The right to live with dignity is a constitutional imperative. However, it rarely manifests in discussions surrounding digital initiatives in governance. Centralised data dashboards — valuable as they are — have become the go-to mode for assessing policies, relegating principles such as human dignity and hardships in accessing rights to its blind spots. Often when technological glitches prevent one from accessing rights, there is a tendency to make the rights-holder feel responsible for it. For instance, I recall being in Rajasthan with Natho Ba, an old MGNREGA worker with severe speech impediment. Despite repeated attempts at a bank to get his e-KYC, he wasn’t able to access his own MGNREGA wages because his biometrics wouldn’t work. The bank manager said in Hindi, “His fingers are defective”. Natho Ba felt humiliated, but was physically unable to voice his humiliation. The bank official was not intentionally insensitive, but had internalised spouting dehumanised technocratic vocabulary. Dehumanisation is the likely outcome when trust and humane aspects of governance get outsourced to opaque technologies.
Two technocratic initiatives
Two recent technocratic initiatives by the Union government underscore these issues again. The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), launched in 1975, is one of the world’s largest early childhood care and development programmes. An important component of ICDS is supplementary nutrition for children in the 0 to 6 years age group, pregnant women and lactating mothers. This became a legal entitlement when it became part of the National Food Security Act in 2013. As per this, the rights-holders get hot cooked meals or take-home rations at the local Anganwadis. In 2021, the Union government launched the Poshan Tracker, a centralised platform, to monitor all nutrition initiatives, including ICDS. A recent article by Tapasya of The Reporters’ Collective highlights some alarming technocratic proposals for ICDS. As per Union government circulars, the updating of Aadhaar of ICDS rights-holders, including children, on the Poshan Tracker is mandatory, and subsequent Central funds for supplementary nutrition to States is being made contingent on this. Nearly three-fourths of children between the ages of 0 to 5 years do not have Aadhaar cards, and Supreme Court orders specify that children cannot be denied their rights for lack of Aadhaar. The government has responded saying that only the Aadhaar of mothers need to be authenticated at Anganwadis. However, it does not provide any data or evidence to show how many “fake” or “ghost” children there are. In our study of Common Service Centres (CSC), even CSC owners reported that biometrics of 42% of the users don’t work on the first attempt. This is borne out in other studies too.
As per the recent National Family Health Survey, 36% of children under the age of five are stunted and nearly one-third of children in this age group are underweight. These are pre-pandemic numbers and this would have worsened since the pandemic. In such light, creating new hurdles for children — migrants or otherwise — and young mothers to access food in the name of digitisation appears cruel. It is also unclear what impact such a move will have on the psyche of a child whose mother’s Aadhaar authentication fails. For instance, a pensioner whose biometrics failed repeatedly had poignantly remarked, “I feel humiliated that my own body is rejecting my identity.” Tackling grave structural issues with technocratic fixes is like putting band aid on a person having a heart attack.
The Union government has issued an order introducing the National Mobile Monitoring Software (NMMS) app to record attendance of MGNREGA workers at worksites. As per the order, the app will record “two time-stamped and geo-tagged photographs of the workers in a day” which “increases citizen oversight of the programme besides potentially enabling processing of payments faster.” In worksites with 20 or more workers, the app will replace physical attendance registers. A recent article by Chakradhar Buddha and Laavanya Tamang in The Hindu and a letter to the government by People’s Action for Employment Guarantee articulates the perils of such a move. Here is a short summary. MGNREGA workers could complete their share of work and leave. This gave them time for household work or for other work that gave them supplementary income. The app makes this hard as they have to now stay back at the worksite even after completing their work only to get photographed and geo-tagged. Even from a hard economic standpoint, this move deters workers’ contribution to the GDP. The attendance at worksites is taken by Mates who are usually local women in charge of worksite supervision. Now, Mates have to carry smartphones which many don’t own. Another ground report by Vijayta Lalwani shows that many Mates are forced to take loans to buy smartphones to use the app. It also demonstrates how a worker has lost more than ₹1,100 of her wages because the app failed to upload her attendance. It has also been a bane for many officials. A district MGNREGA official told me how he is relentlessly getting phone calls regarding glitches on the NMMS app from 6 a.m. The very need for an app, its failures plus other impediments such as unstable network connectivity are likely to discourage women from MGNREGA work. So, the basis for the government’s claims of how such an app will assist in “increasing citizen oversight” and in making payments faster are misleading. No doubt that cases of corruption in MGNREGA need to be addressed. But for that, social audits need strengthening instead of making already overburdened women struggle more.
Both these technocratic initiatives point to a digital avatar of panopticon with no evident positives for the rights-holders. The sense of being constantly watched induces fear among people. This normalises and exacerbates the power asymmetry between the rights-holders and the government as the rights-holders begin to internalise and accept this form of coercion. Moreover, the rights-holders will be made to take the blame for technical reasons blocking their participation. This further alienates and erodes the political capacities of rights-holders who usually get addressed in patronising terms such as “beneficiaries.” In the process, violations of dignity get buried in the calculus of technocracy and opacity of government actions.
‘Seeing’ government actions
One thing that routinely strikes me during my frequent visits to parts of rural India is the absence of people wearing spectacles. One rarely sees opticians in most block headquarters, let alone in panchayats. We have made huge technological strides in the country, but have paid scant attention in ensuring that the poor get to see clearly. This extends at a metaphorical level too. While the Indian state has put so much weight behind ‘seeing’ its people, the majority are unable to see and scrutinise government actions. Democratic dictum suggests that people should be able to ‘see’ the state clearly, not the other way around. It is the dignity and trust of people at stake otherwise.
Rajendran Narayanan is a faculty member in Azim Premji University, Bangalore and is associated with LibTech India