of their own positions in the neat equations they placed before me? Were they unconsciously restating the dialectics of a modern nation: state and people, residents and illegal immigrants, self and other? In my conversations with the Rural Department official I got the impression of a mind disposed outwardly. Like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History facing the storm, our official seemed to be facing the center in New Delhi and was propelled by its material thrust. Traces of this thrust were discernible next morning, when I met a manager of the private agency for Aadhaar enrolments in Tripura, at what he called his “residence cum office”. Earlier that morning, he had had insisted on sending  his young associate to pick me up from the hotel, who, as we rode on the road around the pale Ujjayanta Palace, apprised me of the difficult one year he had spent enrolling residents across the state. On entering the house, I found the drawing room filled with heaps of Aadhaar enrolment forms and copies of the mandatory proof of address and proof of identity that residents had submitted during enrolments. Burrowed in this heap were two young boys, counting the forms and taking stock. The manager himself, dressed in a vest and pajamas, it being a government holiday, was busy plodding through an excel sheet, which he later explained to me showed the enrolment status from various districts of the state. He was a harried man this morning. The rural department, having enrolled 89% of its 2011 population, was now badgering him for more.  “How much more?” I asked. “Tripura government is forcing me for another 1%. That means another 37,000 people. From where will I get them?… the Government is forcing for extra Rs 22 per person.” Apparently, the UIDAI had promised the Rural Department an additional incentive of Rs. 22 per person (in addition to the Rs. 50 already being given) if Tripura could meet a 90% enrolment target. The manager had just the previous day approached the Border Security Force, but they had not seemed enthusiastic with the prospect of having civilians enter their cantonment. The previous day, the officer of the rural department himself had claimed that his department received an installment of Rs. 50 lakhs from the UIDAI, out of a Rs. 10.4 crores proposal for building the authentication apparatus for the purported use of the Aadhaar number, namely biometric based identification.

Does (just) the idea of a digitized population, divested from its material impact, also merit thought from the state? If money is the fuel that drives the material domain of the state, can the idea of the digital, arguably abstract, fashion its self-consciousness? The IT department’s zeal to complete implementation of a lesser-known central government policy – the ‘e-district’ model as part of UPA’s National eGovernance Plan (NeGP)  — can lead one to believe in the existence of an ideating mind, but a search for its logic unfortunately leads nowhere. Tripura is the first state in the North Eastern region to go the whole hog, not only complying with the central government’s guidelines for an ‘e-district’ — creating a State Data Centre (SDC) that contains digitized government records, which from what I saw of it  is a droning room stacked with ‘trays’ and manned by consultants from private organizations, building a state wide area network (SWAN) of optic fibers that transmit data from the SDC to a Common Service Centre (CSC), a physical  location, usually housed within the panchayat office and managed by a village level entrepreneur – but also throwing in  an Agartala City Area network (A-CAN) that digitally, but for purposes unknown,  links 23 government offices and a few hospitals into some sort of virtual circularity. The entire SWAN architecture was constructed under the parental eyes of ‘the world’s largest professional services firm’, PriceWaterhouse Cooper, who the IT department unfailingly refers to as an ‘auditor’.

The Directorate of IT (DIT), is housed in one of the eight campuses of the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) across Tripura. These colleges offer polytechnic trainings in the areas of mechanical, electrical, civil and automobile engineering.  The campus I visited also housed the only dedicated ITI college for women in the state. The DIT itself, though a modest office building, began to take significance for me, when a technology analyst, informed me that it houses the State Data Centre – the hub that stores all the e-applications within the e-district architecture. The analyst marveled along with me at the sudden transformation in the IT landscape of the state  – “… rapid change in the last few years… all this SWAN, CSC’s, SDC, all came in the last 2 to 3 years…” On why this sudden change, the analyst explained, “For the Agartala City Area network, we did two projects. One was ACAN and the other extension of ACAN. More offices came with this request”. Now, the officer explained, offices come with their own funding. “Previously, only IT department was imposing [digitization], now, departments are coming with their requests.” He paused, I interrupted. “So what’s the driving force behind this?” “Driving force basically is to get easy service. If you put e-Governance in the scenario then to give service to the citizen it will be easier, the process will be speedy.” Did the officer feel that the citizens of Tripura have the necessary computer skills to use these services? “Life is becoming speedy…so people want quick service from the government. “Under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, free computer education [is provided] to tenth and twelfth students. They are the key persons, those will come with a request of my citizenship certificate, my permanent resident certificate, with such requests. In schools you are giving computer knowledge, so easily this awareness process is going on”. A pattern began to emerge if one connected this with a survey conducted by the historian from Tripura University on the demography of the 2009 electorate, in which he points out that the CPI (M) has greater support from people below the age of 35 than above it.

