#MarginalizedAadhaar: Is Aadhaar a Tech Solution for a Socio-Economic Problem?

This is the fourth field diary entry from Subhashish, one of our Digital Identity Fellows. His year-long research project is focused on the challenges and opportunities within marginalised groups most affected by Aadhaar, India’s national digital ID system.

***

You cannot fix using the law what you have broken using technology says Indian cybersecurity expert Anand Venkatanarayanan, quoting Professor Sunil Abraham at the Kenyan High Court. Venkatanarayanan was appearing as a witness for the Nubians, a discriminated community for whom the Kenyan biometric database National Integrated Identity Management Scheme (NIIMS, also known as Huduma Namba) would create further exclusions after its implementation. Kenya and India do not just share a common history of colonisation. The national biometric programmes in both countries — NIIMS and Aadhaar respectively — have striking similarities in furthering marginalisation and criminalisation of communities who find themselves already underrepresented.

The architects of Aadhaar were given the task of providing a technological solution to solve a deeply complex socio-economic challenge. India has a long history of racial oppression — one that existed much before colonisation and one that continues long after India’s formation as a democratic republic in 1947. After a decade of Aadhaar, the issues that the project was expected (or hoped) to resolve persist while many extremely marginalised communities find themselves in a multitude of troubles, especially in relation to access to basic amenities and services.

As intimate conversations as part of my research indicate (see Field Diaries #1, #2 and #3) communities that are the most marginalised end up being further exploited as a result of our absolute trust in tech-solutionism. In this latest entry, I will be exploring how technological biases have materialised from systemic social issues of oppression in Indian society, especially in the context of Aadhaar.

 

‘Tech-weapons of mass exclusion’

One can only grasp a tiny portion of what a national biometric-based identity system like Aadhaar means to a common citizen when viewed through the lenses of different demographics — social, political, economical, regional, linguistic, religious, and most importantly, access to privileges for those who are at the bottom of the pyramid. Identity systems need to include a great deal of social inclusion and rights of individuals to address issues across the spectrum — from widespread inequality to nuances for a particularly vulnerable group. If they don’t, people with privileges but with no understanding of diversity and inclusion end up building tech-weapons of mass exclusion.

In my previous field diary, I highlighted many exclusions faced by people across India. Of those, the most haunting experience for me was when I listened to Harshabati Kheti, an old woman who had lost her fingers, and, over the span of 11 months, was stopped multiple times from enrolling by the authorities at her local Aadhaar enrolment centre. Kheti was denied food grains, rations and even emergency relief after the COVID-19 outbreak because of a technological limitation in Aadhaar. After initially being reported on Twitter by the Odisha State chapter of the National Right to Food campaign, and further reporting by myself, the state authorities intervened and provided Kheti the rice she was long entitled to.

Aadhaar has been deployed for biometric-based authentication in the distribution of food grains and rations through the Public Distribution System (acronymed PDS — a federal government initiative to provide food and essential commodities to people in need with the objective of eradicating poverty). Between the 2001 and the 2011 Indian census, the number of people in need with disabilities rose from 21 to 26.8 million (a 22.4% increase).

Professor Reetika Khera, in “Dissent on Aadhaar: Big Data Meets Big Brother” notes that:

[..]The most forceful framing of Aadhaar was as an enabler of welfare. Identity and inclusion were the twin objectives that proponents used to sell the idea to the Indian public.[..]The claim was that having an Aadhaar number would enable inclusion. Non-existent beneficiaries were everywhere, according to the UIDAI narrative. A centralised database with a unique number associated with each person would sanitize beneficiary databases of such non-existent beneficiaries.[..]”

 

Contextualising tech

One cannot talk about technology, particularly in India, without discussing systemic racial discrimination. India’s political power dynamics are much more racially divisive than ever before, and this has now become part of an apparatus for exclusion. The caste system in Hinduism divides people of Hindu faith into four major classes whereas a group of communities are considered as outcastes and untouchables. These communities, collectively known as Dalits in progressive discourses, are classified as Scheduled Castes in the Indian Constitution.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling right-wing nationalist political party dominated by “upper-caste” Hindus, has been pushing to exclude the Dalit, Muslim and Adivasi people – and several other marginalised communities – through divisive policies. From the perspectives of human rights, the technological implementations of these policies often translate into inherent design flaws.

