Whenever a problem arises, the government turns to technology or mobile app rather than solve the underlying problem. Everything is a data-collection process, an excuse to seed our Aadhaar ID in a database. The Unnati app is just the latest such attempt, and it hurts workers’ privacy and dignity, writes SARADA MAHESH.
RECENTLY, the Indian Express newspaper reported on the NITI Aayog’s plan to set up a blue-collar job portal, Unnati, using government databases from the ministries of skill development and entrepreneurship, labour and employment, and micro, small and medium enterprises, along with similar databases from select states.
The objective of this platform will be to provide a “single window for job seekers and job providers”. Mobile applications for this platform are already available on the Apple and Google stores. According to the report, the government plans to automatically seed the Aadhaar numbers of these workers into the platform.
While this might seem like a good initiative, the implications on the personal data and privacy of the labourers must not be overlooked. A pattern has emerged in the policy decisions of the government over the years: when a problem arises, the focus is more on the adoption of technology to solve it rather than addressing the underlying cause. Everything is a data collection process, an excuse to include the Aadhaar ID in the system.
The imposition of privacy-intrusive technologies on those working in the informal sector such as migrant labourers, pournakarmika/ municipal workers, and delivery persons who work for companies like Swiggy and Zomato is not a new phenomenon. Municipal workers in Chandigarh were forced to wear GPS watches which allowed their supervisors to track their movements during work. While this was done in the name of improving efficiency, the workers felt it was “humiliating” and “unethical”.
The Aarogya Setu application was introduced barely a few weeks after the lockdown was imposed. Informal-sector workers were immediately forced to submit their personal information to the application. While the intention may have been good—to track their health status considering their exposure during their working hours—it ultimately led to their surveillance by employers. The application was problematic in other ways too—it lacked accuracy and accountability, to mention just two issues.
The One Nation, One Ration Card system, which aims to make the Public Distribution System uniform across the country, excessively relies on the Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA), which is likely to be a recipe for further exclusion. Very recently, these workers were awarded the title of “front-line workers”, as a consequence of which they were the first to be given the (still not fully tested) vaccine for COVID-19.
Here too, the government made it mandatory to download the Co-WIN application to register for vaccination. While applying, the Aadhaar ID was made a voluntary option, but only on paper—the reality is different. The government has openly encouraged that Aadhaar be given preference over other IDs while registering on the application.
The fact that these technologies are enforced on the workers is proof of their lack of consent in the process. Even if privacy policies are available, they either come in the form of boilerplate contracts or are in English, a language the majority of workers cannot understand. Refusal to submit data has repercussions such as a denial of subsidies or loss of employment.
Overall, what the workers are giving is an imagined consent—one that they are forced to give because of the powerplay between the state and the workers. According to the principle of purpose limitation, the data collected for a particular purpose or objective cannot be used for another purpose without getting the consent of the data subjects.
The integration, on the Unnati platform, of different databases of the government that contain details of migrant workers without their consent is a clear violation of the principle. This consequently leads to a violation of their dignity, which is nothing short of inhumane. It begins to act as a Nanny State, taking decisions for the workers without consulting them with the excuse that they know what is best for them.
Ironically, all of this is being done in the name of empowering these workers, when in reality, it is the exact opposite. While digital rights organisations are available to argue against these unlawful policies, it is abhorrent that these informal sector workers are treated as citizens whose rights can be compromised.
And what of the technology used in the creation of the platforms? To begin with, the personal data of the workers will be available for all to access on a public platform. On-demand platforms do little to address the issue of caste discrimination in India—they, in fact, reinforce it by making such data publically available, as with platforms like BookMyBai.
One cannot help but think that a similar situation will occur on platforms for public employment, continuing the vicious cycle of linking caste with particular types of labour.
Additionally, reports have shown that these platforms do not fulfill the basic principles of privacy, like allowing workers to delete their data. With the Unnati platform, the government has made its intention to seed Aadhaar into the system clear. Considering the history of how easily platforms with personal data (especially Aadhaar) have been hacked and their data leaked, the risks of seeding are very high.
It can be argued that the decision to integrate different databases is to further the Directive Principles of State Policy, particularly Article 38 (“State to secure a social order for the welfare of the people”). The Supreme Court in Re Kerala Education Bill (1957) propounded the doctrine of harmonious construction. According to it, if there is a conflict between fundamental rights and DPSPs, the court should interpret the law to give effect to both as far as possible.
While there is no conflict between Art. 38 and the fundamental right to privacy in this case, the principle should still be applied to respect both. In other words, the government can implement schemes for the welfare of informal-sector workers as long as their rights are not infringed.
My conversations with informal workers revealed they were either unaware of the alternative or could not leave WhatsApp because their supervisors or employers continued to use it. It is the only platform they had to report their work, based on which they are paid. Decisions taken in the name of promoting a welfare state cannot compromise the rights of citizens.
(Sarada Mahesh is a lawyer based in Bangalore. She works as a legal researcher and aims to make the law more simple and accessible. The views expressed are personal.)
The article was originally published in The Leaflet.