India is rapidly digitising. There are good things and bad, speed-bumps on the way and caveats to be mindful of. The weekly column Terminal focuses on all that is connected and is not – on digital issues, policy, ideas and themes dominating the conversation in India and the world.
The Registration of Births and Deaths Act 1969 is a simple law that was brought for registration of births and deaths in the country.
With new amendments, the Ministry of Home Affairs is proposing to make Aadhaar mandatory to track new births and deaths in any family. It is proposing to build a database of births and deaths and use it to update every other database in the government, from the National Population Register, to voter rolls, and the databases of ration card, passport, driving licence and Aadhaar.
The move will essentially track every Indian human across their lifetime from birth to death.
The Bill proposes to also make birth certificates mandatory for joining schools, registration of votes, marriages, issuance of passports, in applications for government jobs and for pretty much anything else the Ministry of Home Affairs wants. This is going to make Indians stand in queues the same way they did because of Aadhaar.
The proposed amendments to this 50-year-old law will turn a simple state exercise into a population controlling mechanism that can be used against every citizen. Every individual has the right to documentation, a birth certificate or other forms of identification which they need to lead a dignified life. History shows us this simple yet transformative exercise can be weaponised and used to identify populations that are different and non-conformative.
The National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) was proposed with the idea of interlinking databases across the government’s branches for surveillance of the population. While the proposal existed, without the Aadhaar project, inter-linking of databases and accessing real-time information on Indians was a challenge. Aadhaar solved this for the Union home ministry and it pushed the surveillance capacity of the state at population scale. This has been a major point of contention with Aadhaar and its associated projects including National Population Register and National Register of Citizens.
The linking of databases and creation of 360° profiles using Aadhaar has always been an issue that was challenged in courts, with the Supreme Court agreeing and recognising Indians’ fundamental right to privacy. While the Supreme Court duly noted reasonable restrictions on various grounds like national security do apply. A lack of a privacy law or surveillance law has ignored any form of accountability on the executive. The upcoming Digital Personal Data Protection Bill 2023 also gives complete exemptions to the executive on data collection.
The very idea of these linking databases automatically allows the Ministry of Home Affairs to use information submitted for a specific purpose to be used for a secondary purpose. The purpose of birth certificates is at best is to prove nationality and at worst to prove lineage to a parent. The weaponization of this information without clearly bringing in any surveillance reform is an illegitimate act by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
It is odd that the government thinks mass surveillance of the entire population will somehow help secure our country.
The Aadhaar project has only shown that large databases are full of noise with fraudulent data entries. The promise of biometrics and birth certificates helping bring security is a myth. Especially when the state has no clue how to control our borders and is unable to deal with the Manipur crisis while ordering the collection of biometrics of any potential foreigner.
This linking of databases and their effects can easily be seen in southern states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, where the push for real-time governance has allowed the government to track residents from birth to death. There is active opposition for this set-up in Andhra Pradesh with political parties questioning the scale of data collection as part of real-time governance. The real-time policing in Telangana shows how all the information collected for welfare is being shared to police for real-time surveillance.
Beyond the surveillance-minded nature of this entire setup, the most concerning part is the issue of birth certificates becoming as mandatory as Aadhaar for voter ID. This has serious consequences for electoral democracy. The creation of 360° profiles with Aadhaar and linking it with the voter ID has already affected elections with how political parties can micro-target voters and delete voters from electoral rolls. Not only does it make us vulnerable to electoral fraud, it also centralises the management of electoral rolls using Aadhaar and birth certificates. It will also lead to exclusion of voters causing challenges with representation mostly among marginalised.
Several of these issues were not clarified by the Supreme Court during the Aadhaar judgement and are likely to come back to the court in future.
While this Bill puts in place a mechanism to continuously collect information from individuals, it needs to be noted that the government still has to carry out large scale data collection drives to update this entire set-up. The Census 2021 whenever it happens will be the place where the Ministry of Home Affairs will push for the implementation of this setup. It is to be noted that the Census Act does not allow any data sharing, while the present draft promotes data sharing across government departments.
This proliferation of personal data across several departments is bound to leak and also cause unforeseen challenges that were similarly anticipated with Aadhaar. This bill, whether it is passed or not, does not stop the continuous expansion of personal data collection. This entire 360° profile setup to track us from birth to death has always been the foundation that Aadhaar was being built on and for.
This Bill, although it looks simple with mere changes to registration of births and deaths, has the potential to completely modify the relationship between an individual and the state. The Bill is expected to be pushed through the parliament this session, no matter the opposition. A vast majority of Indians might simply comply with this the same way they were forced to comply with Aadhaar. The present political conditions do not allow for any form of serious discussion on this Bill even outside the parliament.
As much as one should be afraid of the surveillance state, the lack of capacity inside the state makes me wonder how long they will continue to push this without no opposition from the population.
Srinivas Kodali is a researcher on digitisation and hacktivist.