Access to information your native language

One might wonder why Aadhaar-based authentication requires the Internet as a primary dependency when there have been 402 internet shutdowns and many other Internet slowdowns imposed by the current government since 2014. Furthermore, the 104 million Adivasis who are largely excluded because they come from low-income groups, get further excluded when they cannot learn anything about Aadhaar in their native languages.

Sora-language speaker Manjula Bhuyan from Odisha, India, highlights the importance of accessing information about digital identity in one’s native language (downloadable videos with captions and transcripts here).

 

Declared illegal

The impact of this systemic bias ranges from Dalit and Muslim schoolchildren from low-income families being denied of scholarships because of errors in Aadhaar, to Muslim citizens being harassed and asked to provide proof of citizenship. Muslims in the state of Assam have been among the hardest hit1.9 million (mostly Muslims) out of the 33 million population of the State were declared illegal during the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a programme designed to eliminate illegal immigrants.

The state of digital identity took a critical turn when 1.9 million people of the total population of 31 million were declared illegal (downloadable videos with captions and transcripts here).

 

I contacted Ashraful Hussain, an activist who works closely with many discriminated Assamese Muslims. What Hussain shares is heart-wrenching. “Most Muslims – and even many Hindus of [West] Bengal origin – were purposely excluded in the ‘original inhabitant‘ category by the officers who were in charge of the NRC drive.”

The 1.9 million people whose names were left out in the list of “legal citizens” have only one option left — to appear before the Foreigner’s Tribunal to prove their citizenship in a judicial process. With the NRC exercise on hold during the COVID-19 lockdown, the fate of all these people hangs in the balance. Hussain fears that these people, who are becoming poorer due to lockdown restrictions, willneed to pay for the legal battle to prove their citizenship when lockdowns are lifted. But that said, the exclusion goes much further. “As many Muslim women are illiterate and are unable to find documents to establish their parental link, these women and their children are out of the the [NRC] list”, adds Hussain.

NRC is deeply linked with Aadhaar. As lawyer Tripti Poddar explains, biometric data of individuals were collected during the NRC process. Those who made it to the NRC were issued Aadhaars whereas those who did not were denied. Poddar further argues that even a foreigner residing in India can receive an Aadhaar, but a citizen flagged by the NRC can be stripped of their constitutional rights.

 

 

Blog header credits: Biometric details being captured in an Aadhaar enrolment centre in Kolkata, West Bengal, India (Biswarup Ganguly, CC-BY-3.0)

MarginalizedAadhaar: Digital identity in the time of COVID-19

This is the third field diary entry from Subhashish, one of our Digital Identity Fellows. His year-long research project is focused on the challenges and opportunities within marginalised groups most affected by Aadhaar, India’s national digital ID system.

*****

Before Indian society had the chance to recover from the hardship of both a financial slowdown and the controversial amendment to the citizenship act, it got hit by COVID-19. Many marginalized communities were already struggling to survive poverty, hunger and systemic exclusions, and things have got even harder as life comes to a standstill thanks to social distancing and wider lockdown regulations.  

At the time of writing, 2,293 Indians have died of COVID-19 and 22,454 have tested positive. 24 people, mostly migrant workers who were desperately trying to return to their own houses, were also reported to have died recently because of the lockdown. Most people died in an attempt to walk hundreds of kilometres, in hunger and illness, and some as a result of indiscriminate attacks. 

