Pakistan, National Identity And Ground Realities

The words in NADRA's policy and mission statements need operationalisation and implementation, along with a sensitised mindset and action plan to reach out to the common client

Pakistan, National Identity And Ground Realities

What makes us citizens of a country? This question never really crossed my mind until certain events occurred recently. Lots of things do not, and why would they? I have never really needed to pontificate over many matters.

But nearly 77 years since gaining independence, for some Pakistanis, this question remains unclear and perhaps definitive in forming a key part of their identity. 

In 1973, Pakistan issued physical identity cards for all its citizens. We had just lost more than half of the country but retained the 'name'; perhaps that spurred the rulers to officially start counting who was and wasn't a citizen and could prove it. 

In 2000, during General Pervez Mushraff's 'tenure', the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) was established as a national, digitised database for Pakistani identity cards. 

An upgrade

If you visit NADRA's website, its vision statement says the authority was set up to provide 'a technologically advanced national database of the Pakistani citizens which is transparent and easily accessible'.

However, ground realities today have raised the need to ask who the database is 'easily accessible' for?

Is it only accessible for Pakistani 'citizens' living across 154 districts in the four formal provinces of the federation or for those citizens who have the good fortune of living in modern, educated, literate, documented social environments where all decisions and 'policies' are made—far away from the maddening crowds of Pakistan.

Nadra's 'objectives statement' further states: 'NADRA has gained international recognition for its success in providing solutions for identification, e-governance, and secure documents that deliver multi-pronged goals of mitigating identity theft, safeguarding the interests of our clients, and facilitating the public.' 

These four lines very clearly show that this government organisation is not focused on the majority of the rural, non/semi-literate, poor, iodine deficient, malnourished, unemployed, migratory, and often displaced citizens of Pakistan. NADRA must alter its gaze towards the most needy of us.

What I witnessed in Jaffrabad offered a mirror into the challenges the majority of poor, disempowered citizens experience daily across the country

Some ideas

Let's look at some of the ideas in this objective statement:

  1. 'E-governance': how many citizens of Pakistan are engaged in and have this privilege when effectively 70% of the country is functionally illiterate? Instead of being more accessible today, many Pakistanis are further restricted from accessing the internet and are shut out as a result of further planned draconian communication policies, which slow down connectivity rather than expanding or accelerating it.

  2. 'Internationally recognised as a successful organisation'; should our national database agency be concerned about benchmarking its success by an international governance checklist or the needs of its primary client at home? In fact, when was the last time NADRA conducted a nationwide survey amongst its primary clients, the local citizens? What does the average citizen of Pakistan say about their experiences with NADRA and local government departments supporting relevant associated services?

The most important set of words in their mission statements are, 'solutions', 'safeguarding', 'interests', and 'facilitating'. NADRA needs to shift its gaze and efforts towards local clients instead of non-resident or already empowered Pakistanis. 

The words in NADRA's policy and mission statements need operationalisation and implementation, along with a sensitised mindset and action plan to reach out to the common client.

A majority of Pakistani citizens are not facilitated nor offered practical solutions to the concrete challenges they face while attempting to access their national identity cards. 

If NADRA's 'client' is a citizen, that means every child, woman, and man who is a legal resident or was born in Pakistan, is entitled to an identity card— a foundational right! 

If that is the case, NADRA has failed its raison d'etre—at the very least for citizens living in Jaffrabad. Jaffrabad is a mere 600,000 souls (at least according to the 2023 census guess-estimates), and some might even argue that it is hardly a testament to the flaws plaguing the national identity database organisation. Local government departments can and must assist the locals with the requisite documentary evidence. 

A country of 250 million, perhaps 300 million; what's a few thousand here or there? Or does it matter? Should it matter? 

Is this why the largest province of Pakistan, Balochistan, with the smallest population, remains in the dark; literally. One would imagine that with a relatively small population, every resident would be easily accounted for. But, the ground reality is that they are not. 

I see everyone as equals. Therefore, I want everyone to have the same access to services and rights for citizens living in Jaffrabad as I have access to while living in Islamabad. 

