Digitizing And Disenfranchising India’s Poor

Since July 2016, the Narendra Modi government has rolled out Aadhaar – ‘the Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services Act’ – to 1.1 billion Indian residents. Using biometric information, including fingerprints, facial photographs and iris scans, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) issues recipients with 12-digit identity numbers. These identity numbers are necessary to access public services, such as food subsidies and pensions, as well as an increasing number of private services, including banking, insurance, phone and internet access. The ubiquitousness of Aadhaar has meant that individuals and families are increasingly excluded from essential services as a result of technical malfunction. In the absence of any government mechanism for redressing user or provider error, at least 2.5 million families were unable to receive food rations between September 2016 and June 2017.

Indeed, much commentary on the program has centred on its tendency to exacerbate rather than improve the collective welfare of millions of Indian residents. Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch stated, “It is ironic that a 12-digit number aimed to end corruption and help the poor has become the very reason many have been deprived of fundamental rights.” Rather than addressing these concerns, the Indian government has consistently placed the onus of overcoming Aadhaar malfunctions on to users. However, Aakar Patel, Executive Director at Amnesty International India acknowledged, “The government has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that nobody is denied their rights simply because they don’t have an Aadhaar card.”

Even when Aadhaar cards effectively facilitate access to social services, users hold valid concerns about the vulnerability of their personal information to data breaches and leaks. The Tribune found that such information listed on the Aadhaar database could be bought via fraud channels for as little as US$10 – a quantitative measure of the susceptibility of the network. There are known cases of victims of HIV/AIDS who have ceased purchasing medical treatment rather than disclose their Aadhaar number to receive health care subsidies in case their identities are made public. Since its inception, the Aadhaar program has increasingly presented the dual rights to privacy and welfare as mutually exclusive. In his address to the Apex court, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi characterized the limited ability of individuals to consent to the parameters of the Aadhaar system, which was originally intended to rely on ‘voluntary’ registration. To great criticism, Rohatgi argued that a man confronting starvation will readily sacrifice his right to privacy for survival.

While the original Aadhar act held that registration was voluntary, the subsequent amendment in 2016 made it a mandatory form of identification to access social services. Once an individual has been registered with an Aadhaar number, they are unable to opt out of the system or withdraw their participation. Conversely, the government is able to void an Aadhaar number without notice or explicit reasoning and has deactivated around 8.5 million Aadhaar numbers. Previously, the Indian Supreme Court has ruled in favour of protecting privacy, such that one judgment read, “privacy is not lost or surrendered merely because the individual is in a public place. Privacy attaches to the person since it is an essential facet of the dignity of the human being.” However, concern remains that misappropriation and theft of biometric information is irreversible and yet the Narendra Modi government has been lax in responding to rampant errors in the Aadhaar system.

From the 17th of January, a five-judge bench will conclude hearing arguments about the legality of Aadhaar. As one of the largest biometric databases in the world, Aadhaar threatens to undercut the fundamental right to privacy for millions of people, whose financial and biometric information is only tentatively secure from data breaches. Pending this final judgment, the central government must implement a more effective grievance redress system and cease using Aadhaar as an interest-driven exercise.