India: Exclusion by design (ep. 5)

September 8, 2022

India’s ID system Aadhaar made huge progress by enrolling more than a billion people in just a few years. But at what cost?

India’s ID system Aadhaar made huge progress by enrolling more than a billion people in just a few years. But at what cost?

Civil society leader and documentary-maker Subhashish Panigrahi speaks to us about his film “Marginalized Aadhaar” and we discuss the cultural, political and technical issues which led to multiple layers of exclusion by the system, particularly for India’s poor.

Privilege, caste, propaganda and education are all key considerations. Being able to advocate for oneself is all too often only for the wealthy.

Panigrahi talks about exclusion via language and disability by a system tested on the privileged. India still does not have adequate data protections for its citizens personal information, but there are opportunities for the private sector, including the likes of Google and Meta.

Clips from “Marginalized Aadhaar” by Subhashish Panigrahi licensed under Creative Commons BY 3.0.

Watch on YouTube.

01:40 [CLIP] Niall McCann on whether adults enrolled in digital ID systems such as Aadhaar, but who do not have a birth certificate, are counted towards SDG 16.9

03:14 Ken Banks on the Yoti fellowship for digital identity

05:32 Subhashish Panigrahi on privileged positions in terms of caste, gender, education

07:09 Pro Aadhaar propaganda by UIDAI glorifying Aadhaar

09:50 Panigrahi’s own story of registering for Aadhaar and trying to avoid linking it to other services

10:20 How Aadhaar is forced at all levels, how Panigrahi had to link his bank account to unfreeze it despite the link being voluntary

11:27 Language as a an area of exclusion, 22 percent comprehend some English, only 22 of 780 languages are official, Aadhaar documentation only available in 12 languages when Panigrahi started investigating

12:37 [CLIP] Ramani, Sora speaker, on how she was told the apparent benefits of Aadhaar

13:45 Aadhaar promoters and private operators speak Odia when villagers speak Sora

15:25 Nuanced discussion is not possible when languages are not included

15:44 Situation worsened during COVID-19 for those facing identity issues and seeking to claim welfare: biometric errors, internet connectivity, registering, linking Aadhaar

18:50 How Aadhaar was tested on the privileged – mostly urban males – so it never sought to address the existing exclusion. Tested in areas without connectivity issues.

21:52 Disability: large number of people with disabilities means any new technical development should be tested with them for accessibility

23:00 Politics, history, gender, geography layer to compound exclusion

24:18 COVID compounds difficulty of accessing welfare

26:28 Problems facing civil society, independent media in trying to tackle issues around Aadhaar

27:05 People are now self-censoring when it comes to Aadhaar. Private companies are also involved in Aadhaar projects, making huge investments

27:50 Restrictions on reporting such as in Assam where the National Register of Citizens is to launch, 1.9 million residents declared illegal based on Aadhaar database

28:42 Plan is to link databases such as bank, health

29:05 SafeTags – RFID tokens for paying road tolls, but linked to Aadhaar so can be used to track people

30:35 [CLIP] Sunil Abraham, technology researcher in Arnhem, The Netherlands, on how Aadhaar makes a better surveillance system than governance system

32:28 Welfare always a façade for surveillance schemes which can identify people by religion, ethnicity

33:47 [CLIP] Dr. Usha Ramanathan, law researcher, on how Aadhaar is not about one identifying oneself, but for the state to identify you

35:00 Some people are really happy about Aadhaar if it works for them as it is convenient, but it should not be built on exclusion or without privacy protections

35:35 “Just to provide people legal identity, a legal identification, a country cannot run a project that is predominantly excluding majority of the people or people that are extremely excluded otherwise.”

37:10 Everything around Aadhaar is based on smartphones, people share phones for a family, women have least access to phones

39:00 Many people are thankful of the government and the scheme and will comply, others comply because they need welfare

39:45 Lack of understanding of privacy, data protection, India has no constitutional validation for data capture, storage and sharing

41:35 Fintech is booming and using India’s UPI (Unified Payments System), which even global tech such as Google and Meta are using and which links with Aadhaar. Private companies are in line with the government

42:40 Tech issues a distraction from discussing and tackling the underlying social problems

43:25 Tech behind Aadhaar is evolved to improve data protection

44:40 Example of apartment buildings collecting Aadhaar for repairs

45:27 Aadhaar is creating new problems that were not foreseen, based on dangerous level of confidence in the technology

Find out more about the ID 16.9 Podcast and the importance of legal identity.