NADRA, a renowned, technology-savvy, modern, well-funded government agency, is not providing the services and outreach it should in Balochistan. For example, I was born in Quetta, but for pretty much my entire adult life, I have lived abroad. When in Pakistan, my city of residence was almost always in Islamabad. My first national identity card stated my residence as Pishin, but later, I transferred it to Islamabad to make my voting options more accessible. All these changes and adjustments were completed in Islamabad, and I was not required to go to Quetta. 

However, the same standard is not applied to many villagers living in Jaffrabad. By and large, many in Balochistan move seasonally from north to south between summer and winter. Movement and migratory behaviour are quite the norm here. The wealthy and landed among these live in Karachi for half the year, while the poor move to warmer or cooler areas per the season. Similar to the khandabadosh communities, the residents of Noshki, Jaffrabad, or Sibbi, for example, have been drifting between Afghanistan and Balochistan (in today's Pakistan) all the way down to Sindh for millennia. They have lived, worked, married in Sindh and returned to Jaffrabad. Very few in Balochistan remain static all year round; it is more than just a way of life. Economics and weather have dictated this behavioural pattern. But policymakers in Islamabad need to factor these realities into their policies.

Several villagers own property (or not) in Jaffrabad, but when they want to renew their national identity cards or, get verified in Jaffrabad, or apply for their first computerised national identity card (CNIC), they are denied this right.

The average person lacks the capacity to comprehend the 'policy' requirements of a crucial and critical national identity document. 

The closest thing to a rational explanation that I was given for this was: "Baji, I don't know, it is NADRA's policy." The solution offered for residents of Jaffarabad is to go to Sindh to get their identity cards. I had not realised we had drawn borders between provinces and formally made distinctions between citizens. In a country so fractured in its national identity, the state devises policies which cement distinctions and discrimination. This has to change.

More revealing, however, is the state's lack of understanding of its citizens' behavioural and socio-economic patterns—a migratory culture. For centuries, Balochistan's residents have roamed from north to south, including Sindh, and back depending upon the weather and seasonal work opportunities. This is quite well-known and considered a norm there. Any policy the federal government imposes on citizens for national identity cards has to be cognizant of its client's profile. Provincial border regions like Jaffrabad will always have residents who originate from Sindh or elsewhere in the province. In fact, the primary language in Jaffrabad is neither Saraiki, Sindhi or Balochi (Brahvi). Does that make them any less residents of Balochistan? Why should any citizen of Pakistan have to 'return' to another part of Pakistan for the verification of their primary documents? This is not only utter nonsense, it is also frankly quite offensive.

Sadly, neither the political representatives nor the local government officials have successfully addressed these challenges in the power policy corridors. It is another reflection of the weak governance structures, where the voices and needs of disempowered citizens remain without local or national champions. No one cares about their hopelessness, whether they are Pakistani or not.

What I witnessed in Jaffrabad offered a mirror into the challenges the majority of poor, disempowered citizens experience daily across the country. While I have not drawn a national sample size, an MNA from Sindh, a Senator from Balochistan, and many development practitioners have agreed with my observations. 

For the past nine months, in three villages of Jaffrabad, at least 165 citizens lack birth registration documents; some also lack valid CNICs or hold expired identity cards—which cannot be renewed and are blocked. The renewal processes are beyond their capacity. More worrying, however, is that since adults do not possess valid identity cards, their children—and there are plenty in each family—are also unable to get an identity card. Can you see the numbers of an invisible population piling up? Why does this have to be the case?

NADRA's policy demands that each applicant for a computerised national identity card must possess documentary evidence of their birth registration and provide a series of certified, verified, counter-signed documents from local government officials.

NADRA officials I spoke to insist the fault lies with the local government offices. The process there is long, tedious, cumbersome, inaccessible, and unavailable, and many times, it requires repeated, futile trips to local officials. But all of this is not their concern.

In light of these challenges, shouldn't NADRA devise a strategy to easily overcome these barriers? Is it asking too much for NADRA to consider this service as facilitation, part of its efforts to ensure modernised documentary evidence collection to strengthen e-governance and achieve its stated raison d'etre- identity cards for all citizens. 

