This article was published on Yoti as part of Subhashish Panigrahi's Digital Identity scholarship program. It has been edited for Global Voices.
The world's largest biometric identification system, aadhaar, assigns Indian citizens a unique identity number that is linked to a number of benefits for the citizen. The program was intended to be a technological solution to existing and emerging difficulties, to help ensure inclusion in India. In practice, it has been the opposite, since marginal and vulnerable communities have deepened the exclusion.
Aadhaar began to take shape in 2009, when the Indian National Congress (INC) was the ruling party, but had an aggressive implementation with the Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party, currently in office with a majority at the federal level and strong influence in many provinces. . The system has been used in federal and provincial public programs on a massive scale, but exclusion persists.
It was hoped that after a decade of aadhaar, issues such as India's long history of racial oppression, which existed long before British colonization and continued after the country became a democratic republic in 1947, would be addressed. Instead, many marginalized communities find themselves in a lot of trouble, unable to access basic services and communities.
Conversations with members of various communities – as part of research conducted for the MarginalizedAadhaar project (see Field Diaries # 1, # 2 and # 3) – indicate that the most marginalized have been further excluded as a result of absolute reliance on 'solutionism technological 'shown by various state entities.
However, the technological biases that have emerged from systemic social oppression in Indian society, especially in the context of aadhaar, have yet to be addressed.
‘Technological weapons of mass exclusion’
When viewed through the lens of different demographics – social, political, economic, regional, linguistic, religious, and most of all, the access to privileges for those at the bottom of the pyramid– only a tiny fraction of what a national biometric identity system like aadhaar means to citizens can be captured.
By their very nature, identification systems must allow for social inclusion and individual rights to address issues across the spectrum – from broad inequality to nuances associated with adivasis, especially Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups. If they do not do so, people with privileges but without understanding of diversity and inclusion end up building ‘technological weapons of mass exclusion.’
For example, aadhaar has been implemented for biometric authentication in the distribution of food rations through the public distribution system (PDS), an initiative of the federal government that offers food and other essential goods to those who need them. Of course, the goal is to eradicate poverty, but data from the country's census showed that between 2001 and 2011, the number of people went from 21 to 26.8 million, an increase of 22.4%.
You can't talk about technology, especially in India, without mentioning systemic racial discrimination. The country's political power dynamics are much more divisive than before, to the point that they have become part of the apparatus of exclusion.
The caste system divides people of the Hindu faith into four main classes, some of which are considered outcast or 'untouchable'. Those communities are collectively known as Dalits in progressive discourses. In the Indian Constitution they are classified as registered castes.
The ruling BJP, a right-wing nationalist party dominated by “higher caste” Hindus, has been pushing to exclude Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis – and various marginalized communities – with divisive policies. From a human rights perspective, technological implementations of these policies often become inherent and serious design flaws.
Access to information in mother tongues
Interestingly, in a country where there have been at least 402 documented internet blackouts since the BJP came to power in 2014, the aadhaar system relies on the internet to function. People who want to get food rations must authenticate their identity with a process that relies on fingerprints, and authorities at ration centers use an online portal to verify information.
Equally worrisome is the fact that about 104 million Adivasis, already largely excluded because they come from a low-income group, are further marginalized because they cannot find any information about aadhaar in their mother tongues.
In this video, Manjula Bhuyan, a Sora speaker from Odisha, India, highlights the importance of accessing information about digital identity in one's native language. Here you can access downloadable videos with subtitles and transcripts.
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3CmhAAKNp8 (/ embed)
Citizens declared illegal
The impact of this systemic bias is broad. It ranges from Dalit and Muslim schoolchildren from low-income families being denied school due to errors in the aadhaar system, to Muslim citizens harassed and asked to provide proof of citizenship.
Muslims in the state of Assam are among the worst affected – 1.9 million out of a state population of 33 million were declared illegal in the National Citizen Registry (NRC), a program designed to eliminate illegal immigrants.
In this video it is said that the state of digital identity took a critical turn when these 1.9 million people were declared illegal. Here you can access downloadable videos with subtitles and transcripts.
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKPuvZAxUPI (/ embed)
The exercise of the National Registry of Citizens was temporarily halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but new sensations of terror began to be felt among those who were declared illegal.
Ashraful Hussain, an activist who works closely with many discriminated Asamese Muslims, noted: “Most Muslims – and even many Hindus of (West) Bengal origin – were purposely excluded from the category of 'original inhabitant' by officials in charge of the National Registry of Citizens ”.
The 1.9 million people whose names were left off the list of “legal citizens” have one last option: to appear before what is known as a foreign court to prove their citizenship in a judicial process.
However, Hussain fears that although these already marginalized people are becoming impoverished as a result of the lockdown restrictions, they will have to pay the legal costs associated with having to prove their citizenship once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. And the exclusion goes much further. According to Hussain, “as many Muslim women are illiterate and cannot find documents to establish their parental bond, these women and their children are off the (NRC) list.”
The NRC is deeply tied to Aadhaar. As attorney Tripti Poddar explained, the collection of people's biometric data occurred during the NRC process. Those who were included in the registry were issued aadhaar; the others were denied it. Poddar further argues that even a foreigner residing in India can receive aadhaar, but Indian citizens designated by the NRC can be stripped of their constitutional rights.