At 2 pm on a sweltering Thursday afternoon at the District Administration Office in Jaleshwor, Mahottari, there were about 50 people crowded outside a kiosk labelled ‘National Identity Card Details Collection Centre’. Rakesh Kumar, 22, who was in line, said that he had been at the office since 8 am that morning – he needed a National ID card to acquire an e-Passport to go to Malaysia as a migrant labourer.
“I came a few days ago to get the card made. Apparently, my citizenship certificate did not contain adequate information about my family, so I had to get a new citizenship (document), and now I will get the National ID so that I can travel,” Rakesh said.
Rakesh is one of over 7 million Nepalis whose biometric data has been collected by the government for the National ID campaign. The programme aims to give every Nepali citizen a biometric ID, much like India’s Aadhaar. According to various government documents, this will be used as proof of national identity, as a social security card, voter ID, as a basis for receiving all kinds of public services, and as a helpful record for security management.
The Nepali state envisions the National ID as a central and interoperable system of biometric identification through which governance will occur, making it essential for life in the country, but according to Nepali law, only those in possession of a citizenship certificate are eligible to apply for this document. A significant proportion of the Nepali population is not in possession of a citizenship document, at least in part due to a decades-long history of citizenship provisions being hostile to women and ethnic minorities. Many Nepalis’ “non-citizen” status is likely to be set in biometric stone, which may have negative consequences for decades to come.
Citizenship at the margins
According to an influential 2014 report by the Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD), “possession of citizenship documents is significantly associated with gender and caste at the individual level, as well as with intra-family dynamics at the household level.” Women in Nepal are far less likely to hold citizenship documents than men. Similarly, “Hill Brahmans, Chettris and Newars are the most likely to possess citizenship certificates, whereas Chepangs, Rajbhangsis [sic.] and Musahars are the least likely. Muslims clearly lag in citizenship acquisition rates relative to other religious groups.” While reliable figures on citizenship are difficult to come by, in 2018, it was estimated that over 5 million people do not have citizenship documents. Such Nepalis already face enormous challenges in employment, education, and property ownership, and their inability to obtain a National ID card may lead to further marginalisation.
The Deputy Chief District Officer of Mahottari district, Upendra Neupane, said that the National biometric ID aims to stop “leakage” in the provision of government services, it will help the government know that “you are really who you say you are,” and it will make the process of buying and selling of property easier. He said that while the people who are coming to District Administration Offices to get their biometric data collected right now are primarily aspiring migrants who need an e-Passport to travel, “eventually, all Nepalis will need a National ID.”
When asked if all Nepalis include non-citizens, Neupane said:
Often someone will come to our office for a National ID and their citizenship is invalid, either it may contain inaccurate or incomplete information. Then they need to get a proper citizenship first, then they can submit their biometric data.
While this may seem like a straightforward process, the acquisition of a citizenship certificate remains a taxing, sometimes near-impossible ordeal for people in Nepal who are politically marginalised. The matter of citizenship has remained contested since the 2015 constitution rolled back various citizenship rights that had been gained through legislation in the decade prior. The fact that a National biometric ID based on citizenship has moved forward with relatively little controversy in this context may be somewhat surprising, but perhaps less so when the role of development organisations and international biometric data companies in Nepal’s national ID program is considered.
“The Mother of all ID documents”
According to media researcher Harsha Man Maharjan, the idea of a national digital identity card was introduced in Nepal in July 2009 in the government’s ‘policies and programmes’ to make voter lists more systematic. The budget speech that year mentioned a ‘biometric smart card’ that would be used in elections and the distribution of social security allowances. In 2010, the council of ministers made the decision to distribute biometric smart National Identity cards, and in July 2011, established the National ID Management Centre (NIDMC) as a separate government body.
In 2012, the government announced that with USD 14 million from the Asian Development Bank, it was going to launch a pilot project of distributing the ID, with personal data, thumbprints and a unique ID number, to 100,000 people. The first phase of the plan was to cover 15 districts, followed by 25, and finally the remaining 35 districts.
There seems to have been little movement on the project between 2012 and 2016, when the government selected a bidder to distribute the ID cards. From six bidders (three from France, one from Germany, Sri Lanka and Malaysia), the government awarded the contract to a French company named Morpho (referred to as IDEMIA since 2017). Morpho was to provide 117,000 biometric ID cards in the second attempt at a pilot project. According to Republica Daily, the project cost the government USD 4,878,698, and was funded by the Asian Development Bank.
The replacement of this certificate with a biometric ID, under the guise of empowerment, efficiency and ‘frictionless-ness,’ is one that is likely to entrench the political crisis of statelessness and make many people’s lives worse.