Produced and hosted by Frank Hersey and Biometric Update.

FRANK HERSEY: Welcome to the ID16.9 podcast, an audio examination of why more than a billion people around the world have no legal identity and whether we’re on track to meet the United Nations Strategic Development Goal 16.9 of legal identity for all including birth registration by 2030.

I’m your producer and host Frank Hersey. In this episode we’re talking about India and its biometric identity system, Aadhaar.

CLIP: It was clear from the beginning that the people who would suffer the most in this in terms of immediate and direct effect would be the poor because this was untested technology being imposed on people and the whole project was being shot from the shoulders of the poor. Saying that this is for the poor, the poor are going to get an ID but actually not knowing whether such an ID can work at all.

FRANK HERSEY: Aadhaar is the Hindi word for “foundation” which is increasingly appropriate as it is increasingly necessary as a basis for many aspects of life, despite what the country’s courts may say.

Some see it as a huge success, registering more than a billion people in just a few years. Others see it as a tool of control and surveillance. Most simply, Aadhaar is a unique 12 digit number. It’s linked to biometrics. They capture pretty much the lot, fingerprints, irises, face, and it works as digital ID. Is it legal ID? Yes. Does it count towards SDG 16.9? Well that’s less clear because of the indicators of progress the UN chose as we heard back in episode two.

NIALL MCCANN: There was an indicator set that allowed us to measure progress under SDG target 16.9 and it’s the proportion of children under the age of five whose birth has been registered. Right? But again, of course 100 percent birth registrations what we’re looking for. But for countries that have not achieved that, but who might be registering their adults later in life, if you’re 35 years of age you never had a birth certificate but now you’ve been registered into a digital ID scheme like in the Aadhaar system in India, you’ve got an ID number. Your biometrics has been taken so you can authenticate yourself and you can access public services. Well then you have been granted legal identity and yet under the strict definition of the indicator, i.e. proportion of children under the age of five whose birth is registered, you’re not going to be captured in that data.

FRANK HERSEY: That’s Niall McCann, outgoing Policy Advisor and Program Manager for legal identity at the UNDP.

Aadhaar with about 1.3 billion people already registered encompasses a vast range of topics. We’re going to start by looking at the situation facing marginalized groups, those who were already excluded by their situation, and what impact the Aadaarh system had on them.

We’re going to speak to Subhashish Panigrahi, a civil society leader, documentary maker and promoter of using media as a democracy-making tool. Subhashish was a Yoti fellow. Yoti is a digital ID firm based in London and here’s Ken Banks, head of social purpose at Yoti, to explain the fellowship scheme.

KEN BANKS: In 2019 when we were looking to put together our first social purpose strategy at Yoti, we wanted to make sure that we also reached out to and included the voices of people who were interested in understanding some of the challenges and issues that were caused by the rolling out, or not, of digital identity systems in their countries. We ended up with fellows in South Africa, Argentina and India. In India, we chose Subhashish. He was a particularly talented documentary filmmaker and researcher with a long history and track record in taking interest in issues of marginalization and during his fellowship he was looking at how the rollout of Aadhaar had caused marginalization among communities in India and the difficulties people were having in either registering or using the system.

We are tremendously proud of the work that he did and the work of the other two fellows and this is certainly something we’re looking to run again in the very near future.

FRANK HERSEY: Ken Banks from Yoti there on the fellowships. And we hope to hear from all the fellows at some point.

Just to note before we go into the main conversation. There’s an acronym coming: OTP, or OT, is one time password, the text message with the code you get sent for logging into services. It’s something Aadhaar relies on, meaning having an active phone can be essential.

Joining me now is Subhashish Panigrahi. Welcome to the show.

Subhashish Panigrahi: Hi Frank. How are you?

FRANK HERSEY: Very well and thank you so much for joining us as we begin to look at Aadhaar and its impact. And as we sometimes mention here on the podcast, this podcast is made by the team at Biometric Update where we cover daily news on identity and biometrics, and Aadhaar comes up a lot, all the time. We could easily do a podcast just on Aadhaar and would never run out of stories. So where to start here? Well, I thought what better than to ask an Indian documentary maker who wanted to make a documentary about Aadhaar. So Subhashish, why did you want to investigate the issues around exclusion for your documentary, Marginalized Aadhaar?

