Big Brother meets big data

Queue outside aahar registration center. Foto Rohit Bhatia

Queue outside aahar registration center.
Foto: ©Rohit Bhatia

Called the World’s largest biometric system, the Aadhaar card issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDIA), is supposed to map the biometric information of India’s 1.3 billion citizens. The Government of India expects every Indian to have an Aadhaar card, and the process of collecting the data is underway.

The UIDIA stated on the Government of India’s website that Aadhaar has 1.19 billion enrolled members as of 30 Nov 2017. Exactly a month later, the numbers surprisingly changed in the negative direction. While some states show saturation on over 100 percent, leading to fears of duplication, the overall implementation has come down from 99 percent to 88.5 percent.

Notwithstanding such discrepancies and privacy concerns voiced by the Indian intelligentsia, World Bank Chief Economist Paul Romer described Aadhaar as, “the most sophisticated ID programme in the world.”

Meanwhile, three Dalit brothers died of starvation in July 2017 near Karnataka’s Gokarna town after the family was denied rations for six months because they did not have an Aadhaar card. Their deaths were reported by a civil rights group called People’s Union for Civil Liberties. A report on the deaths was submitted by the group to the State Government on October 13 2017.

There are several other cases where senior and poor citizens have been denied pension and ration because of not having an Aadhaar Card.

On December 25, Etwariya Devi, a 67-year-old widow, died due to starvation in the state of Jharkhand. Her family was unable to procure food after the Aadhaar-enabled point of sales machine couldn’t authenticate the biometrics of her daughter-in-law. An investigation ordered by the state’s chief minister revealed that other deaths in Jharkhand, such as that of eleven-year-old Santoshi Kumari had occurred due to starvation as her family could not procure food from the Government authorized fair-price shop as their ration card was not linked with Aadhaar. State officials had previously maintained said the girl died of malaria.

The citizens litigate. India’s information protection laws are currently inadequate to tackle the issue of data commodification and exploitation. Many citizens have no idea about the internet itself. Increasing concerns around privacy, the potential for surveillance, and exclusion of eligible beneficiaries from welfare schemes from the leveraging of Aadhaar-based systems led to the project’s validity being challenged in the Supreme Court of India.

Staring March 2017, a campaign was launched by Indian telecom operators and banks, under pressure from the Government of India. The firms started pressurising their customers for providing Aadhaar numbers. Emails threatening bank customers with closure of accounts were sent out regularly. A petition was filed in the Supreme Court challenging the Government’s directive to link the accounts and telephone numbers with Aadhaar numbers.

According to petition, filed by activist Dr. Kalyani Menon Sen, the government’s rule on linking Aadhaar violates the fundamental right to privacy and equates citizens, including the elderly, women and students, with money launderers.

The government fast tracked bills by introducing them at the end of the Parliament’s session. Opposing parties could not hold a debate challenging the steps taken to make the new identity card compulsory for basic financial and benefit schemes. In Delhi, All India Institute for Medical Science started asking ten times the fees required for registration to patients who did not have the card.

Since 2009, UIDAI functioned as an attached office of Planning Commission. On 3 March 2016, a money bill was introduced in the Parliament to give legislative backing to Aadhaar. On 11 March 2016, the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, benefits and services) Act, 2016 was passed in the Lok Sabha. On 26 March, this Act was notified in the Gazette of India.

In 1999, after the Kargil war, the Kargil Review Committee was formed to study the state of national security. It submitted its report to Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who belonged to Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Among its various recommendations, was the proposal that citizens in villages in border region be issued identity cards on a priority basis, later such ID cards should be issued to all people living in border states. Vajpayee’s Government went out of power in 2004. Under the Congress government that followed, the Aadhaar card implementation took a backseat. On 23 June 2009, Nandan Nilekani, the co-founder of Information Technology firm, Infosys, was appointed to head the project.

In 2012, a former Karnataka High Court judge, K. S. Puttaswamy, and a lawyer, Parvesh Khanna, filed a Public Interest Litigation against the government in the Supreme Court of India. They said that the government was implementing the project without any legislative backing. They pointed out that the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 which introduced in the Rajya Sabha was still pending then.

They further said that since UIDAI was running on an executive order, it cannot collect biometric data of citizens as it would be a violation of privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. In a later judgment the Supreme Court stated that the citizens of India have a fundamental right to privacy. Despite the judgment, the Government continues stating that it is compulsory for every citizen to have the Aadhaar identification number.

How to waste your citizen’s time and effort while acquiring data. The procurement of the 12-digit number bearing biometric card is no easy task. On 22 December 2017, this reporter found queues stretching to half a kilometer at seven am in the morning at one Aadhaar center in Bombay. The next morning the queue was longer.