In 2016, the executive director of the National ID Management Centre (NIDMC), Dinesh Bhattarai, said in a press conference at the time that “the national ID card will have maximum features. So we call it the ‘mother of identification documents’”. Bhattarai told the media that NIDMC had launched consultations with different government and non-government agencies on the significance of biometric cards, suggesting that the centre did not know what specific uses the card would be put to. He indicated that the cards “could” be used as a smartcard for distributing government services and social security benefits, electronic authorisation, cross-border security documentation, delivery of healthcare, and voting. Although there is no such multipurpose smartcard yet, in 2021, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MoCIT) released a digital e-government application called ‘Nagarik’ that aims to use biometrics and provide all government-related services such as PAN Registration and passport access through a single online platform.
In 2018, the NIDMC began printing national ID cards for the 117,000 people who were part of the pilot project, and there were no major controversies about this purportedly all-encompassing card. However, in 2019, the major opposition party, Nepali Congress, demanded that the government immediately suspend the distribution of the cards. Nepali Congress claimed that the printing of the ID cards was illegal because no law specifying what the ID could and could not be used for had been passed yet. Member of Parliament Dilendra Prasad Badu accused the government of awarding the lucrative contract to IDEMIA by going against the Public Procurement Act. Moreover, MP Amresh Kumar Singh said that moving forward with the national ID when the citizenship bill was still under discussion was likely to cause issues in the future.
When Nepali Congress opposed the national ID card, a citizenship amendment bill was also under discussion in parliament that made it difficult for a woman to pass “citizenship by descent” to her offspring if the identity of the father of the child was unknown. Those opposed to equal citizenship provisions for men and women argued that easing provisions would lead to “an influx of foreign nationals gaining Nepali citizenship and threatening Nepal’s sovereignty and security.” Even though the matter of citizenship certificates was controversial and unresolved, regulations around the national ID card required that applicants must be in possession of the certificate of Nepali citizenship. The fast-tracking of a process of biometric identification based on citizenship could have been a more contentious political issue. However, after expressing concern, the Nepali Congress appears to have given up on the matter and the ruling party continued to move forward with the National ID program.
The government passed the National Identity Card and Registration Act 2020, which states that “personal privacy will be assured while implementing this law.” The National Identity Card Management procedure states that the national ID document will be the “primary basis” for obtaining all social services and that “certain private services” may also be based on the National ID card. Rules and regulations about the national ID card state that various government bodies can have access to the biometric data collected by NIDMC, which is why when the Department of Passports (DoP) announced an international tender offer to procure an Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) in September 2019, it was condemned by the media as a waste of funds.
In 2021, two French companies, Thales and IDEMIA, were in the race for the contract to supply 12 million smart cards for national identity cards. However, the extremely lucrative contracts being awarded to IDEMIA in contravention of existing public procurement laws signalled that political and bureaucratic influence may have been at play in the National ID bidding process.
IDEMIA’s global influence
A 2020 video on the IDEMIA YouTube channel titled “National identity cards, creating tamper-proof ID documents” contains the following overview of its product:
IDEMIA, the global leader in augmented identity, is a renowned expert in civil identity solutions. We manage the entire identity value chain from enrolment of citizens, to production of identity documents. From the provision of identity management systems to upgrading you to a digital ID ecosystem.
IDEMIA has issued over 3 billion identity documents worldwide and it has over 130 active programmes, in countries including Chile, Latvia, the Netherlands, Estonia, Albania, Morocco and Nepal.
Its promotional document titled [Success Story] A Multi-Purpose Biometric eID for Nepal states:
Nepal did not previously have a national identity document for its estimated population of 29 million people. Roughly 81% of them live in rural areas, according to the World Bank – far away from the cities where government service centres are located. Therefore, accessing these services may necessitate a long overland trip and even staying overnight in the city, increasing time, cost and inconvenience involved. In 2015, Nepal developed an e-Governance Master Plan to bring its services online and provide convenient access to citizens nationwide. The plan encompasses a range of initiatives, such as improving internet access in rural areas and developing an eID. With the eID, Nepalese have a secure and efficient way to authenticate their identities when assessing eGovernment services.
Given that the citizenship document has been the basis for national identity and welfare for decades, the claim that “Nepal did not previously have a national identity document” is false. The fact that citizenship in Nepal has a long, fraught, political history can be ignored by IDEMIA, for whom ‘a country with no national identity document’ is a market for its biometric ID product. IDEMIA is not a development organisation, but in some ways, it positions itself as such, highlighting how it is bringing “e-governance” to the poorest countries around the world.
The IDEMIA website advertises the fact that it is responsible for managing 1.2 billion biometric identities in India through Aadhaar, the largest biometric program in the world. In an interview with The Economic Times from 2021, regional president of IDEMIA India, Matthew Foxton, says that in addition to being entrusted by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) as a biometric service provider and for facilitating Aadhaar services, the company is building a National Criminal Biometric database in India for the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). It is also working with transport departments in various Indian states, and is a partner for many of India’s private and public sector banks and fintech companies.