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: Just to give you a little bit of background, when I started working on, or before I started working on the documentary, I was being introduced to the different levels of issues, of different kinds of issues, that one would otherwise not keenly look at, while being privileged. I was living in a city, I spoke English, I didn’t have an issue in terms of proving my identity wherever required. Right? So somebody who is born in a dominant caste system in India is a really complex issue, but just to give a little bit of idea about that. It’s a socioeconomic strata in the Hindu society where some communities get a lot of privileges because of their caste, because of their ethnicity in that sense. And they get to dominate many other communities,
predominantly the Dalits and Adivasis. Adivasis are the Indigenous communities and Dalits are the formerly Untouchable communities and the Adivasis and Dalits are excluded in many ways by the dominant communities. So I was born in the dominant community and being a male, I got all those privileges. I also got higher education. And so I never realized basically the issues that many people that are excluded because of their gender, because of their caste,
because of their other socioeconomic challenges, or disabilities, and how a biometric ID like Aadhaar could exclude them further.

When I started the documentary there was a film that was actually made, there was a movie that was made and that was a propaganda movie in a way because it glorified the role of the government, or the governments, because it was actually introduced by the previous government and it was carried forward by the current government. It glorified all of that. It glorified how it has solved so many issues just by by this rollout and the civil society at the same time was focusing on all the other aspects that are ignored and are not discussed widely.

I was very keen to understand what the civil society has to say, but also the people that are at the receiving end and their narratives, because oftentimes it’s basically a glorious picture that’s painted by the UIDAI [Unique Identification Authority of India], the authority that is behind Aadhaar, the government authority, and they have done very interesting things. They put up a series on YouTube which included point of view of people that are using Aadhaar from different parts of India, and it seemed like people didn’t have any issues with Aadhaar. And all the problems that they had before, because of different kinds of identification were solved by the introduction of Aadhaar. So I think there were those contrasting images where the civil society was looking at the issues of surveillance, the issues of further exclusion of people because of their existing challenges, and on the other hand, the authorities, the UIDAI authorities were painting a very rosy picture of Aadhaar. And I think that was the initial point where I decided to start documenting the other side of the story.

FRANK HERSEY: So you’re seeing two different depictions going on at once. You were seeing what the government wants people to believe and maybe hearing things otherwise. So I was just wondering what stage was is that at? Did you already have your own Aadhaar card by this point?

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: So when I started, I think I did not have, I’m trying to remember the timeline. This is 2019. I think I might have registered or I was in the process of registering for Aadhaar.

FRANK HERSEY: Was it a smooth process for you, getting, registering the biometrics, getting a number and linking it to other things?

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: So yes and no. When I registered for… I was living in Bangalore, a big city with a lot of privileges. Right? That’s the IT capital of India. I had a really fast internet connectivity and so on. When I registered, I basically had to go to the enrollment center. There was a rather manageable line there. The waiting time was not too bad. And when I registered I had to wait for another week, two weeks maybe, to receive the Aadhaar number. However I didn’t want to link my Aadhaar with my bank account, and that was primarily because it was not mandatory. It was voluntary. And I said to myself, well, I got myself an Aadhaar because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to survive without it, because even though it’s touted as a voluntary process to get an ID, it is still mandated in all levels. It is literally forced in all levels. So I got Aadhaar but I was not linking it with my bank account and then my bank froze my account for a month, a month and half. That was also my salary account. So I was struggling a lot and I wrote to the bank officials, I wrote in all levels basically, and they forced me to eventually link it to my bank account. And it was the same experience in all possible places where I did not want to provide Aadhaar in the first place but I was forced and was basically left with no choices to not link Aadhaar.

FRANK HERSEY: But I suppose at least you were able to to do that to pursue and to complain. You know, you could identify what the problem was and you knew how to contact the authorities, the bank, to begin with about doing that. But I suppose for many one of the issues is that they wouldn’t even know how to go about starting that.

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: Absolutely. I mean look at the bigger issue here. 22% or so of India’s population could speak English, right? Or comprehend English to some extent. The remaining 80% can’t. And there are more than 780 languages that are spoken, only 22 of them are officially recognized or officially used. But at that point, the documentation about Aadhaar was not available in those languages. It was only available in 12 languages when I started. I guess the situation would have changed by now. But yeah, the issues, public grievance, all these things are sort of not things that most people would like to do because they’re not convenient. People have to have affordability of time and many other things to be able to even do those things.

