How the economically marginalised navigate digital adoption in India amid the pandemic

Image via EngageMedia. Used with permission.

Image via EngageMedia. Used with permission.

This article is part of Pandemic of Control, a series that aims to further public discourse on the rise of digital authoritarianism in the Asia-Pacific amid COVID-19. Pandemic of Control is an initiative by EngageMedia, in partnership with CommonEdge. This edited version of the article by Vaishnavi and Anish Mishra is republished in Global Voices under a content partnership.

The COVID-19 pandemic sped up the adoption of digital technologies by five years. However, the pivot towards digitisation is excluding those with little to no access to digital services. As part of its pandemic response, India implemented one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, forcing citizens to access most basic services digitally. While a small percentage of the population was ready to jump into the digital world, the majority had no choice but to scramble to access these digital resources in the first place, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.

In India, 84 percent of the population has access to mobile phones, but only 43 percent have internet access. This disparity also exists in terms of age, location, gender, caste and language, among other factors. Indian women are 15 percent less likely to own a mobile phone, and 33 percent less likely to use mobile internet services than men.

The digital divide affects the most vulnerable in rural areas. According to the 75th round of the National Sample Survey, only 13 percent of people over five years of age in rural areas have the ability to use the internet, compared to 37 percent in urban areas.

Perspectives from the ground

India's abrupt call for lockdown triggered a mass migration of informal workers across different states, many resorted to walking when there was no transport. Image via Max Pixel. CC0.

India's abrupt call for lockdown triggered a mass migration of informal workers across different states. Many resorted to walking when there was no transport. Image via Max Pixel. CC0.

In March 2020, when the Indian government announced an unplanned nationwide lockdown with a four-hour notice, 90 percent of the country’s workforce — informal workers — faced a huge crisis. Around 80 percent of the workers were stranded in various parts of the country with less than INR 100 (USD 1.27) in hand. Fellows of the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), a group advocating for migrant workers’ issues, shared how they felt about the push for digital adoption in accessing basic social services.

Seema, 27, is a trained nursing support staff from Simdega, Jharkhand, and also a SWAN fellow. She believes digital adoption can be beneficial, citing how she has been able to help people from her community register online for their e-shram cards (a social security scheme for unorganised sector workers). However, she said that knowing how to use these online registration portals is limited to a select few.

In theory, people can register for various government schemes and certificates by themselves. In reality, however, the use of online systems has led to the creation of a whole set of middlemen, including private vendors with a computer and internet connection, offering to undertake the registration process for a fee. Seema talks of how this setup monopolises information in the hands of a few. To register for a certificate, for instance, one needs to supply an identification document and proof of address, uploaded onto online portals through these private vendors. But the workers face an uncertain wait for a document that may or may not reach them. They have no mechanism to track the progress of their applications, forcing them to rely on private vendors.

While not ideal, Seema says non-digitised processes offered them options, such as using their social connections and personally following up with officers. She adds:

[Now] we don’t know what is going on online, nor do we know how to follow up on an application, and are left at the mercy of the operators to tell us what’s happening.

Gulzar, another worker from Jharkhand, echoes the same concerns. While the implementation of technology can be helpful, he feels that it isn’t of much use for villagers so far. Gulzar cites an example: those who do not know how to do mobile banking by themselves get hoodwinked into sharing these details with middlemen, sometimes resulting in people losing money from their accounts.

The main problem that emerges from these narratives is not that of corruption or delays — for it can be argued that this can happen in any system. The glaring issue is that the common person has been completely left out in a digital society, excluding them from exercising their basic rights and entitlements. To solve systemic inequities, technocratic solutions like digital adoption have been touted as the end solution for all systemic problems — including the problems posed by COVID-19 mobility restrictions. However, this shift to digital systems has been forced upon them and they never had a choice, to begin with.

They are left with a system they do not know how to use, allowing them to be exploited, and a system they do not understand that leaves them unable to hold anyone accountable. Gulzar’s concern about the middlemen points directly to the ambiguity in accountability that online systems bring and the lack of any support to help the marginalised adapt to digital technology. Digital adoption is furthering existing inequities and creating new power structures that put the vulnerable in a disadvantageous position.

The stone’s throw from digitisation to digital surveillance

Is there then a link between this rapid digitisation of services, its inaccessibility, and its becoming digital surveillance? The collection, use, and control of personal information become evident in the narratives presented here. Asked if people have any concerns about digital rights and data privacy, Seema said they are worried about the consequences of uploading data online, for fear that it can be misused. Interestingly, the misuse Seema refers to is governmental misuse and not concerns of third-party access to her data.

When asked the same question, Gulzar said: “It’s not just a concern, I have seen people [end] up in trouble because of sharing these details online!” A friend of his had shared banking details for online registration, and soon had a First Information Report (document prepared by the police related to the commission of an offence) against his name with charges of hacking linked back to his account. “My friend is illiterate. How can he even be capable of hacking, something that requires using a computer?” says Gulzar. He cites another example of the risks of sharing bank account details with middlemen. At times, these middlemen would claim that workers’ wages have not come into the accounts, blaming some online issues while pocketing the money.

The compulsion of having to rely on a digital system, coupled with it being a system that leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, shows how their lives are now shaped (unwillingly) through technology. The government has also been actively enforcing this inclusion into digital systems. In June 2021, 22,000 Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers (the primary health workers of India) in Haryana protested against a mobile app to report and track their work, violating their digital privacy. The application, “MDM 360 shield,” was forcefully installed on the workers’ personal phones by local health department officials. In cases where they were provided with a new phone, the workers were not informed that the application had been pre-installed on the devices.

This development poses serious concerns, as India is yet to have comprehensive data protection policies despite having a large biometric database. There is no actual legal framework on data quality and proportionality, data transparency, or mandating a Data Protection Authority to properly address and cover data protection issues in accordance with various international privacy guidelines. The latest draft of India’s Personal Data Protection bill in 2019, tabled in the parliament in December 2021, exempts the government from its purview. The bill prioritises economic interests over the need to protect personal information privacy and has received criticism from digital rights activists.

The push for digitisation during the pandemic has deepened the digital divide. Escalated digital adoption without adequate policy protections can exclude the already marginalised even more, yet no one can be held accountable because India lacks any comprehensive framework to do so. While access to social benefits and privacy are recognised as fundamental rights, any program or policy that isn’t inclusive is bound to encourage a development paradigm that leaves the vulnerable behind. The narratives of Seema and Gulzar and the experience of the ASHA workers all point to this effect.

Vaishnavi is currently a policy expert in Greater Chennai corporation’s Gender and policy lab. She is a social sector researcher and practitioner in Tamil Nadu. Anish is currently an MPhil student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He does environmental philosophy with a focus on Aesthetics, Buddhism, and Social Justice.

Anish and Vaishnavi are part of the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), a voluntary network working with informal workers through relief and fellowship.

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