Fingerprint-based authentication (as used by Aadhaar) would almost certainly lead to further spreading of COVID-19, and India’s Public Distribution System (our social welfare service) predominantly uses Aadhaar for authentication. The state of Kerala identified this risk early on and suspended the use of all biometric authentication systems. This, and all the other social, political and transactional risks linked to Aadhaar — thanks to COVID-19 — have put marginalized communities at much higher risk, and furthered calls for a revised look at the digital ID ecosystem. While migrant workers in the cities of Delhi, Mumbai and Surat desperately try to return back to their native homes, many struggle to get the COVID-19 relief and regular support of food grains and rations that they are entitled to – all because PDS is yet to be made universal to ensure an equitable public benefit. 

 

Aadhaar and social services

The use of Aadhaar-based authentication – or linking the use of Aadhaar with essential social services – makes exclusions more likely than ever.

A 68-year-old disabled woman with missing fingers was denied from enrolling for Aadhaar which resulted in receiving no food grains/ration for 11 months. Another disabled woman was denied rations for other three years, and a five-member family, including an elderly coupled, have been in a similar situation for the past six months.

Right before the pandemic, India was experiencing a huge financial slowdown resulting in job cuts and price rises. There were also large-scale protests around the country against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), a controversial new amendment to the 1955 citizenship law that promises citizenship to some illegal migrants on the basis of their religious faiths, while denying Muslims immigrants and several other minorities that are excluded under the amended law. India is also in the middle of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an effort to identify and build a database of “legal citizens”. The initial NRC rollout in the state of Assam identified as “legal” 31 million people out of the 33 million total population while leaving 1.9 million, mostly Muslims, as stateless. The government has plans to implement NRC across the country. The fear of statelessness and another Rohingya-like situation led to nationwide protests and then mitigating acts by both the state and non-state as they tried to defend the CAA and NRC. More than 65 people have been killed in protests that lasted for over 100 days.

 

Liberty from a database

Here lies the use of personal data at the center of everything — be it the identification of protesters who speak against the government, or identifying vehicles owned by Muslims from a government database for selective-targeting during a communal pogroms, or the identification of people who have traveled to a coronavirus-affected country. The government is reportedly in the process of developing a geo-fencing app that can alert local authorities if a person in COVID-19 quarantine or isolation attempts to ‘escape’, using the affected person’s cell tower location. 

Attempts to deal with COVID-19 have also resulted in a provincial government agency sharing personal data — including legal names and complete addresses — of 19,240 individuals who were under home-isolation post-foreign travel. Lawyer Rahul Matthan cites the lack of appreciation of personal privacy by the government as a reason for this clear violation of privacy, a fundamental right granted by the Indian constitution. Aadhaar, India’s national biometric-based digital identity program, plays a key role in most mass-scale identification initiatives. A recent three-part investigation report reveals that the Indian government is planning to build an “all-encompassing, auto-updating, searchable database to track every aspect of the lives” of all 1.2 billion residents. The shift from Aadhaar being an identity in its initial design to a system for bettering public welfare to its use in mass surveillance is worrisome. India’s then finance minister Arun Jaitley even renamed the Aadhaar Bill of Indian constitution “Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act”. The civil rights of individuals can become compromised when a secural state – with a Hindu right-wing political party in power – requests Muslim Aadhaar-holders to prove their citizenship.

Recent studies suggest that claims that Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA) reduces the leakage of grains and other resources are a myth. Findings have also highlighted that the use of Aadhaar adds an additional burden of 17% on beneficiaries, with 10% of genuine PDS holders denied their benefits because of false authentication errors. This has led to a huge number of exclusions. Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT), a government scheme that also uses Aadhaar for a direct-to-bank-account transfer, has led to a failure of 690 million INR (9.08 million USD) worth of transactions.

Apart from the authentication failures, cases of stolen fingerprint casts being used for fraud have also surfaced — these did not exist before Aadhaar-based authentications were rolled out on such a scale. Also, considering the uncertainty of a return of normality post-COVID, it might be wiser to avoid physical contact by using alternative methods of authentication — instead of fingerprint scanning where the forced use of Aadhaar for public welfare payments would be problematic. Many isolated indigenous communities might not have immunity to even the most common diseases and extra precautions need to be taken in case non-indigenous persons are involved in distribution of resources. Lack of access to emergency healthcare information in native languages also remains a huge obstacle.