FRANK HERSEY: You mentioned their language and I think it might be time for a clip from the documentary which addresses the issue of language. I’d be keen to play this because it is about language and the language is Sora, which I understand to be a minority language spoken in parts of Eastern India. This is a clip of a speaker in the documentary called Ramani.

RAMANI CLIP: What will they do with this Aadhaar card? They are saying that you can get anything with the card – rice and anything else with Aadhaar card. That’s what they said. After they said that, after that, they also told us about ATMs. They asked to get our pictures taken again for the ATM or bank account. We old people didn’t know about any of these. We don’t speak Odia or Hindi. We speak only Sora.

FRANK HERSEY: So perhaps, Subhashish, you could tell us a little bit about this community, the people who speak Sora and how you ended up there for the documentary.

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: So this is basically in my home state, Orissa [Odisha]. And even though I don’t speak the language, I could manage to reach out to some of the language activists and researchers and linguists who work in the region. The Sora language is an indigenous language. In their villages, the public authorities that operate in their villages are mostly Odia speakers and Aadhaar is a very aggressive drive in terms of a government process being carried forward by many third party vendors at times so it’s always not the government officials that would visit places or would operate these centers, but also private operators. So this was done by design, this was done to make sure that the process is faster and by relying on government officials, things would have slowed down

Anyway, so as Ramani mentioned in the documentary that they were first told about Aadhaar, basically to say that there is a new identification, there’s a new ID that you would be provided with and you have to register for that. You have to provide all these details and you have to come to the center with existing IDs to prove that you are who you are saying you are.

So they did that. She herself is probably in her eighties, and that many people who are old, who might have existing illness, who might have existing disabilities and other challenges, particularly linguistic challenges, so she herself spoke no Odia at all. When I went there and I met, I basically spoke through another researcher who is bilingual and it took quite some time just to listen to her and listen to the problems that she has been facing.

I don’t think in an aggressive drive like Aadhaar, nuanced conversations would have been possible to understand that many people, a majority of the people in rural India are actually facing a lot of problems to even resisted. Anyway, so she would have resisted and then she was told by bank officials or public authorities again to link Aadhaar with the bank account. Now, somebody like her who is a woman, is receiving public benefits, and is dependent on public benefits, things would have worsened during the time of COVID because there was relief that was given to people, but many people were denied of that relief because their fingerprints wouldn’t match or they wouldn’t receive the OTP on time. One of the modes of authentication wouldn’t work in remote places. The internet might not be reliable. So because of any technical failure, because of any kind of failure, people were denied their basic rights, the right to life. Right? So that that was the bigger issue. Many people like her faced problems in terms of registering and in terms of linking and in terms of receiving the benefits that were now linked to Aadhaar.

FRANK HERSEY: So I suppose it’s a sort of exclusion, repeat exclusion, because there seems to be so little understanding among certain communities, the people you spoke to for the documentary, about what Aadhaar is and people are being told one thing by somebody, maybe a village representative, and you have speakers, one in the documentary who says that they don’t even have TV there and they rely on their children going and meeting children from other villages which are perhaps a little better connected and they’re coming back with news about Aadhaar and systems and that’s when we are learning about things which is a little terrifying in a way, a sort of Chinese whispers effect. And so there’s this exclusion perhaps at the beginning in terms of even knowing what it is and these promises that it will deliver this, that and the other and you almost get this picture of people, sales people arriving perhaps, a bit like the documentaries, the propaganda you’d seen earlier, this is all great, there’s a new system, but not, it’s not been translated locally, it’s not clear, and then once they have it there’s further exclusion, right?

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: Yeah, yeah. And I think there is exclusion in multiple levels for people like Romani. In the documentary, there’s another clip that you might find. This is by Dinabandhu Gamango who speaks a different dialect of the language and he says, if I correctly remember, they have a system of herald who would come to their village and announce, probably using a megaphone or something of that kind, saying that this is a new thing that you have to do, you have to go to the center and you have to enroll or whatever. If you have to change any detail or if there’s a mistake in your Aadhaar then you have to go and correct by this and this date. So the Chinese whisper part that you just mentioned, it is exactly that. That somebody else is coming on behalf of the government and that person is sharing this information and probably the younger generation would be translating all these things to the elders in the community. So, so the multiple levels of decay of information and that’s all by design.

FRANK HERSEY: When you say that’s by design, did you mean it’s just not being thought out clearly enough?

