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 hit — 1.9 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)
We’re very excited to announce the launch of Numbered Humans, the new podcast from our 2019 Yoti Digital Identity Fellows. In each episode, you’ll hear from Paz Bernaldo in Argentina, Tshepo Magoma in South Africa and Subhashish Panigrahi in India, as they reveal some of the key issues that have emerged during the first six months of their research. Digital identity in marginalised communities The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people around the world and, as expected, the worst-hit are those already living in poverty, and the excluded and marginalised. We know that new technologies have the habit of further exacerbating divides present in the ‘real’ world, but they can also provide new windows of opportunity. Because of this, it feels more timely than ever that our three Fellows are investigating the positive and negative effects of digital identity on local – and often impoverished – marginalised communities. As expected, social distancing policies have severely impacted on the ability of our Fellows to carry out fieldwork, but this hasn’t affected their willingness to explore new ways of collaborating remotely. Numbered Humans is a great example of this. In the first episode Paz, Subashish and Tshepo share stories of how digital identity is playing out among the marginalised communities in the countries where they live and work. Many digital identity solutions include the ‘tagging’ of citizens with unique numbers, and the storing of this information (along with much more, in most cases) in centralised databases. Our Fellows are interested in better understanding the implications of these systems, and what it means for marginalised communities. The first episode of Numbered Humans explores some of these issues. You can find it on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify, or you can listen online here. Meet our Digital Identity Fellows Paz is a development practitioner, researcher and activist investigating the meaning of digital identity among unemployed and underemployed vulnerable people living in the Argentinian cities of Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata. Subhashish is a former community manager, documentary filmmaker and researcher, looking at the perspectives of some of the most marginalised communities across India impacted by India’s national digital identity program, Aadhaar. Tshepo is a researcher, strategist and innovator with experience working with Africa’s small business and social enterprise sectors. He is focusing on the role of South Africa’s digital identity program in fighting fraud, looking at the country’s Smart ID program from a human rights perspective. You can read more about the Fellows and their work at yotifellows.com
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.