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

image of a young woman having her eyes scanned a man

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)