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: Yes. So I basically spoke to people that were involved with Aadhaar in the beginning, and they didn’t want to share their name, they don’t want to come on the record, however they shared the background information about how Aadhaar was tested with real people as a pilot. Right? So, when there is a user testing for a new system, a new system that could affect so many people in so many levels, you would expect that the exclusions that exist already would be taken into account. You would expect that the factors that could affect a system like Aadhaar would be taken into account. And I was really surprised to hear that there were only small camps in some villages in India where these pilot user testing was done and it was for a very short time, it was again given to a team that was predominantly privileged, mostly males from cities, probably upper caste males as well, because that’s how India’s job sector is. Um, majority of the well paid jobs are taken by upper caste men, dominant caste men.

Um, that leaves no space for people that are from historically marginalized communities and communities that are marginalized because of gender, because of caste, because of disabilities, old age, and so and so. When the user testing was done, that information was not captured. It was not tested in places where there would be zero internet connectivity for instance, or very little connectivity. And so there’s a genuine failure for someone to receive an OTP on their phone because there would be no mobile connectivity there or the device that is used for authentication using biometrics, fingerprints and iris scan and so on would not work in places because of lack of internet connectivity.

Now these things are expected to be incorporated. These problems are expected to be addressed when a system is built because the system should not just work in a city where all these challenges would never happen but should work in a place where there’s real challenge. And that’s the majority of India. It’s not even just one or two extraordinary cases. It’s a majority of the country, majority of the people. So if it’s working for 10 percent of the population that live in the cities, then it’s not the right kind of system to begin with, it’s not the system that can be piloted for the entire population of 1.4 billion people now.

FRANK HERSEY: So it seems as though these exclusions were already known about but then allowed to continue anyway when the system was rolled out. We also hear in the documentary about the issues facing people with disabilities and their struggles. I wondered if you could speak a little bit about that because then it’s not necessarily certain people in a certain community here in the country that would be just spread across the country. So I was wondering what sorts of issues they face.

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: Sure. There’s statistical data, but as far as I remember, I think India is home to the largest number of people with blindness, both partial and complete blindness, and other forms of physical and mental disabilities are widespread. That means that anything that’s new, anything that has a technical side of it and is predominantly dependent on technology has to be tested well with people with disabilities, with different kinds of disabilities, because some people have multiple forms of disabilities. And it sort of gets layered with their age, their gender and many other factors. Say for instance if somebody has disabilities but they have access to accessible solutions, and so people that live in rural India, people, the rural poor particular, and when they have disabilities, it’s really challenging for them to basically access anything that is their basic rights. For example, somebody I spoke to, her name is Harshabati Kheti, she lives in the western part of Orissa which is in Eastern India.

The place is also historically oppressed because of the political imbalance in the state. Majority of the politicians are from the coastal part of Orissa, and hence the allocation of funds for any kind of development activity is more on the other side of the state. So all of that combined, she lost her fingers to probably an accident, probably fire accident I believe, and she was told when she went to the Aadhaar center for enrollment the authorities denied her from registering in the first place and then she couldn’t register and she couldn’t get a ration, basically food grains and kerosene and other essentials that are provided to people in a subsidized price or for free by the government. And that’s that’s basically affirmative action that we have in the constitution for people to live a dignified life, that people have basic rights, and and she was denied all of those things because she could not register in the first place and she was denied to register by the authorities. And when COVID hit people were given ration, she could not receive rations. She couldn’t receive relief. She was struggling in all levels. And we basically shared tweets with this recording that I did with her, the interview that I did with her, and in a day or two the government authorities tweeted saying that now we have identified this issue and we have provided her with the ration that she deserves.

It happened because somebody with a verified account tweeted. It wouldn’t have it wouldn’t have happened if people didn’t identify, if Right to Food Campaign didn’t work with people and identify all these issues. And she was just an extraordinary example that many people that cannot basically share their problems with people that can share it widely and bring authorities attention. But I guess all those people are excluded in many ways and are denied the right to life in this process.

FRANK HERSEY: There’s one thing that I get from watching the documentary is that there’s this network, perhaps of, there’s academics, there’s researchers, there’s lawyers, who are very much aware of the issues around Aadhaar and are trying to do something about it and you’re talking just then about civil society and there’s your own work in civil society as well, of course. And I was just wondering whether that gives you any hope about tackling the problems. And I mean that a little bit if you compare it to identity systems in other countries, perhaps China, where it wouldn’t be as easy for academics to speak out or collaborate on projects or collaborate on legal cases. I was wondering whether you feel that there’s enough of a critical mass from all the sorts of people who you met to tackle the problems.

