Life without identification in Pakistan: Saturday, May 21...

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Life without identification in Pakistan:

Saturday, May 21, 2016. Balochistan, Pakistan.

Akhtar Mansour, head of the Afghan Taliban, finished his lunch at a roadside cafe, and was en route to the provincial capital of Quetta when his white Toyota Corolla was reduced to a smoldering mass of twisted metal by two Hellfire missiles, fired by a U.S. military Reaper drone.

Biometric belonging in Pakistan
Around the word, centralized biometric identification systems are being presented as one-stop solutions to many of our problems.

Mansour was killed in an instant, his death now a footnote to America's 20-year misadventure in Afghanistan.

But he was survived by a shiny piece of mint green plastic, retrieved from the car's charred remains: an identity card issued by Pakistan's National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) that identified him as Muhammad Wali, a Pakistani citizen.

For Pakistan's government, the discovery that the leader of the Afghan Taliban had acquired this supposedly secure and unforgeable form of identification was a source of great embarrassment.

In response, a nationwide identity "reverification" campaign was launched to root out foreigners posing as citizens, forcing 180 million people to prove that they were, in fact, Pakistani.

That was the summer when, with the War on Terror as a dramatic backdrop, a woman named Gulzar Bibi received a letter from NADRA informing her that her ID card had been blocked.

She didn't know it then, but the news would turn her life upside down and leave her living in fear for years to come.

Fifty-three years old and a mother to nine children, with a voice prone to swelling indignantly when launching into a story, Gulzar has lived in an informal settlement in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad for the past 40 years.

She spends the monsoon months muttering Quranic verses, praying that the water rising in the garbage-choked sewers nearby will not wash her home away. For the rest of the year, she fights off threats of eviction from Islamabad's municipal authorities, staring down bulldozers dispatched to raze her house.

Life is usually difficult for Gulzar, but NADRA's decision to suspend her computerized national ID card (CNIC) made it impossible to do things most people take for granted.

Her cell phone stopped working and she was unable to access welfare programs that provided food rations, state-subsidized medicines and free schooling for her children.

Quickly, her eldest daughter realized that her ID card had been suspended as well. In official NADRA parlance, it had been "digitally impounded." Then, all three of Gulzar's sons followed, along with a brother in Lahore.

Like dominos, the whole family fell.

The letter instructed Gulzar to visit a government office three miles away. A widow who barely makes ends meet by cleaning rich people's houses, she grapples with a number of long-term health conditions.

Years ago, she had been bitten by a pair of dogs. The infection festered, curdling into sepsis and debilitating her for life. "I walk two steps and I'm out of breath," she told me. Still, she had to go. She could not survive without state support.

Gulzar's predicament wasn't an aberration.

In October 2016, NADRA revealed that it had been blocking an average of 225 CNICs every day since September 2013 -- throwing, by that count, a grand total of nearly 660,000 lives into chaos.

Many have been reinstated but, as of March 2020, more than 150,000 identities remained suspended.

Over the past two decades, the CNIC has come to underpin all aspects of Pakistani life. Since it is also an official marker of citizenship, an impounded card renders its holder, to all intents and purposes, stateless.

Established in 2000, NADRA has been internationally celebrated for designing and maintaining a national database that holds the personal and biometric information of 98% of the Pakistani population.

The World Bank has referred to the organization as "the single source of truth for identification data" in the country.

The authority -- which falls under the jurisdiction of the interior ministry, but operates as an independent corporate body -- has since helped to implement identity-related projects in Bangladesh, Kenya, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and South Sudan.

But, as thousands of Pakistanis can attest, NADRA is also a perfect example of the dangers of unchecked digitization, of how centralized databases can be wielded against people who don't fit the state's idea of a model citizen -- to the particular detriment of women, working-class people and ethnic, sexual and religious minorities -- and how such systems can push someone like Gulzar even further into the margins.

The information collected by NADRA, staggering in its volume and increasing by the minute, is also maintained in the absence of legal safeguards, meaning that there is no way of knowing how it has been, will be, or could be used in the future.

Despite multiple requests, NADRA did not respond to the questions raised by this report.

Posted November 27 2021 at 9:29 PM

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