According to documents that were previously undisclosed the Indian government is planning to create a 360 degree database to track every aspect of the lives of every Indian citizen with funding from the World Bank.
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It will be an auto-updating, all-encompassing and searchable database. The database will maintain all the details of peoples’ lives such as cities they travel, job change, spouse details, details about someone born or dead in the family and a lot more.
The modern database technology has no limit to the extent of data that means a huge database can be created and indexed. For instance, a special secretary of NITI Ayog proposed in a meeting, on 4th Oct, 2019, that each house of the country should be geo-tagged and integrated to a web-based geo-spatial portal developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – Bhuwan.
For 5 years, Indian press is describing National Social Registry as a routine exercise to update the 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) so that the government can prevent misuse of pro-poor govt. schemes.
However, the documents obtained through RTI by Srinivas Kodali, suggest the opposite. Srinivas Kodali is a data and internet governance researcher.
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The documents obtained through RTI suggest that National Social Registry will either be a single, searchable Aadhar-seeded database or ‘multiple harmonised and integrated databases’ that use Aadhar number to integrate all the information about an individual.
The meeting minutes, file notings and interdepartmental correspondence reviewed by HuffPost India reveal that concrete steps have been taken by the govt. towards building this database: An expert committee has been set up to implement the social registry and is in the final stages of planning a pilot project to test the best way to get it done.
However, to implement this project the expert committee has proposed amendments to the Aadhaar Act to allow the government to capture this information without violating the 2018 Supreme Court judgment that restricted the use of Aadhaar and reiterated individual privacy as a fundamental right.
As per the minutes of the October 4 meeting, it is evident that the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has decided to amend the Aadhaar rules..
UIDAI has suggested a “Data Exchange Framework” using which the hundreds of government-administered databases can easily exchange data. These databases are currently scattered across several ministries and departments at the state and central level. HuffPost India could not establish if this proposal has been accepted.
According to a file noting dated June 17, 2019, the World Bank has also “assured cooperation” and has agreed to an initial $2 million grant under the bank’s Non-Lending Technical Assistance programme.
The Indian government is on its way to build a surveillance infrastructure with the help of organisations like the World Bank.
“Such an unrestrained mass surveillance system could threaten liberty like never before,” said Chinmayi Arun, Fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, who taught law in India between 2010 and 2018.
“India’s safeguards for state surveillance have always been weak. But this near-complete Orwellian surveillance would overturn the balance of power between citizens and the state,” Arun said.
“It may be safe to say that if the state manages successfully to watch us so closely, India’s democracy will gradually become unrecognisable.”
A ‘Dynamic’ Registry
The concept of SECC was started by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance government, in 2011. It started as India’s first caste-based census since 1931.
On July 3, 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government published the socio-economic data captured by the SECC, but withheld the politically-sensitive caste data.
The SECC data, Chaudhary Birender Singh, the Union Minister for Rural Development at the time, said, “addresses the multi-dimensionality of poverty and provides a unique opportunity for a convergent, evidence based planning with a Gram Panchayat as unit.”
On 13 October, 2015, the Ministry of Rural Development proposed a social registry system to “ensure greater benefits from SECC data” to the Parliament Standing Committee on rural development, according to a November 2015 file noting.
“To be effective social registry SECC would need continuous updating to become dynamic social registry,” Manoranjan Kumar, then-Economic Advisor of the Ministry of Rural Development, wrote in his note.
The system should update itself automatically, Kumar’s junior Dhruv Kumar Singh suggested. “The proposed system is subject to auto-updation in future since the profile of beneficiaries will change once they receive any support.”
“The MoRD needs to opt for the largest set of database (all the households in the country) if the country has to deal with poverty in a non-asymmetric manner,” Kumar wrote.
Manoranjan Kumar, then-Economic Advisor of the Ministry of Rural Development, said in his detailed note that all households will be part of the social registry.
The idea proposed by Kumar was in sync with the government’s increasing focus on hi-tech solutions, led by Aadhaar, to deliver welfare schemes.
“The past experience of when the government uses data and hi-tech tools to target the right beneficiaries has not been good or efficient,” said Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, an organisation that campaigns for transparency in implementation of welfare schemes.