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: Um yes and no. Yes, India, I mean, as a country, as a democracy, definitely provides people enough amount of dissent and freedom of speech and so on, where the civil society can exercise their rights and talk about problems, discuss problems, document problems. At the same time, there are also challenges where the civil society faces, many independent media in the recent past has independent media houses have been targeted people that lead independent media are put behind bars and the question whether we have the right to dissent and whether we can exercise that freely, we are unsure about that, right? So that’s, it’s not very clear to us.

Unlike in many other countries where the judiciary system, for instance, provides enough amount of protection to activists and civil rights leaders and people that openly share dissent. Now people are self censoring while sharing dissent. And when it comes to something like Aadhaar that has a public private collaboration partnership where big corporations are benefited because of the rollout, so it’s not necessarily just the government pushing for something just for the sake of state surveillance. That’s not the case here. There’s huge amount of investment in terms of the role of big corporations. And yes civil society leaders, researchers and academics and NGOs do get to share and do get to research, but they also denied access to many places.

Assam, for example, where the national, the NRC, the National Register of Citizens was about to be rolled out right before the pandemic and was paused because of the pandemic where 1.9 million people I think were declared illegal citizens or illegal residents and were about to lose their citizenship and were asked to live India to go to Bangladesh where they had probably no ties with Bangladesh.

FRANK HERSEY: And would that have been based on linking to the Aadhaar database? It’s been used as a reference database even though it’s not actually, correct me if I’m wrong but Aadhaar’s not actually about citizenship, right, is it? It’s about whether or not you are a resident in India. I could live in India and get Aadhaar.

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: Exactly, yes, you’re right about that. But so the idea was to build multiple databases and link them all so that in a way one can have a 60 degree view of a resident in the country. Right? So it’s from bank records and bank transactions to tax payments to various private services, even to people’s movements. So now we have something called SafeTags where cars and motorcycles probably as well have these RFID tags attached to their vehicles and when they passed through different toll gates the payment for the toll could be automatic and if somebody doesn’t have that registered and attached to their vehicle then they would pay double the amount. So most people would actually register and then link it.

And one of the most sort of encouraged mode of ID that is accepted for the KYC, the Know Your Customer, is Aadhaar, and most people use Aadhaar, because it’s also this aura that is around Aadhaar, that it is a free pass for every single thing. Right? So when you share Aadhaar, there’s no question asked after that. So most people would do that. So in a way they are different databases that are created and that’s something that many people that I spoke to for the documentary shared. And all these databases are, you know, were linked together to create a very rich metadata for a single person and to also track people’s movement to also track where they are, what they are doing and and so on and so forth.

FRANK HERSEY: I think this brings us onto another clip because of all these clips lined up from your documentary and as we get into different subjects, there is one, this is from Sunil Abraham who is a technology researcher in Arnhem, The Netherlands.

SUNIL ABRAHAM: The first area of broad concern is the use of biometrics in the project, which is technology that is perhaps more appropriate when it comes to police surveillance or law enforcement purposes, but really not an appropriate technology when it comes to the implementation of e-governance projects. And the second real design flaw is that the project uses what it calls a unique identifier, a unique number. And that is also a massive design flaw.

FRANK HERSEY: So he’s saying there that the way that Aadhaar has been structured lends itself to surveillance rather than running a country. Is that something that you feel people you spoke to you or people in general in India, are feeling, are aware of?

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: I would say almost all of them, all of the subject experts, the civil society leaders that I spoke to, expressed this particular concern and they all are in different places in the largest spectrum whether or not they support Aadhaar, right? It’s much more complex than just supporting or opposing. Um, it is about different components of Aadhaar and how it affects people’s rights and or how it excludes or supports even people’s access to information, people’s access to benefits and so on and so forth.

Yes. The short answer is yes, that something that is designed and is framed under the law, that it is for benefits. It is to make sure that there’s no leakage in the system while providing food grains to people, while providing basic amenities to people. Um, the public benefits part is always kept at the front, that’s the facade. What is in the background is a much deeper surveillance state being built, an empire being built and that’s an empire where people can be easily identified based on their religion, based on their ethnicity. And it is easier to basically police people. It is easier for the state to see who is where, who is doing what. And it is also easier now to suppress dissent and oppress people more than the government could do before.

