This article was published in Yoti as part of Subhashish Panigrahi's research on digital identification. It has been edited for Global Voices.
The recent report on the state of Aadhaar that statistically argues that Indian digital identification has had enough benefits with minimal exclusion coincides with technology manufacturers and largely with the Indian Government. However, the perspectives reflected through interviews with marginalized communities and other experts show otherwise.
The report argues that 92% of 167,000 respondents are “satisfied with Aadhaar,” and 90% “trust that their data is safe in the system.”
However, the report is not about surveillance and risks to the right to privacy, which is crucial for the human rights and digital rights of the Indian population of 1300 million people (1230 million of that total had enrolled in Aadhaar for the January 1, 2020). The report was published by the international consultant Dalberg Global Development Advisors with support from the Omidyar Network.
The Indian Government usually puts the national security of the State over individual rights, a concern that has recently been extended with the ongoing discussions around the personal data protection law of 2019 (read here the proposed law) that It can give government agencies access to people's private data.
What is Aadhaar?
Aadhaar is a unique 12-digit number provided by the public organization Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) that residents can obtain if they give their biometric data and demographic data. Aadhaar is linked to a series of services of benefit to the citizen, and logistical and technical matters have led to the exclusion of many marginalized communities. Similarly, the use of personal data in Aadhaar for authentication of public and private entities has raised serious human rights problems.
The Unique Identification (UID) is used to label Indian citizens with Aadhaar with the centralization of various personal data (including biometrics). Aadhaar is merely a number, unlike the popular misconception that it is another “card” that provides Indian citizens with a form of identity.
The 20 people – whose interviews form the basis of this report – are from marginalized communities based on social and economic factors, and are in the Indian states of Odisha and Uttarakhand in four different places. Five (25%) of the respondents were women, including two illiterates, and so much so that the interviewed men were all literate. Odisha interviewees were from two communities adivasi (indigenous) – Lanjia Sora and Jurai Sora, and Uttarakhand interviewees were from low-income groups.
The other group of interviewees were experts that included human rights lawyers and activists, litigants, ethnographers, academics and other researchers.
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Aadhaar, social benefits and exclusion
As Aadhaar has been and is linked to many citizen services, authorities tend to use identification and authentication based on fingerprint scanning. Services such as state pension or rations (food, fuel, etc.) – and even subsidized health care – are received by people who are generally marginalized by age, literacy, access to public information in their own language, etc. Illnesses or manual labor can cause loss or change of fingerprints that may have to be updated periodically. Such a case can cause authentication based on fingerprints to fail.
“For someone who is already part of a public system and already receiving benefits, the complexity of getting everything connected through Aadhaar becomes a burden,” says a researcher-interviewee (who did not want to be named) studying the reception of public benefits, such as pensions, and the Public Distribution System (PDS) initiative of the federal government to provide food and essential commodities to people in need with the aim of eradicating poverty in rural areas of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana He adds that “those who do manual work, or have a disease, or are of the third age (or any of these combinations) often find that their fingerprints are not detected or authenticated,” and highlights how authentication through a number mobile or biometric (either in the case of Aadhaar) has many flaws, something that also highlighted the researcher and human rights lawyer Dr. Usha Ramanathan and lawyer Rahul Narayan.
According to Dr. Ramanathan: “maintaining a valid mobile number or maintaining the same telephone number used at the time of registration, the failure to update the number has led to exclusion” is a great challenge, “the technotopic”, the group of technology experts behind Aadhaar – because of their own privileges ignorance of the reality of the land – do not understand it ”.
The well-known litigator Shyam Divan describes the Aadhaar system as “dehumanizing,” since it allows the rations to be denied to the poor because of the failure of Aadhaar authentication based on fingerprints. In November 2018, activists of the Campaign for the Right to Food in the Indian state of Jharkhand reported that 17 people had died only in Jharkhand for not having linked their ration cards to Aadhaar, although the Aadhaar state report states that 80% of people believe that “Aadhaar has made the rations of the PDS, MGNREGS plans or social pensions more reliable.” It is important to note that the failure, however small it may seem in percentage terms, is actually massive if one considers that there are 1.3 billion people in India. “It took me a year to get my Aadhaar card,” says Manjula, a housewife of Lanjia Sora of the Gajapati district of Odisha, who is just over 40 years old.
Unique, ubiquitous and universal: Characteristics of systemic failures
Nandan Nilekani, former president of UIDAI who directed the preparation of Aadhaar in 2008-2009, detailed its three main pillars: Unique, Ubiquitous and Universal. Dr. Ramanathan, who participated in some discussions led by Nilekani, soon recognized that Aadhaar is not what it was designed for. He explained:
- the “Unique’ ’part was not to give a unique identity to every citizen but to use Aadhaar as a tool to identify them
- its “Ubiquitous’ ’design was to link the records of every single resident of India that are scattered across databases
- the “Universal’ ’feature makes every person feel compelled to enroll for Aadhaar, even though enrollment is marketed as voluntary
- the “Unique” part was not to give each citizen a unique identity, but to use Aadhaar as a tool to identify them
- his “ubiquitous” design was to link the records of each inhabitant of India, dispersed in the databases
- The “Universal” feature makes each person feel obligated to enroll in Aadhaar, even if the registration is marketed as a volunteer
“It was clear from the beginning that those who would suffer the most would be the poor. As an unproven technology that is being imposed, the entire project threw himself from the shoulders of the poor without knowing if the identification would work or not. Aadhaar is not a card but a number attached to biometrics. If the biometrics don't work, the number doesn't work, ”added Dr. Ramanathan.
Rahul Narayan, lawyer of the Supreme Court of India, considers that the design of Aadhaar has a surprising and dangerous similarity with the governmental structures created by Stalin or Hitler. Narayan is frantic with the idea of accumulating personal data collected by public and private services with Aadhaar.
Access to information
The lack of access to information emerged as a huge marginalization factor in the interviews in the field. Mrs. Ramani, 70, of Jurai Sora, from the Rayagada district of Odisha, recounts how she and other illiterates in her village suffered during registration in Aadhaar. They depended on the help of bilingual officials and others for translation. “Public announcements are made by Endia” (it comes from “India”, it refers to a bilingual person who takes public announcements to the town) says Dinabandhu, elder of Lanjia Sora.
In a country with more than 700 languages (only 22 are officially recognized) and a literacy rate of 74.8%, only about 12 languages are used in the official Aadhaar application. The claim that 92% of those who use Aadhaar are satisfied and 90% are confident that their data is safe with the government of the state of Aadhaar seems very ambitious and impractical.
Despite the enormous efforts to make Aadhaar the starting point for the verification of the identity of many public and private services, section 9 of the 2016 Aadhaar Law – which deals with the use of authentication as proof of citizenship and Address – was described as “unconstitutional” in a ruling of the Supreme Court of India of December 2019. Many communities during these interviews were glad to have an “Aadhaar card” as a right, and now they could not imagine their lives without the card .