MarginalizedAadhaar: Digital identity in the time of COVID-19

an image of two people wearing face masks, who are restocking shelves in a small corner shop

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 MarginalizedAadhaar 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, Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.
  2.  “Mortality from contact-related epidemics among indigenous ….” 10 Sep. 2015, Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.
  3.  “‘Data is the new oil, new gold,’ says PM Modi in Houston ….” 23 Sep. 2019, Accessed 6 Apr. 2020


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