What is the education level of the average Pakistani? Do we have a culture of documenting, registering and maintaining records? What is the practice adopted by most Pakistanis in the rural and urban areas regarding birth registration, marriage registration, divorce or separation, and death registration?

I think we know the answer.

The identity card is not merely a numerical tool for census officials but a gateway for citizens to navigate life and opportunities in Pakistan

Do our national policies factor in these challenges when devising policies for identity cards? Is it safe to assume NADRA's policymakers know the common practices of the average Pakistani residents? 

Modern societies want a government that demands citizens maintain documentary evidence of every stage of their lives. In an educated, civilised modern state, citizens do. The operative word here being educated. The capacity to comprehend rules, navigate government requirements and ensure results only comes from educated citizens. A compounding factor of disempowerment also comes from the existing social structures of exclusion. A poor person has little access to government officers who must sign off on the documents necessary for NADRA. Pointing fingers at the weak and ineffective local government is really not a solution, is it? It is even more distressful when the solution is very simple. 

The reality is that every citizen in Pakistan should register themselves and their child at birth, etc. But they don't. If they don't, what should the state' policy' on ID cards be? Should we expect the applicant/client to provide what we know they cannot? Who is responsible for this or should be responsible? The average person lacks the capacity to comprehend the 'policy' requirements of a crucial and critical national identity document.

In a 'democracy', a representative of the 'people' (citizens/clients) would make a 'policy' for accessing national identity cards, which factors in the ground realities of their constituents. Aside from the moral obligation of providing constituents with national identities (IDs), this document is needed for casting votes! Here in lies the rub; the 'public representative' hasn't been 'elected' nor 'selected' by the constituents for the most part; thereby, his efforts to please are diverted to powers that have.

Nevertheless, a national identity card is required to go to school, access social welfare schemes (like the Benazir Income Support Programme), receive handouts from official donors, or a government department, or even zakat foundations and medical assistance in a private hospital. 

The identity card is not merely a numerical tool for census officials but a gateway for citizens to navigate life and opportunities in Pakistan. If this identity card is so important for each citizen, who should be responsible for ensuring it is accessible for all? State managers and their departments (the bureaucracy?) or the citizens? Who should facilitate the bureaucracy for verifications and registrations and provide explanations on why something is necessary? 

How is it that NADRA has not thought that its mandate extends beyond the posters plastered all over its offices and that it must provide every single citizen with a card? How difficult is this? What are the obstacles? We must remove these hurdles. 

While working amongst the poorest in Pakistan, I observed that the government seems to have expectations (or not) from citizens but does not harbour any sense of responsibility or accountability to the very citizens. To rectify this, the very nature of government must change; it HAS to change. The government and all its organs have to transform how they work. Service delivery must include social mobilisation, individual facilitation, problem-solving, and incentivising behavioural changes.

Only AFTER conducting a concerted physical outreach programme nationwide, door-to-door exercise, verifying and providing documents to every citizen, can policymakers in Islamabad or Rawalpindi have any expectations of citizens to provide documentary evidence themselves, but not before.

Pakistan is a premodern society. The state may have pretensions about it being otherwise, but the truth is for all to see. The disconnect with ground realities and the creation of policies designed to fail without concerted social support and physical, systematic outreach programmes suggest the intent and desire to achieve the stated objectives are disingenuous.


The solutions, however, are quite simple.

How difficult is it for clerics to provide a death certificate? Every time the final rites are performed or at the circumcisions of male children, or for a lady health worker issuing birth registration certificates for newborn girls. Why aren't school administrators registering every child who walks into school or facilitating mothers and fathers to get the necessary birth registration document? How is it not legally incumbent for every member of the provincial assembly to have their constituents registered with the necessary documents?

There are many offices where government service providers can process and provide documents. The burden must, hence, shift from the broken citizens until upliftment programmes—through education—can bear fruit.  

Current NADRA policy demands that any citizen who does not possess a birth registration document must produce one. How can the citizen do that? If you are a child, and your parent has a national identity card, they can apply for a child B-card (child national identity card) as long as local government officials sign off on various verification documents.