FRANK HERSEY: Yes, of course. It does sound as though it is a very effective tool at all levels. It’s not, it’s not how it was first presented, I don’t believe. And I actually want to go straight into another clip because you have an interview with a law researcher, Dr. Usha Ramanathan, and she said something which has really stuck out to me because of the work I do more generally across digital identity and biometrics. But um it’s a sort of which way you look at an ID system overall.

DR. USHA RAMANATHAN: Initially we had thought that when they said unique they meant unique because of biometrics. Then later we realized that actually not enough was known about how biometrics, very little was known about how biometrics would work in a population like ours and that the uniqueness was actually related to giving each person a unique number by which they could be uniquely identified. That it was not about identity but about being identified and being identified by people other than yourself.

FRANK HERSEY: To me what she’s saying is that we have these ideas of, well, I’m from the UK, so it’s driving licenses and passports. We don’t actually have an ID card but we have these things which we can use to identify ourselves when we want. But she’s saying that Aadhaar comes across more now as not really for yourself, it’s not for you to prove who you are when you want but it’s for the state to identify you. And I was wondering if that feeling is growing, if that’s becoming more commonly perceived I suppose in India.

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: I believe, yes and it also is an answer to your previous question whether or not people are worried of Aadhaar. Well, people for who Aadhaar works are really happy because it’s convenient once they link their Aadhaar to the digital payment system or the digital payment app on their phone and once they link that to their bank account and other things, things become very, very convenient for them. Convenience however, cannot come at the cost of excluding majority of the country’s population, number one. And number two, convenience cannot also come at the cost of violation of people’s privacy, violation of people’s basic rights. Um, that is not acceptable and that is not acceptable in any country anywhere in the world, right? Just to provide people legal identity, a legal identification, a country cannot run a project that is predominantly excluding majority of the people or people that are extremely excluded otherwise. I’m not saying that a system that is an alternative of Aadhaar that would solve all the problems, it cannot. There are many systemic issues. The caste system for instance, cannot be just solved by any technological intervention. That is a socialist issue. Um, that requires a social intervention of course. Um economic interventions of course. But the point is, a system should not exclude so many people and should not exclude the people that are already excluded.

And uh, so yeah, many people definitely love Aadhaar, people that are privileged would definitely advocate Aadhaar. What I must add is that people don’t understand the technology that is behind Aadhaar. Oftentimes they think that this is a new ID that will be digital only. That will solve all the problems that the physical IDs had, whether Aadhaar is just a number and people can basically carry that around on their phones. They can always make a photocopy of their Aadhaar because it’s basically a PDF that they can print. Um, so it’s definitely convenient over the existing IDs. One could forget it where one is a person is always carrying their smartphone and emphasizing smartphone because everything about other is around a smartphone. One has to carry either a printed copy, one has to have an access to a printer or they have to carry a digital copy of the Aadhaar on their phone.

I think it’s uh Professor Savita Bailur and her team who have studied multiple countries, Bangladesh, India, Kenya, where women have the least access to phones to begin with and smartphones are another chapter. Um, in many households, people share phones. They don’t have unique phone numbers for each member. Now Aadhaar requests unique numbers for each Aadhaar user. So many people would have provided a number when they were asked but they might not have retained that number going forward so they cannot just receive an OTP to authenticate and that’s the most inclusive authentication mode for Aadhaar. The other authentication modes as far more challenging for many people.

FRANK HERSEY: Well we’ve already discussed quite a few topics. So I was just wondering where you see things going next because we hear of news every week about how a different state government is requiring Aadhaar for accessing perhaps some form of welfare, issues around data breaches. And I think one of the big issues is the NRC, you know the National Registry of Citizens and how Aadhaar is going to be seen as underpinning that. So I was wondering where you see Aadhaar going and the problems and how people accept it and receive it?

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: As far as the the larger population, the larger citizenry goes, people so far have been complying. They’re basically saying that the government is doing this for us and it’s a new thing so we should thank the government and these are people that are dependent on public benefits so they would comply because it is forced upon them. And then there are people who see it as a convenient ID that they can produce in all places and most people don’t have any understanding about the repercussions. Right?

So the civil society is studying Aadhaar, is documenting the challenges that people are facing. But not everyone is an expert when it comes to say data protection or privacy and so on and so forth. Data protection is actually very interesting and important piece here because India doesn’t have basically constitutional validation when it comes to data protection and capturing people’s personal data and how it is captured, how it is stored, how it is processed, how it is shared and so on and so forth.