 

MarginalizedAadhaar podcast

In the first episode of my MaginalizedAadhaar podcast, rights activist and author Raghu Godavar discusses the systemic exclusions in the enrolment and use of Aadhaar. With help from Parsuram Harijan, Gori Keuta and Ratan Naik of the Taragan village of Nabarangpur dist., Odisha, India tell how they have been denied food grains and ration for months and years. And finally, human rights lawyer and researcher Usha Ramanathan dissects Aadhaar’s fundamental design to pinpoint the system issues with Aadhaar.

 

Further reading

  1. “The complex architecture of DBT transactions is resulting in ….” 29 Feb. 2020, https://kaarana.org/?p=79. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.
  2.  “Mortality from contact-related epidemics among indigenous ….” 10 Sep. 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4564847/. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.
  3.  “‘Data is the new oil, new gold,’ says PM Modi in Houston ….” 23 Sep. 2019, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/data-is-the-new-oil-new-gold-says-pm-modi-in-houston/story-SphHDPQadvF1dJRMXHCkwK.html. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020

 

Banner image credit: Corona crisis in Kolkata 14. Indrajit Das (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Updates from the field – Subhashish’s diary entry January 2020

This is the second field diary entry from Subhashish, one of our Digital Identity Fellows. His year-long research project is focused on the challenges and opportunities within marginalised groups most affected by Aadhaar, India’s national digital ID system.

***

India’s ambitious biometric-based identity — Unique Identity (UID) — has been the focus of the State of Aadhaar report recently published by Dalberg Global Development Advisors, a global consulting firm. The study — made possible with funding from Omidyar Network — includes a sample size of 167,000 Indian residents and sheds some light on many facets of Aadhaar. While the report has provided Aadhaar’s creators with a chest-thumping moment, I have attempted to explore other perspectives shared with me — beyond the statistics — by a few of the most marginalized communities in the country, and other subject matter experts.

UID is used to tag Indian citizens with a unique number called Aadhaar by centralizing a range of personal data (including biometric). Contrary to popular misconception that Aadhaar is yet another “card” that provides the Indian citizens a form of identity, it is merely a number. In this, my latest field diary entry, I talk about exclusions that are tied to Aadhaar’s design and implementation.

After publishing the first field diary of my fellowship, I went on to interview 20 individuals in the Indian states of Odisha and Uttarakhand in four different locations. 5 (33%) of the interviewees were women and 2 of those women are illiterate, whereas the male interviewees were all literate. The interviewees represent a range of social and economic groups. I also interviewed some of the key stakeholders including human rights lawyers and activists, litigators, ethnographers, and academic and other researchers.

 

 

Aadhaar in its current form is being linked to several citizen beneficiary services. Linking services to a unique number so that service providers can authenticate a beneficiary has been one of my focus areas since the beginning of the project. In practice, authorities are mostly using fingerprint scanning-based identification and authentication. Services like state pension or rations (food, fuels and so on) — or even subsidized healthcare — are received by individuals who are generally marginalized by a range of different factors. These might include age, literacy, access to public information in one’s own language, retention of fingerprint due to illness or manual labor, or periodic update of biometrics to reflect any change of the same because of physical work. These are just some examples of factors driving exclusion during Aadhaar’s implementation. I am looking at a few of these factors in my research.

 

Unique, Ubiquitous and Universal

One of the experts I met was Dr. Usha Ramanathan, an independent researcher and human rights lawyer, who was invited to provide inputs on Aadhaar’s early design in 2009. Nandan Nilekeni was a key person helping shape the Indian government-operated Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the organization behind the development and implementation of Aadhaar. Nilekeni emphasised the three main pillars of Aadhaar — Unique, Ubiquitous and Universal. Dr. Ramanathan was early to realize that Aadhaar is not what it was designed for — she found out that the “Unique” part was not to provide a unique identity to every citizen by providing them with a unique number but a tool for the authorities for identification. Secondly, she also noticed that the “Ubiquitous” part of the design was to link the records of every single resident of India across multiple other databases using a unique number — Aadhaar. Criticizing such database-linking, Rahul Narayan, a lawyer in the Indian Supreme Court, told me that such a design has a striking and dangerous similarity to what anarchists like Stalin or Hitler did. Different departments like the police (law enforcement) and R.T.O. (Road Transfer Office) and private/public services (such as banking) are all being combined using Aadhaar.

