By Rajashree Ghosh
INDIA New England News Columnist
WALTHAM, MA–Pardon the long absence from these columns. I was preparing for a trip to India and then recouping after. I wonder if I am speaking the lingo of a “pucca” NRI. What is there to prepare – one is going home after all? And why would one need to recover?
The realities for those of us living abroad is that our blood gets thinner, the heat gets oppressive. In our defense let me add that the annual average temperature increased by 0.6 degree Celsius between 1901 and 2010. A recent report by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) said that there has been a significant increase in the number of warm days and warm nights.
Further, the annual as well as seasonal monsoon rainfall over India showed a significant decreasing trend over the core monsoon zone — the north-eastern region and southern parts of the western coast. There’s validation for you!
Another NRI quirk and subject of much ridicule is that our stomachs cannot take intense spice levels though who is to stop us from craving the varied, delectable cuisines?! With heightened information about health exigencies we tend to be over-careful about approaching raw and uncooked much to the consternation of family and friends. You turn away from salads (“we made especially for you”) and chutneys that add much oomph to snack time and are faced with sniggers and often contempt. I have had a hard time turning away knowing very well how much I yearn for them.
What is unpalatable is the need to be digitized. Adhaar card started out as a simple identity card that would be provided to all Indians, turned into a card that would benefit the poor and now into a card mandatory for receiving all/any benefits from the government. The Supreme Court of India has not endorsed that and has in fact stated that the government cannot make welfare benefits contingent on the mandatory use of Aadhar. However, the Court has stated that it cannot stop the government from a mandatory linking of Aadhar to non-welfare activities like banking or filing tax returns.
Being drawn to procure an “Aadhar card” – a nationwide biometric, identity database, seemed overwhelming. The process involves presenting supplementary documents (such as a voter’s id, PAN) to prove you are who you say you are and seek out centers where Aadhar card is issued. I found many such centers had shut down without a forwarding address. There is no updated listing available although everything has a website with directives on what is needed; never what is offered. Post several attempts to locate and then succeeding in finding a functioning center, subsequently submitting personal details and biometrics, I was asked to wait for an email in a week. It did arrive with a link and I could access my Aadhar card!
Somehow, I rejoiced that even as an NRI I have THE card. But really what does it mean to be a number? Each time a purchase is made in the market such as sim card for a phone, the card is recorded; each time one travels the airline recognizes Aadhar as a photo identity; each time income tax returns are filed, the PAN is now linked with Aadhar; bank accounts in India record the card number. So much information on private citizens – who is at the other end; what are they doing with it; who is watching me?
Mozilla reports that the government of India is selling access to this database to private companies allowing private bodies access to personal information and create detailed profiles. The government can also share user data “in the interest of national security,” a term that remains dangerously undefined. There are little to no protections on how Aadhaar data is used, and certainly no meaningful user consent. Individual privacy and security cannot be adequately protected and users cannot have trust in systems when they do not have transparency or a choice in how their private information will be used. Without a comprehensive privacy and data protection law we are treading on dangerous territory.
Within the United States, we are familiar with number identifiers as well. The use of the Social Security Number (SSN) has expanded substantially since its inception in 1936. Created merely to keep track of the earnings history of U.S.workers for Social Security entitlement and benefit computation purposes, it has become a number assigned at birth and used by many government agencies to identify individuals and by private industry to track an individual’s financial history.
That trend has begun to shift. As early as December 2004, IRTPA legislation prohibited states from displaying the SSN on driver’s licenses or motor vehicle registrations. In 2007, the President’s Identity Theft Task Force (2007, 3) included among its SSN recommendations that “federal agencies should reduce the unnecessary use of SSNs, the most valuable commodity for an identity thief.”
In India we are far from that stage. Given that as a nation we are served with cards and we are driven to signing up, we wonder if ever these decisions have the end user in mind. As the country moves further into hardwiring and “smart” options, one might step back and ponder about outcomes. It might make the drive to digitization a tad more palatable if there is shared vision of where this is going to take us as a nation. Choice is a virtue and that is sorely missed!
(Rajashree Ghosh is a Resident Scholar at Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center.)