The bill for data protection, the personal data protection bill was withdrawn a few weeks ago and there’s a chance for a new bill to come and that bill would be brought by a committee that will go through a public consultation. People would be allowed to share any concern that they see in the, in the broader language of the bill and so on and so forth. And then, you know, it will be passed in the parliament before it is amended to the law.

That process would take time. But the important part of that process is there would be at least some amount of oversight and public scrutiny and at least there will be something that is legal within the legal framework for people to understand. Right now, it’s all a smokescreen. Now, it’s a very opague thing for people to to see.

And oftentimes we are comparing GDPR as sort of the golden um sort of benchmark for data protection. But whether or not the new data protection bill take a lot of good insights from GDPR is yet to be seen. Right? So unless we see that it is difficult to say whether or not we will have a good amount of regulation around Aadhaar because Aadhaar is used aggressively and there’s now a fintech industry that has rose to prominence and that industry is expanding, there’s a lot of investment of both domestic and foreign investment because they all are relying on the same architecture, right? The same open API. India has something called the UPI that’s basically is the technology that is the protocol of the system that is powering many of the apps that are used by people, that are used massively. Even Google and Meta also use the same UPI framework. So I think if there’s going to be any kind of dissent, any kind of criticism, that’s going to come from the civil society. They have nothing to lose.

But the private industry is with the government, is in line with all these new policies, that includes Aadhaar, that includes UPI, and UPI as well is heavily criticized because of its loopholes because of the new problems that it creates, the new imbalances that it creates the society, right? So that the social aspects are always overlooked when it comes to tech innovations. And that’s my biggest worry as an individual that we don’t get to discuss about the real challenges in the real society while talking about all the fancy innovations that technology brings and without discussing those, it is almost impossible to address any any real problem.

FRANK HERSEY: Gosh, so I suppose there’s potentially continued mission creep for Aadhaar but then potential, potential moments of hope. So if there’s a better legal protections, maybe the whole framework, the whole system will be more carefully managed?

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: And I suppose the technology that that is responsible for Aadhaar, it has evolved over time when it was launched. There was basically zero regard for protecting data and then that followed with many breaches. There was no way the government could deny that there had been data breaches, there were data breaches and these were basically sold in a very cheap price openly. So I think the government took note of that. The authorities took note of that and they ensure that there’s more protection. So while that part is being taken care of and that’s a good sign that there will be more regard for people’s personal data or at least there will be robust systems built technically to protect people’s data. We still have to wait to see how it impacts because it already has showed huge impact in many sectors, from job sectors to people accessing basic amenities to private services.

Now, apartment associations are asking for Aadhaar for small little things. They’re actually collecting photocopies of Aadhaar, if they have to repair something in the apartment to ask for people’s consent. Now they have no understanding about data protection, they also have nowhere to store that data. So it’s basically people’s personal data that is being shared quite openly and Aadhaar authorities of course have notified people. They have said that do not do that. But people hardly listen. And people mandate these things in personal small spaces where one person cannot go against their neighbors. The whole apartment is collecting Aadhaar, photocopies of Aadhaar from people. And I can’t just say to my fellow neighbors that I’m not going to provide that. You should go ahead and do whatever you want to do, and I would live separately.

It’s basically creating new problems that are unforeseen and that comes from that very high confidence on any technological systems. All technological systems could fail and would fail. And that extremely high level of confidence is dangerous.

FRANK HERSEY: Well, it is fascinating. It’s a fascinating subject and with every sentence we’re hearing about more and more issues and possibilities. But I think that’s been a really great introduction to Aadhaar for our series. So thank you so much for joining us to discuss all these issues and there are so many there that I’m hoping that will come back to you throughout this series. I’ll include links to your documentary Marginalized Aadhaar in the show notes on ID169.com and also wherever people listen to the podcast. So thank you so much for such a thorough introduction to Aadhaar.

SUBHASHISH PANIGRAHI: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for doing this in the first place.

FRANK HERSEY: We’ll be returning to India in future episodes and do check out the documentary in the meantime.

The clips we played were from Subhashish Panigrahi’s documentary Marginalized Aadhaar, licensed under Creative Commons BY3.0.

To find out more about legal identity, the UN goals and to listen to all our episodes, go to ID169.com and see if you think we’re on track for 2030.