Dr. Ramanathan also looks at the “Universal” aspect of Aadhaar as an inherent design feature that makes every person feel compelled to enrol for Aadhaar, even though enrollment is marketed as voluntary. She went on to point out that, “It was clear from the beginning that the people who would suffer the most are the poor. As an untested technology that is being imposed on people, the whole project was shot from the shoulders of the poor without knowing if such an ID would work or not. Aadhaar is not a card but a number attached to a biometric. If the biometric doesn’t work, the number doesn’t work.”

 

Subhashish recording a traditional Jurai Sora music performance by Srinivas Gamango in Gajapati district, Odisha, India. Picture by Ranjan Raika

 

Access to information

I interviewed two indigenous communities — the Jurai Soras and the Lanjia Soras —both related to each other ethnically and socio-culturally, and both marginalized for similar reasons. Ramani, a 70-year-old Jurai Sora lady from the Rayagada district of Odisha recounted how, along with many of her fellow villagers, a lack of literacy made it difficult for her to enroll. It took a year for Manjula, a Lanjia Sora homemaker from the Gajapati district of Odisha who is in her early forties, to get her Aadhaar. In separate accounts, both Ramani and Manjula shared how access to information can be challenging, particularly given that monolingual speakers need to rely on the officials or other community members to help translate across languages. Ramani is monolingual and speaks the Lanjia dialect of the Sora language (an oral language largely), whereas Manjula speaks the Jurai dialect of the same language. Government officials are generally native speakers of Odia, the official language of the Indian state of Odisha. 

Dinabandhu, an elderly male Jurai Sora speaker also detailed how important public announcements are made by the Endia, a bilingual person who acts as a messenger of the government. India has a 74.8% literacy rate with more than 700 languages spoken across a country where only 22 are officially recognized. Only about 12 are used in the official implementation of Aadhaar. The State of Aadhaar report, however, claims that 92 percent of people (who were part of their study) are satisfied with Aadhaar and 90 percent of Aadhaar holders trust that their data is safe in the Aadhaar system. It is highly unlikely that someone whose language is not understood by the state, or someone who is illiterate, would express the same level of satisfaction with Aadhaar, or trust in the safety of their personal data in Aadhaar, or even understand the complexity of the security of personal data in the first place.

The real costs of exclusion

I interviewed a researcher (who did not want to be named) and asked about the technical and social perspectives of Aadhaar. The researcher had worked in rural Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana — all neighboring states in South India — studying the receipt of public benefits such as pensions and PDS (Public Distribution System, a federal government initiative to provide food and essential commodities to people in need with the objective of eradicating poverty). According to the researcher, for someone already part of a public system and already receiving their benefits, the complexity of getting everything connected through Aadhaar becomes burdensome. People who do manual labor, or have an illness, or are in old age (or any of these combinations) often find their fingerprints are not detected or authenticated. The researcher, along with Dr. Ramanathan and Narayan, all emphasised in separate accounts the fact that authentication using a mobile number or biometric (it has to be either in the case of Aadhaar) has many flaws.

Dr. Ramanathan also emphasised that many people who struggle to maintain a valid mobile number in their name over time  – or gave the phone number of whoever was available at the time of enrollment, and subsequently failed to update the number – always found themselves excluded. The rate of exclusion is extremely high and extremely common for such individuals. She calls those who designed Aadhaar ‘techno-utopians’, a group of tech-savvy individuals who, because of their own access to technology and other privileges – and lack of understanding of the on-the-ground reality – fail to understand the difficulties that common people in the country often face.

