This article has been edited for Global Voices. It was originally published in Yoti as part of the Subhashish Panigrahi Association for Digital Identity.
Governments implement digital identity programs in order to streamline their processes and provide services to citizens more effectively. However, in India and in many parts of the world, questions arise about digital rights and social exclusion due to the possible life changes that these systems entail for people.
The Aadhaar of India is a unique twelve-digit identification number that people must obtain by registering with their biometric and demographic data. Although Aadhaar is not yet contemplated in the Constitution of India for all citizens, it already has several social benefits linked, and public and private institutions began to use it as a means of identity verification de facto. Aadhaar raises concerns about human rights at risk, in particular, rights to privacy and security, and has received criticism for being considered a tool for mass surveillance. One of the most serious cases in which ordinary citizens lose rights is the refusal to give free school lunch to children who do not have their Aadhaar.
What processes does an ordinary citizen go through to access the vital information provided by the Indian Government? What if the person in question is a monolingual speaker or an indigenous language that is not the official of the region, if he is illiterate, has visual impairment or is subject to some other form of systemic oppression?
For his research on access to public information in India from the standpoint of exclusion, indigenous and linguistic rights, disability and technical imprediments, Subhashish Panigrahi interviewed members of marginalized communities and other interested groups (such as linguists , activists and technical experts) that are fundamental in the debate about digital identity.
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Linguistic Diversity of India
India hosts the largest number of indigenous peoples in the world. 22% of its territory is home to 705 indigenous groups (more than one hundred million, which constitute 8.6% of the population, according to the 2011 census). These groups speak 419 different languages, and most are oral in nature. Of the 780 languages spoken in India, only 22 are officially recognized in the Constitution. That recognition is crucial, because it allows its use in the interaction with the Government. Although some of the 419 languages are multilingual, many are not. Currently, the official Aadhaar site (uidai.gov.in) is partially translated into 12 of the 22 official languages, and does not include any indigenous language.
Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights… identifies access to information in one's own language as a fundamental right.
Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights considers access to information in one's own language as a fundamental right.
Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a 1948 document written by representatives from various legal and cultural fields, considers the right to information in their own language a fundamental right.
In a recent interview, the prominent linguist Mandana Seyfeddinipur, who heads the Endangered Languages Archive at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said: “You cannot hand out a pamphlet in the majority language during an epidemic emergency ” He also emphasized his point by the example of the 10,000 or 12,000 people who inhabit an area of almost 100 km2 in the Lower Fungom region of Cameroon, who speak nine languages on a daily basis. When Dr. Seyfeddinipur points out the problem of creating and updating information in the 7,000 languages spoken in the world, she emphasizes the need to identify the language – indigenous or majority – that each community in an administrative region understands when public information is prepared. .
Although little by little, Aadhaar becomes the predominant authentication system within the government and private sectors, its official site does not yet have information in audio format to give access to speakers of oral indigenous languages or illiterate people. This not only supposes a linguistic barrier, but also an obstacle to digital accessibility. Importantly, India has the largest population in the world (15 million) of visually impaired people and screen readers so that people can hear the information when accessing written content that is not available in most languages.
The lack of resources for linguistic and digital accessibility makes up a large part of the initial field research in India.
Key questions for members of affected communities
- How do people in your community access vital public information when they are illiterate, in poverty or visually impaired (or other handicapped), or when they suffer various forms of social exclusion? What obstacles do you face and what is missing?
- What do you think of the current technology of the Aadhaar? What can be done to improve accessibility, transparency and accountability?
- To which forms of exclusion are many beneficiaries exposed with the implementation of the digital identity programs of India and the world? What impact does it have from the point of view of human rights?
- Is it always feasible to provide information to people in their native language? What are the practical obstacles and what can be done to ensure that everyone has access to the most vital information?
Main findings from the interviewees
- The current system of access to public information generates more exclusion of the elderly or who suffer from some diseases or disabilities, speak unofficial languages or live other forms of social oppression.
- There have been considerable dissemination initiatives designed to educate users about the use of their private data and the fundamental need to collect that data, especially as regards the importance of having simpler KYC (“Know your customer”) controls and reliable.
- Greater technical infrastructure favors the privileged, and this generates greater systemic exclusion in terms of access to public information. Most of the functions added to the initial authentication step of the Aadhaar can only be used by people with advanced computer and internet knowledge, and not by an average user.
- Most of the population has a low level of literacy, especially in the majority languages in which much of the public information is available, and this is a huge problem.
Other research areas
- Other forms of social exclusion, such as gender and sexuality, that affect India's digital identity landscape.
- The contribution of the free and open source community to ensure accessibility, transparency and responsibility, which are still absent in the technical framework, which is basically built from the owner's mentality.
- Impact of privacy and security aspects, and how access to human and digital rights of marginalized groups can be improved.
- Best practices in the world that can reduce all forms of systemic exclusion.