India and its fascination with the ‘digital age’

Rahul Bhatia writes: ‘The Indian government is in thrall of the dazzle and promise of technology…’ Perhaps the best example of this is the biometric identification system that India has embarked on. As the New York Times reports, ‘India is scanning the fingerprints, eyes and faces of its 1.3 billion residents and connecting the data to everything from welfare benefits to mobile phones.’ The end-product is the so-called ‘Adhaar’ system or the ‘foundation’ on which everything else is based. It is redefining the very essence of what it means to be an Indian citizen.

The scheme is both controversial and ambitious. In terms of ambition, it is one of the first examples of its kind of a large country engaging in such a scheme. Civil libertarians are horrified and view this as a huge Orwellian experiment. Large-scale invasion of privacy of citizens is seen as a major risk.  Others have argued that the biometric identification system performs significantly worse than old-fashioned manual methods in the case of delivering welfare benefits, although this conclusion is based on one case study.

Of course, those who are closely associated with the system see only benefits. They dismiss fears of a putative surveillance state as overblown and argue instead that the biometric ID system has empowered, rather than disenfranchised, millions of Indians – especially among the poor and the illiterate. Previously, they could not establish their identity; now they can.

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