The spectre of “development” is an important reason why the role of private companies in biometric data collection has been naturalised in India, Nepal and other Southasian countries, but it is worth noting here that IDEMIA has been lobbying for national biometric identification in the global north as well, with varying results. In a report titled Exposing IDEMIA: The Push for National Biometric IDs in America, Twila Brase and Matt Flanders say that they “seek to acquaint Americans and their elected representatives with IDEMIA and biometric ID cards – and draw attention to [their] organisation’s concern that current or future augmented identification requirements could negatively impact individual freedom and patient access to medical services.” This highlights that third parties who can collect and access personal data also have the power to use that data to interfere in the personal lives and choices of individuals.
Aadhaar becoming the blueprint for development organisations, therefore, should be a matter of grave concern.
IDEMIA claims that it does not store any biometric data, but it is unclear to what degree this is true, if at all, and what that may even mean. In 2019, the company launched a video analytics product called Augmented Vision, which allows cameras to survey people and their movements in real-time. According to an American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLU) report on the product, “the company envisions its software in public and private spaces, including airports, stadiums, retail spaces, and commercial buildings. The software does not require specific hardware, and can be integrated into any existing camera infrastructure.” In 2016, IDEMIA was testing technology in the United Arab Emirates that allowed moving law enforcement vehicles to scan the biometrics of other drivers and pedestrians automatically. The UAE also incorporated the company’s biometrics border control project called ‘e-Border’ and Iris At a distance (IAD) technology that allowed scanners to read both facial and iris biometrics to identify passengers from more than a metre away.
Over 3 billion people – almost half the world population – have come into contact with IDEMIA technology, and although the company’s sale of various surveillance tools gives a sense of what the implications of this might be, the full effects of this biometric data collection on a massive scale will only become clear in the years to come.
Sustainable development and biometrics
Since the 2010s, effective identification systems have increasingly been seen as a key part of the development agenda, and there is a Sustainable Development Goal around the provision of legal identity for all by 2030. In 2014, the World Bank launched its Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative, advocating the use of biometrics to address the challenges of unique identification. In 2021, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was in discussions with the World Bank and United Nations to develop an identification system for other countries by replicating the Aadhaar architecture. While Aadhaar has been a source of great controversy and debate in India – challenged in India’s courts at least 30 times in 2018 – for many development organisations, and the World Bank in particular, it is a successful program that can be emulated elsewhere in the world.
The implementation issues with Aadhaar demonstrate some of the issues with biometric IDs being treated as a “silver bullet” that can foster inclusion and empowerment of poor and marginalised populations. In Dissent on Aadhaar: Big Data Meets Big Brother, edited by Reetika Khera, a staunch critic of Aadhaar, Justice (Retd) Ajit Prakash Shah says that instead of serving as a tool to increase access to social, political and civil rights, which the architects of Aadhaar purported to be doing, the ID has become an instrument of exclusion: “Stories abound as to how the state proactively used the lack of digital identity to deny basic services to its citizens, and thus deprived millions of their rightful benefits – benefits which had been designed precisely for such a population.”
While this may seem like a straightforward process, the acquisition of a citizenship certificate remains a taxing, sometimes near-impossible ordeal for people in Nepal who are politically marginalised.
Aadhaar becoming the blueprint for development organisations, therefore, should be a matter of grave concern. In the case of Nepal, the vision of biometric governance is even more totalising than Aadhaar was in India when it was initially conceptualised. According to Nepali bureaucrats, the national ID card is going to be the basis for any and all state-citizen transactions, and the National Identity Card and Registration Act of 2020 states that the enrolment of an individual from the national ID database may be cancelled if “a foreign individual” obtains the card or if “the person who has obtained the card is not a Nepali citizen.” The fact that the citizenship document is mandatory for eligibility for biometric identification makes it clear that the program in Nepal is incompatible with purported development goals of inclusion and empowerment.
Putting the matter of whether development organisations are able to accomplish this goal or not, what initiatives like ID4D are meant to do is offer reliable identity documents to all, what Simon Szreter articulates as the ‘right of registration’, the legally sanctioned and practically available capacity to prove one’s identity, without which the “the political rhetoric of human rights, and the academic discourse of entitlements, functionings, and capabilities… remains at best, a set of ideals and aspirations for the world’s anonymous poor.”
Nepal’s biometric national ID is only available to those already in possession of a citizenship document, which means that those who don’t have citizenship papers, over four million people living in the country, are going to face more exclusion in their interactions with the state, unable to make claims to recognition and resources. The citizenship document in Nepal is already a requirement for registering births and deaths, changing addresses, and even buying a mobile SIM card. The replacement of this certificate with a biometric ID, under the guise of empowerment, efficiency and ‘frictionless-ness,’ is one that is likely to entrench the political crisis of statelessness and make many people’s lives worse.