If a parent does not have a valid identity card, their child is also deprived of the right to secure one. If an adult over 20 (according to the Gazette of Balochistan) does not have birth registration documents and seeks one to create their identity card, they need to produce various documents for verification.

For cases where an adult requires birth registration documents, a panel of specific doctors must determine the medical age through scientific procedures. The panel must comprise a dentist with a specific qualification, a surgeon with a specific qualification, an orthopaedic with a specific qualification, etc. In the case of Jaffrabad, it is impossible to form such a panel as the medical experts with the required qualifications are unavailable at the district health headquarters. Each applicant must travel to Quetta for six hours, some 310 kilometres away, to get the requisite documents for a national identity card.

Aside from the documentary evidence requirements, the application of this policy is selective. In Jaffrabad, the municipal corporation is in charge of the citizens living in the city (the city area being very loosely defined here) and adjoining hamlets. They follow this policy to the letter, which means they will not issue birth registrations to a citizen above the age of 20 without the necessary medical age verification documents, but the local government union councillors, who are in charge of rural residents living in 'wards', have a relaxed interpretation of this policy. They issue birth registration documents to citizens above 20 without completing the medical age verifications. 

The district government units feed applicants' data through software provided by NADRA into its database. How does NADRA accept both sets of data when one is stated to be contrary to their 'policy'?

NADRA administrators must review these and many other mistakes in their input systems.

Pakistan is a premodern society. The state may have pretensions about it being otherwise, but the truth is for all to see. The disconnect with ground realities and the creation of policies designed to fail without concerted social support and physical, systematic outreach programmes


Another serious issue I witnessed in the process of obtaining identity cards was the consequences of mistakes made by NADRA's data entry officials. There were multiple cases where an illiterate citizen had an expired identity card, but the document could not be renewed because, in NADRA's database, her family tree indicates the daughter is older than the father, or her mother gave birth when she was under 15 years old (considered as unacceptable/unnatural/illegal in NADRA), or her sibling's age is less than nine months apart. In each of these instances, it is certainly not the citizens' fault for what information the data entry official uploaded against them. Notwithstanding, it is the citizen who now has to bear the consequences. How is an illiterate citizen responsible for rules, laws, and procedures she has no idea about nor the capacity to comprehend? Age, for example, is a number they rarely truly comprehend. They know 'we' ask them about it, but it holds very little meaning in their village culture and social landscape.

The 'fault' for inaccurate data uploaded to the national database belongs to the official entering the data. These officials must have the capacity or an assisted human resource to explain to the 'client' the impossibility of the child being older than the parent, siblings being the same age or similar, etc.  

On the very prevalent matter of underage marriages and the children who result from such unions, this is a ground reality and a common practice. While I have no doubt that this practice must change and be outlawed, in the meantime, where are the social mobilisation and investment needed to make that a reality? Moreover, should children from such marriages be deprived of a national identity card for the fault of their parents?

The policies, lack of training, compassion, or care in the above-cited fairly common challenges are prime examples of how average citizens are treated at government offices. There is grease and pelf at every stage of verification, which NADRA knows and shrugs off as if it's not their remit. 

At the very least, NADRA must provide the necessary human resources to assist its data entry officers in helping applicants through the process and ensuring the accuracy of data. This should be part of the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for a government agency whose sole focus and purpose is to provide identity services. Instead, it has become a job for social workers like myself, non-governmental organisations, or multilateral donor projects.

NADRA must take responsibility for the data anomalies entered into its system. The data rectification process cannot be a burden for citizens who have no conception of age or legal requirements that coexist with their social practices. 

We may want every child marriage to be declared illegal and stopped, but until an enabling environment is created for a generation and the impact of that is evident, it will remain the responsibility of the government to document the undocumented. Disenfranchising citizens is simply not an acceptable policy.

Until every Pakistani is empowered through quality education, government departments— including NADRA—must develop standard operating procedures and policies which embrace the truth of the average Pakistani citizen. Incumbent policies have triggered a series of consequences beyond the control and comprehension of the 'client'. I humbly request NADRA and its policymakers to return to their stated vision and mission objectives by serving and facilitating the citizens of Pakistan- who live in Pakistan, not Sri Lanka or Singapore.