The Day and Night of the Living Dead

I talk a lot about identity but its not because I like to hear my self talk, though I kinda do. It is because identity is so important that we are asking people to sign a petition to the United Nations to make Identity an Universal Human Right. Why is identity so important? If you read Chloe Hadjimatheou’s report in the BBC on India’s living dead: ‘They stared at me like I was a ghost’ you will begin to understand. 

In the article Chloe recounts the story of Padesar Yadav a 70 year old farmer from the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh who was declared dead by his cousin. Yadav was trying to sell some land to pay for his 2 orphaned granddaughter’s education when he was told by the buyer that he could not sell the property because he was not the legal owner. It turns out Yadav’s cousin thought he deserved the land so he filed an official death certificate and left his 70 year old uncle without money or a roof over his head.

It is totally heartbreaking and totally crazy at the same time that something like this could happen in a civilized democracy like India. How the heck does someone arbitrarily get to declare another person dead with out any evidence of their death? To make it even crazier, Yazad is not alone in his plight, The association for the Living Dead in India estimates that there are over 100,000 ‘living dead’ people in Uttar Pradesh alone.

Yep, you read that right

Yep. There is an actual organization called The Association for the Living Dead of India. If you extrapolate the Uttar Pradesh numbers to the whole of India, this organization has 663,000 members none of whom are happy or proud to be part of the club. Most of the members are elderly, illiterate and poor and they share another common trait, none of them can prove they are really alive, even when they are standing right in front of you! 

Being unable to prove your own identity in a self-sovereign manner, has left people like Lal Bihari Mritak, the founder of the Association fighting to prove they are alive for 25 years. Lal Bihai and many of the members have added the last name ‘Mritak’, which translates as ‘the late’, to their names to highlight their plight.

Nothing should convince you how important identity is more than the plight of 600,000 living beings who cannot prove they are actually alive. The ridiculous nature of this very serious and life-threatening issue highlights another problem with identity, it is centralized. Traditional Identity is something that is centralized in the control of governments and banks around the world and they determine who can have an identity and what they can do with it. India is a country that is often lauded for their Aadhaar biometric identity program so how can this still continue to happen? 

It’s MY Identity not yours

Yadav and his fellow living dead victims presumably have Aadhaar credentials to prove their identity? So how can it take 25 years to prove you are alive?  The answer lies in the assumption that Yadav had Aadhaar credentials in the first place. A digital Identity program is only as good as it’s reach and in a place like India 90% Aadhaar coverage still leaves 130 Million people defenceless against being declared dead by a shifty relative or a scam artist. 

Until identity becomes personal there will always be people who fall through the cracks of any system and as the Association for the Living Dead proves, these people with no Identity have no hope, no opportunity and no access to money, credit or education. Often suicide is the only way out.

If everyone had the ability to issue their own Identity or ‘proof of life’ they could ask all of there friends and relatives who know they are alive to attest to the validity fo your claim. A user-centric, self-sovereign identity (SSI) is not the silver bullet solution for everything but if it could be used to make sure the living are really living and the dead are really dead. 

SSI could be the first step to a better future for 663,000 people and that’s a start.