Shyam Divan, a noted litigator, added that many people from rural India have been denied their rations because they could not verify their identity using the most-used biometric authentication – their fingerprint. He calls such a system ‘dehumanizing’. By November 2018, Right to Food Campaign activists in the Indian state of Jharkhand reported that 17 people had died in Jharkhand alone because of their failure to link their ration cards to Aadhaar – even though the State of Aadhaar report states that 80% people feel that “Aadhaar has made PDS rations, MGNREGS, or social pensions more reliable”. It is important to note that the failure, however small it might look in percentage terms, is massive in reality when you consider there are 1.3 billion people in India.

 

Citizenship, religion and biometrics

India has experienced huge social and political turmoil because of a recent new amendment – Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA/CAB). The amendment to the 1955 Citizen Act of the Indian Constitution now allows six religious communities (of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian faiths) fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to legally become citizens of India. Evidently, the Act does not include Muslims (particularly the Ahmadiyyas and Sufis of Pakistan and Bangladesh), Tamils from Sri Lanka, Gorkhas from Nepal and many indigenous communities of other faiths. India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, has periodically said that by linking with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – a national register that separates citizens from “intruders” (translation of a Hindi-language word that the Minister often uses to describe refugees) – India will help legalize the citizenship of Hindus along with the other five religious communities from three countries while indirectly hinting about excluding Muslims. Interestingly, the NRC is based on the National Population Register (NPR) which was created in 2010 to list all the residents (citizens and non-citizens) living in India, which expanded after linking biometric data from the Aadhaar database. Dr. Ramanathan, Narayan and many other critiques of Aadhaar find the linking of Aadhaar with other databases extremely dangerous and a way forward to establishing mass surveillance, a fear that was raised against the Aadhaar Act 2016 by the then Member of Parliament, Tathagata Satpathy.

Despite huge efforts to make Aadhaar the go-to ID verification for many public and private services, Section 9 of the Aadhaar Act 2016 – which talks about the authentication being used as a proof of citizenship and domicile – was called “unconstitutional” in an Indian Supreme Court verdict. Many communities during my interviews were happy to have an Aadhaar ‘card’ to themselves as an entitlement, and they now failed to imagine their lives without one. 

 

 

If you have a question for Subhashish or are interested in his research, you can reach him here. To follow his whole research project, you can find an archive of his monthly field diary entries here.

#MarginalizedAadhaar: Exclusion in access to public information for marginalized groups

This is the first field diary entry from Subhashish, one of our Digital Identity Fellows. His year-long research project is focused on the challenges and opportunities within marginalised groups most affected by Aadhaar, India’s national digital ID system.

***

In this first of a monthly series of field diary entries, I will be highlighting the challenges and opportunities relating to access to public information for marginalized groups in India. Documentation collected in my research so far includes interactions with two major groups — marginalized communities and other stakeholders that are key to all the digital identity discourses. 

The first group included individuals from Goa, Tamil Nadu and Telangana with a varying degree of marginalization. The second group included a diverse group of experts — from linguists who have experience in indigenous and endangered language documentation who are well aware of the practical issues of indigenous communities from India and the rest of the world, to researchers working on assessing Aadhaar’s impact on social sector, to international human rights activists, to technical experts from the Free and Open Source community, to musicians whose progressive composition voices against the systemic oppression in North Madras

In this diary, I have focused primarily on the access to public information from the lens of social exclusion, indigenous and linguistic rights, disability and technical hindrance.

 

 

 

India’s linguistic diversity

What does an ordinary member of the public go through while accessing vital information provided by the government? What if this person is marginalized on the basis of language or ethno-social or economic structures? What if this information is something like that provided for Aadhaar, India’s biometric-based digital identity program – something that is already complex from legal, social and technical perspectives? What if this person in question is either a monolingual speaker of an indigenous language that is not the official language of their region, or is illiterate or has a visual impairment or is subject to any kind of systemic oppression?