“The power structures provide wrong or fake information to ensure their own inclusion, at the cost of the poor and marginalised.”
“What the government has done with the tools like Aadhaar is that they have excessively collected information and have then used privacy as an excuse to keep it away from the community,” Dey said. “The potential of misuse of techno-managerial tools is huge.”
The government’s plan to develop a dynamic database to identify those who need government’s assistance can only be implemented by continuously monitoring the economic and social conditions of every citizen.
Involvement of bodies like NITI Ayog, UIDAI and the World Bank shows how important this project is.
“Such profiling of the entire population, through seeding of Aadhaar, was never our recommendation,” said Himanshu, associate professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi, who was part of the Sumit Bose Committee that recommended creation of the social registry in 2016.
“Our suggestion was to create one common register of all eligible families for all the subsidies and welfare schemes using the SECC, which can be constantly updated, so that there is convergence of the schemes,” Himanshu told HuffPost India in an interview. “But the government never got back to us.”
In March 2016, the government had also roped in the NITI Aayog to offer their suggestions.
The NITI Aayog said “the concept of family tree” must be built into the information system for “added advantage”, according to a note dated May 13, 2016, penned by Senior Statistical Officer S.C. Jha.
For the Social Registry “to be relevant all times and its utility for various government programs” the NITI Aayog said it must be linked to birth, death and marriage Registers, to “account for migratory changes”.
The ministry agreed to “incorporate” the suggestions, shows a note dated May 20, 2016 by Dhruv Kumar Singh, director in the ministry.
“All options offered by the WB are feeble cases, far weaker than many states in India have to offer,” Manoranjan Kumar, the economic advisor to the Rural Development Ministry at that time, wrote on March 15, 2017.
He suggested the ministry should look at the Social Security System of the USA as a model, “which not only helps track the economic status of individuals but also traces individual’s interaction with any government program.”
In June 2017, the ministry constituted an Inter-Ministerial Expert Committee for “examining the feasibility of updating the SECC 2011 data” and “suggesting institutional framework for managing the Social Registry”.
The committee had members from the World Bank, UIDAI, National Informatics Centre, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Centre for Digital Financial Inclusion and the Direct Benefit Transfer Mission.
The committee, the file notings suggest, has met four times between June 2017 and October 2019.
“Violation of privacy and misuse/surveillance are of utmost concern for the central and state governments and the Bank,” the Bank said.
“As part of the Technical Assistance, the World Bank shared multiple examples and approaches of different countries highlighting the importance of privacy, protection and sharing of data.”
The bank, however, refused to share its submissions to the government, saying they were in “deliberative stages.”
On March 5, 2018, Prime Minister Modi signed off on a proposal to update the SECC.
The Aadhaar Effect
Were it not for Aadhaar, the Social Registry would never have gotten off the ground. The presence of Aadhaar as a “single identifier” has made it easy to merge several databases into a single registry.
For instance, imagine two separate lists — of PAN numbers and cell-phone numbers — each seeded with their respective unique Aadhaar numbers. It is now easy to create a unified database of PAN numbers and phone numbers using Aadhaar as the common identifier.
But there was a hitch.
Privacy experts had filed a series of petitions in the Indian Supreme Court warning of precisely such a scenario, where the mandatory seeding of Aadhaar in everything from airport boarding systems, to election IDs, to opening bank accounts, to buying mobile connections, to marriage registrations, would allow the Indian government to create a massive surveillance database akin to the Social Registry System.
The privacy experts were right — as noted earlier, the UIDAI was part of an Inter-Ministry panel on implementing the Social Registry System by June 2017.
But in July 2017, the UIDAI filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court claiming the opposite.
In September 2018, the Supreme Court finally gave its judgment, restricting Aadhaar’s use cases to only distributing government’s subsidies to the poor.
The following year, in April 2019, the Ministry of Rural Development constituted an “Overseeing Team” to devise pilot exercises for updating the SECC data and “exploring alternative options to Aadhaar as a single identifier across programs”, the documents show.
Eventually, it was decided to simply change the Aadhaar Act instead. In June 2019, the Ministry for Rural Development prepared a note detailing the changes required to the regulations governing Aadhaar authentication, and the sharing of Aadhaar data.