This article was first published in the Mint on September 28, 2017.
India is at the crossroads of a digital revolution and identity, and yet we are grappling with the right to privacy, illiteracy on a massive scale and lack of basic information infrastructure. Working in rural and underserved areas of India, I often wonder what the fault of poor and illiterate people or those who live in rural and unconnected geographies is. As we make more and more services available online, what is the alternative for those who are offline or illiterate? Why are they forced to prove their identity with a new government document every few years? Why is there no room for consent when it comes to capturing their information or using the information so collected?
I do not have answers or solutions to these problems, just questions for now.
I want to share with you a typical village scenario where hundreds of illiterate men and women are subjected to a daily drill with technology under the assistance of a person who they must trust for lack of an option. In the interiors of Rajasthan, in a village in Alwar district, a person offers information as a service from a room in the Atal Seva Kendra that has been allotted to him by the local panchayat. He is a SoochnaPreneur (entrepreneurs who are committed to serving community members’ needs with information services to support their livelihood).
For those who are not familiar with an Atal Seva Kendra, these are government-supported units that are established to serve community members by giving them access to information about government schemes, services and entitlements, besides holding regular gram sabha (village council) meetings.
From the outside, the Alwar centre seems to be in a dilapidated state. Inside, it isn’t much different, except for one room, which Ashok Kumar has converted into his office. When I visited the centre recently, I saw 20-30 women—between the ages of 25 and 65—gathered at the porch of the centre, awaiting their turn to seek clarifications, open bank accounts, withdraw cash from their accounts, receive their pension or collect their Aadhaar cards. This SoochnaPreneur is also an authorized banking correspondent who holds a Common Services Centre licence.
As I navigated through the hall to the only unlocked room, I saw Ashok sitting at a table, a laptop in front of him, a camera and a printer-scanner to his right. Behind him, on the wall, is a box with the letters “BBNL” written on it, which means that the centre is supposed to be connected to the internet under the government’s National Optical Fibre Network—now known as BharatNet. BBNL stands for Bharat Broadband Network Ltd, the company formed by the ministry of telecom under BharatNet.
However, Ashok tells me that though the optical fibre has been provided up to the Atal Seva Kendra, it is non-functional. As a substitute, he uses a Jio hotspot, and has an additional Airtel hotspot as backup.
In a corner of the room are about 150 Aadhaar cards stacked in a tidy pile. When questioned about the same, Ashok explains that since most villagers do not have a postal address, they have given the address of the centre for all communication purposes. Note here, the vulnerability of citizens’ unique IDs.
Meanwhile, woman after woman entered the SoochnaPreneur’s office to seek his help. One woman wanted to withdraw Rs5,000 but got only Rs1,500. To withdraw cash from her account, she placed her thumb on Ashok’s 3M biometric machine. Once she did that, a window popped open on the screen in front of her. However, she could neither read nor understand what was written, and had to completely rely on Ashok, who had access to her bank details.
I asked Ashok why he wasn’t giving her the full amount and was told that he didn’t have enough cash on him. The woman indicated that she had no problem receiving the balance payment the next day. Note here, the trust that people have to place in others to access technology.
This is not a unique situation in this digital era. Courtesy the various services Ashok offers—agricultural, educational, vocational, health, banking, insurance, entitlements, entertainment, utility, commercial—he has access to all sorts of data of the people he is serving. This arrangement is not unique to the village in Alwar district and is visible across millions of Indian villages.
I wonder how long and to what extent our vast population will suffer, thanks to the increasing dependency on the digital medium and data-driven policies that do not take into consideration the limitations of oral communication and illiteracy. For more than three-fourths of the population that is yet to be connected, the information superhighway is a long and winding road.