India is home to the largest number of indigenous peoples in the world. 22% of the country’s terrain is home to 705 indigenous groups (about 104 million constituting 8.6% of the population as per the 2011 Census). These groups speak more than 419 different languages and most of these languages are oral in nature. Out of the 780 languages spoken across India, only 22 are officially recognized by the constitution. This recognition is critical in that it enables them to be used for governance. Though some from these 419 languages are multilingual, many are not. The official Aadhaar website (uidai.gov.in) is currently partially-translated into 12 out of the 22 official languages, with no inclusion of even one indigenous language.

The Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a 1948 document that was drafted by representatives made up of diverse legal and cultural backgrounds identifies access to information in one’s own language as a fundamental right.

In a recent interview, noted linguist Dr. Mandana Seyfeddinipur – who heads the Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London – said, “you cannot send out a pamphlet in majority languages during an emergency due to an epidemic”. She further emphasized by providing the example of the 10-12,00 people that live in a 10 km2 area in Lower Fungom region of Cameroon who, on a daily basis, speak about nine languages. When Dr. Seyfeddinipur identifies the issue of creating and updating information in the 7,000 languages spoken in the world, she emphasizes the need to identify the language that each community of an administrative region understands—indigenous or a majority language—while developing public information.

 

 

While Aadhaar gradually becomes the go-to authentication system in both government and private sectors, the official website currently has no audio-based information available to help indigenous oral language speakers or people with illiteracy. This represents not just a linguistic barrier but also a digital accessibility hindrance. It is important to note that India is home to the world’s largest number of people (15 million) with visual impairment and screen readers that help people hear the text while accessing text-based information are absent in the majority of the languages.

The lack of linguistic and digital accessibility resources constitutes a large part of my initial field research in India. 

 

Key questions asked to affected community members

  • How do people in your community who are subject to illiteracy, poverty, visual impairment (or have other forms of disability) and various social exclusions access vital public information? What challenges do they face and what is missing?
  • How do you find the technology behind Aadhaar at the moment? What can be done to improve its openness, transparency and accountability?
  • What are different exclusions that many beneficiaries are subject to in the rollout of digital identity programs in India and around the world? What are the repercussions from a human rights standpoint?
  • Is it always feasible to provide information to people in their native languages? What are the practical challenges and what can be done to ensure that all people can have access to the most vital information?

 

Key findings from interviews

  • The current system for accessing public information is creating further exclusion as people who are old, or have certain illnesses, disabilities, speak languages that are not official languages, or have other social oppressions face a higher degree of exclusion.
  • There have been considerable outreach efforts designed to educate users on the use of their private data, and the critical need for the collection of that data, particularly around the importance of simpler and more reliable KYC (Know Your Customer) checks. 
  • The technical (and larger) infrastructure favours those with privileges, and this creates a wider systemic exclusion from an access-to-public-information point of view. Most features added to Aadhaar’s original layer of authentication can only be used by a highly computer and Internet savvy person, and not an average user. 
  • The majority of the country have a low degree of literacy, especially in the majority languages in which most of the public information is available. This is hugely problematic. 

 

Further areas of research

  • Other forms of social exclusion – including gender and sexuality that affect the digital identity landscape of India.
  • How the Free and Open Source community can contribute to ensuring openness, transparency and accountability – things that are currently missing in the technical framework that is predominantly built with a proprietary mindset.
  • Repercussions of privacy and security issues and what can be done to better the digital and human rights of different marginalized groups.
  • Best practices from the rest of the world that can improve all kinds of systemic exclusions.

 

Next steps

As I proceed further with my research, I will be capturing further narratives from many more marginalized communities around the country that are subject to a spectrum of different kinds and degrees of marginalization. This will hopefully help compare with the viewpoints shared by the previous interviewees, and showcase the impact of Aadhaar beyond the binaries of just positive and negative effects. Similarly, I will also be documenting narratives from other key stakeholders to provide a counter narrative to some of the issues flagged and to show multiple other points of view.

 

If you have a question for Subhashish or are interested in his research, you can reach him here. To follow his whole research project, you can find an archive of his monthly field diary entries here.

>