The Article: Solving The Identification Problem In The 21st Century by Savannah Cox in The Speckled Axe.
The Text: Tunni Rai is a 65-year-old man living in Patna, India. Decades of manual labor have etched deep lines in his face, but he continues to do so because he must support his family. Though the already backbreaking task is made that much more difficult when, in the eyes of the Indian government, he does not exist. At least until recently.
Born in 1947 (or so Rai thinks; he never received a birth certificate from his parents and the voter identification card eventually administered to him was full of errors), Rai has spent his entire life without an official identity. The toll has been absolutely devastating: when Rai took his grandson to the hospital after he had been bitten by a stray dog, doctors refused to treat the boy since Rai could not provide proof of his own identity. On another occasion, a wire thief was electrocuted on Rai’s farm and police authorities soon accused Rai of murder. When he sought legal counsel, he had yet another door slammed in his face due to a lack of identity. Consequently, Rai had no representation during the trial and was subsequently sent to jail.
So at the age of 62, Rai had to rebuild himself entirely. The pride he once took in farming was ripped from his hands and in its place now rests a menial $92 a month security guard job. A job that still leaves him greatly indebted to others, but one that he has thanks only to the benevolence of a relative who didn’t ask for proof of identity before hiring him.
Because Rai lacks an official identity, he is confined to a subhuman existence—and through no fault of his own. Rai cannot vote. He cannot open a bank account. He cannot receive the welfare he needs. Worst of all, Rai is not alone.
Currently, only 58% of children born in India are registered at birth, partly because many families simply don’t know about the need for a birth certificate. While it’s true that there are many avenues through which Indians may prove their existence (driver’s licenses, ration cards, etc.), they are often village-specific and share a single point of origin: possessing a valid birth certificate. And so, as India’s economy emerges, many of those who have contributed largest to its boom—the vast class of laborers—have not just been left behind; in the eyes of their government they’ve never even existed.
As this faceless population has continued to grow, so has the difficulty of ignoring it. That’s why in 2010, in want of “giving back” to the same country that helped him succeed, Indian billionaire Nandan Nilekani’s technological firm Infosys joined forces with the Indian government to hammer out biometric-based identity codes for over one billion Indians. Although it would easily appear to be a costly, Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare, it’s received formidable success thus far. As Nilekani’s voluntary system is not contractually bound to a single software or device provider, costs remain low. But more importantly, over 200 million Indians like Rai are now registered within the system and they expect nearly half of India’s population to be registered by 2014. The goal? According to Nilekani, a national smart ID would compel the state to “improve the quality of services provided, give citizens better access to welfare schemes, and create deeper awareness of rights and services.”
What’s more, Nilekani believes it would cut the fraud and corruption rife within the current identification system and make dependence on the “moral scruples of bureaucrats” redundant and unnecessary. And while such an innovative system is bound to encounter some technical hiccups and questions of intent along the way (some economists dub it as a privacy-encroaching national security project in sheep’s clothing), the fundamental message reigns supreme: those contributing most to India’s explosive growth will finally be able to receive the acknowledgement and benefit that they deserve.
Hop over a handful of countries and bodies of water and you’ll see similar problems with identification manifest throughout the United States. Except here, there are no real solutions on the table. Instead of addressing the problems with photo IDs with a results-oriented approach, both sides of the political aisle have taken to the painfully familiar process of dead-end, partisan bickering.
Amid the screeching and squawking are the facts, which are typically underrepresented on both sides. There is a problem with the voter registration system in the United States. Actually, there are a lot of them. Though while it’s equally true that 89% of Americans already have a government-issued photo ID (the very kind of ID that more and more states are requiring to be able to vote), approximately 3.2 million people do not.
As is the case in India, the reasons for this lack of ID are as diverse as the forms of identification that these individuals possess. While many of these people have legitimate IDs like employee badges and bank or Social Security cards, states with stricter voter ID laws usually require government-issued photo IDs. This often translates as the need to see a driver’s license. But the truth is that much of the elderly, young and poor (those affected most by stringent voter ID laws) don’t drive due to inability, cost, or more efficient public transportation methods. And though many of these very states also offer non-driver photo ID cards, they’re typically housed in motor vehicle agencies known for being out of reach for many rural dwellers and for their anaconda-length lines.
That doesn’t deter Americans from pursuing them, though. But therein lies another problem. In most states with voter ID laws, in order to receive a photo ID you must have a birth certificate. On the surface, that doesn’t seem terribly much to ask, but our nation’s history belies the law’s rationality: it wasn’t until World War II that the United States suddenly “became aware of” the need for birth certificates. In fact, in the early 1940s one-third of the working population (approximately 43 million people) lacked a birth certificate. Now add to that the problem of inaccurately recorded midwife births and fast forward a few decades.
Today, if an elderly person wishes to procure his or her birth certificate, the certificate is likely to be lost, non existing, or filled with inaccuracies. To make matters even worse, if the state does in fact have the certificate in question, the individual seeking it usually has to present a photo ID in order to receive it. In other words, like head of the League of Women Voters Elisabeth MacNamara says, it’s a Catch-22. If you want a photo ID, you have to have one first.
Much like Tunni Rai, 96-year-old Florence Hessing’s existence and rights were essentially denied by the state through its own errors, not hers. After her driver’s license expired in Wisconsin (which recently passed strict voter ID laws), Hessing wrote the state inquiring as to how she could receive a new photo ID. Their answer? She needed to present a birth certificate. As expected, at her age—and because she was likely birthed via midwife—there was no certificate to be found and her voter ID request was denied. Nevertheless, lawyers were eventually able to grant Hessing an exemption to the newly-enacted rule, but this by no circumstances means that the thousands of others like her without similar resources will be extended the same hard-earned “courtesies”. For that matter, nor does it mean that droves of lawyers should ever be necessary to ensure that individuals like Hessing are able to engage in one of the most basic facets of democracy. God help us if that day ever comes.
While a national photo ID system might not be ideal for a nation founded on the often-obsessive fear of a Big Brother authority figure, it is at least a viable option that one emerging nation has presented to solve a very real problem that effectively erases millions from its national consciousness. And if the United States still actually considers itself the vanguard of true democracy, it might behoove itself to fix the flaws endemic within its own systems before the largest democratic country in the world does.