As expected, the rich and powerful did not stand in the queue. They were represented by drunken auto-rickshaw drivers who slept in front of the information collection center the night before.

These drivers had been paid six hundred rupees (ten US Dollars) with which they bought some alcohol to make sleeping on the pavement bearable. In the morning, when housewives and older citizens arrived they found themselves on the wrong end of the queue.

To cause confusion and obstruct movement, the agents who co-ordinated with the rickshaw drivers, parked their motorbikes around the entrance to the center. As the opening time of 8.30 am neared, richer Indians arrived in cars and replaced the now hung-over auto-rickshaw drivers at the front of the queue. Students, housewives with children and elderly were left behind.

Any protests were met with abuses and tirades by the coordinating agents who clearly benefitted monetarily from this new Government scheme. The officer from the Aadhaar Center issued 30 appointment numbers, and ran off inside his office after shutting the gate. Many returned home disappointed. Most centers issue only 25 to 30 numbers per day. With this pace of implementation, it is highly unlikely that the numbers quoted by the Government are true.

On 27 December, this reporter found another Aadhaar Center had opened in a branch of the privately owned Kotak Mahindra bank. A few citizens had managed to push agents out in the morning. The auto-rickshaw drivers could not be moved as they slept through the morning with no agents to wake them up. When the rich citizens arrived they could not co-ordinate with the drivers, as they did not know which driver represented them.

Once an appointment number is allotted, the individual has to be present to the same center to submit identification papers and biometrics.

It became clear why the Government was interested in implementing this scheme, and linking it to bank accounts and telephone numbers. All the data an Indian citizen could possibly have can be extracted. Citizens have to submit fingerprints, photos, and an iris scan is taken. This data is a treasure of information for multinational corporations who want to get the demographic data of the Indian market to exploit it further.

An acknowledgement was printed by the Aadhar representative, who said that the card would be allotted within 90 days. The card will state the 12-digit unique identification number that a citizen will have to quote while accessing a range of essential services, and while applying for any benefits or renewing identification papers. If any data is printed incorrectly, the citizen is expected to queue up again for corrections. Indians living abroad are exempt from the scheme but if they want to renew their Indian passports in India, it is required that they quote an Aadhaar number while applying for one.

The beginning of the end of Narendra Modi. The deadline to link Aadhaar number with bank accounts has been postponed from 31 December 2017 to 31 March 2018. This announcement was made in the last days of 2017. After losing popularity by implementing demonetization, and faced with a rapidly rising unemployment rate, Narendra Modi is gearing up for the next elections. The data procured from Aadhar can be traded for election campaign funds. Tactics of implementing the Aadhaar scheme gained momentum after the current BJP government led by Narendra Modi came into power. Modi opposed the Aadhaar card when the previous Congress party led government was ruling.

In developed countries, identification numbers are allotted to citizens guaranteeing rights and benefits. The Government of India is not making any promises that Indians will stop dying of hunger after Aadhaar is implemented. The Aadhaar Card has no security features such as holograms. It is not considered as a proof of citizenship.

A widow of a soldier who died in the Kargil war of 1999, the very incident that led to the creation of the Aadhaar card, died on Dec 30 2017 because a hospital in her home state of Haryana refused to admit her without an Aadhaar card. Her son Pawan Kumar Balyan said, “Shakuntala Devi (55), widow of Kargil war martyr Havaldar Laxman Dass, died for want of medical care at a private hospital as it insisted on having the patient’s Aadhaar card.”

Pro-freedom and anti-Aadhaar activists are harassed and abused online by BJP party workers who operate several fake social media accounts. A book mapping the creation of the Aadhaar is released. The Government has spent 1.4 billion US Dollars on the Aadhaar project. This money could have saved many lives if invested in public food distribution and healthcare systems.

It is evident that California-born World Bank Economist Paul Romer has interests of the multi-national corporation’s at heart. With little track record in dealing with poor countries, Romer’s scheme for lifting Africa and Asia out of poverty involves them giving up a big chunk of their land to a rich country. Policy experts from Washington can take over land of a poor country, and invite multinational companies to set up factories. His praise for the Aadhaar project underlies the link between international financial institutions, giant multinational corporations, and the intrusive state-corporate complex in India.

Rohit Bhatia
Rohit Bhatia

Rohit Bhatia är journalist och frilansskribent, född och uppvuxen i Bombay (Mumbai) där han arbetat som reporter för olika journaler och dagstidningar. Han har MA i Engelsk Litteratur. Hans arbete har publicerats i Indien, Australien och Europa. Hans huvudsakliga ämnen är indisk politik, klimat och alternativ kultur.

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