Vijayanka Nair takes the page 99 test

My dissertation is an ethnographic study of India’s Aadhaar (foundation) program, a colossal technocratic project that seeks to redefine how the Indian state (over)sees its population. Under the program, the central government has collected the iris scans, fingerprints and select demographic details of nearly every member of India’s billion-strong population, and has linked these indices to 12-digit numbers that serve as unique IDs. Biometric information stored in a centralized database allows for ‘foolproof’ and instantaneous bodily identity verification. Until 2009, India did not have a standardized state ID that could be furnished across the country as proof of personal identity. My dissertation weaves together fieldwork observations from several sites, including biometric enrollment centers, government offices, and the Supreme Court of India. It explores how the laying of a new technological foundation for a ‘digital’ India necessitated an excavation and reassembling of the moral foundations of the relationship between the postcolonial state and individual.

Page 99 of my dissertation is part of a chapter that chronicles early pilot projects aiming to link welfare distribution to online biometric identity authentication. The page recounts experiments being carried out in Jharkhand, a relatively new state in Eastern India. As these pilot projects were being launched, a senior official at the Unique Identification Authority of India jocundly wagered in informal conversation with me that “if it works in Jharkhand, it will work anywhere.” Six months later, the very same officer, patently unamused, declared the state to be “a basket case.” Local officials were unmoved by the zeal and subsequent disgruntlement of their technocratic bosses. They grumbled that impractical plans had being foisted upon them by higher-ups far from au fait with life in Jharkhand. At best, the state enjoyed unreliable internet and electricity access, to say nothing of the digital literacy Aadhaar called for.

While page 99 of my dissertation is squarely ethnographic, on reflection, I find that it is haunted by some of the fundamental questions that inform the longer text. What is the relation between stately plans and what ostensibly results from them? What can an anthropological witnessing of—and attention to—processes of implementation contribute to an understanding of the fourth-order object (to rephrase Philip Abrams) that is the digital state? As I continue to ponder these questions, the page 99 test teaches me that dissertations are books in simmering potentia, but happily, not quite the finished product.

Vijayanka Nair 2018. The State of the Individual: Biometrics, Politics and the Common Man in India. New York University, Phd. thesis.