The analyst then took me through the long list of government initiatives that have rapidly been digitized. One such initiative stood out in its incongruity – Tele Ophthalmology centres allowing for video conferencing rural patients with doctors at the Indira Gandhi Memorial (IGM) hospital in Agartala.  Though the government claims, through research conducted by an organization called OneWorld Foundation India, that Tele ophthalmology centres have catered to over 1.2 lakh patients from April 2007 to July 2011, these figures seemed apropos of nothing. Neither did the literature on the 40 vision centres, nor talking to IT consultants reveals why eye treatment or homeopathic treatment for common ills merits digitization, over several other medical services. Yet investment in e-infrastructure by both state and private enterprises was at its peak.

The next morning, I drove to a Common Service Centre in Uttar Majlishpur, a village within the Jirenia block, 20 kilometers north of Agartala, towards Assam. This CSC, had as its singular object of interest  (surprisingly no other government services are available here), a tele homeopathy center, a single room, manned by a Village Level Entrepreneur (VLE) and sustained  by a motley set of investors – the  VLE’s personal savings were invested in a Xerox machine, a fan and a tube light (amounting to INR 45000);  a Micro finance company called Basix, had invested in a computer, printer, UPS and furniture for about Rs. 70,000-80,000; Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services Ltd (IL&FS)had designed the portal for tracking patient medical history and also provided the homeopathic medicines on a regular basis; the state government had provided a V-Sat dish antenna for enhanced connectivity for video conferencing with doctors. In addition, medical supplies lay scattered around — several bottles of what looked like calcium tablets (Calc.Phos 6x), a bottle of Horlicks, a Hicks Stethoscope and a blood pressure measuring instrument.  I asked the VLE what I had asked the DIT the previous evening – “Why did you start e-homeopathy here?” He skirted the question, claiming that it was a state government initiative and he only earned the one time registration fee. “But what is the demand for homeopathy?” I asked. “On an average per month there are 32, 35 or sometimes it becomes 45 people”, says VLE. Further, he said, “people come here for treatment of tumors, fish bones in their throat, fever, cough and cold, stomach pain and chest pain…those who come in a critical condition are not treated here, they are sent to bigger hospitals, at their own costs.” Could he give me a demonstration of the video conference? Unfortunately, no doctor was available at that time, but the VLE was happy to show me the IL&FS portal tracking patient medical history, with name, disease, drug administered and so on.  On the question of privacy of medical records, the VLE brushed it aside as a non issue. “Whoever has come here for treatment, something good has happened for them, the feedback has been good.”

…the adoption of Aadhaar in Tripura needs to be understood as a component of a larger attempt at creating a market for digital governance in what,  ironically for a communist party led state, looks like a trajectory of capitalist development.

Basix, for the record, was one of the several Micro Finance Institutions (MFIs) at the vortex of the farmer crisis in Andhra Pradesh, reportedly taking blank cheques from its suicidal customers. For the present, however, loan financing seemed to be on the ascent in rural Tripura and going by the responses of residents as well as the CSC staff in Uttar Majlishpur, the MFI aspects of ‪Basix was in far greater demand than its video conferencing facilities. In its 20 month existence, Basix had already provided loans to about 5% of the Uttar Majlishpur population. Loans were taken to start sundry businesses such as bamboo handicrafts, bamboo mats, grocery stores, fisheries, fruit and vegetable stores. The loan attracted an interest of 24% per annum on a reducing balance and is paid back in either 12 or 18 month easy monthly installments. Going by the Andhra Pradesh example I asked, “What happens if somebody is unable to make the repayment”? “Yes, sometimes there are problems, sometimes when people fall ill or there is an accident in the family then there is a problem in repayment. But along with the loan there is a hospital insurance attached from Royal Sundaram. If any customer is in hospital he/she gets Rs 500 per day for five days of hospitalization.”

That access to easy finance had affected everyday life in Uttar Majlishur is obvious. Lack of adequate finance, as starting capital, opened up new dimensions of rural poverty, given the present dependence on multiple sources of income. Historically, migrants in Tripura had shunned rural areas, flocking to towns, where in addition to the rehabilitation provided by the government, options to buy land off underprivileged locals were reportedly sought out. Over time however, as land became scarce and commercial jobs diminished, a reverse trend set in leading to about 80% of the displaced workers getting engaged with agricultural activities by 1961. However, over the next decades, incomes from agriculture began depleting as a crisis in agriculture management began erupting nationwide. Subsequently, a new category marking rural poverty emerged – the Below Poverty Line (BPL).

Thus, the adoption of Aadhaar in Tripura needs to be understood as a component of a larger attempt at creating a market for digital governance in what,  ironically for a communist party led state, looks like a trajectory of capitalist development. However, both passions and directions change at the alter of politics. Tripura’s non inclusion into Narendra Modi’s first list of smart cities was a spanner in the works. Hopefully, along with the enthusiasm for electronic governance, the state begins to think about its benefits for the rural poor.

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Nafis Hasan Written by:

Nafis Hasan is a PhD candidate in socio-cultural anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His interests lie at the intersection of social development, governance and technology. Prior to UCLA, he was part of ‘The Identity Project’ – a social science exploration into the digital ecosystem of India’s Unique Identity project, resulting in an ebook In the Wake of Aadhaar

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