Other links:

Other links:

Digital Public Goods 360

The unprecedented digitalisation in public life in India is founded on a collection of massively successful “digital public goods” like Aadhar, the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) or the Ayushman Bharat Digital Health Mission. These have been celebrated for the fact that they are developed and promoted by the state, and made freely available to all residents of the country. But these have critical gaps in social appropriateness, arising from social, legal and political ambiguities and incompatibilities.

The unprecedented digitisation in public life in India is founded on collection of massively successful public goods. But these have critical gaps in social appropriateness.

Case 1: Aadhar

Aadhar hosts more than 1.2 billion biometric records that are used for large variety of government applications:

  1. Welfare Disbursal and Direct Benefit Transfers
  2. PDS/Ration Systems 
  3. Deduplications of Taxpayer/Voter Registries
  4. Covid Vaccination Records 

In addition, it also enabled KYC-compliance in a large set of private applications. 

But its prominence in public life has been met with a variety of roadblocks as well:

  1. There is legal ambiguity over the range of its current use-cases given the Supreme Court’s striking down of certain provisions of the Aadhar Act, and there is no clear regulatory authority that manages the deployment of Aadhar in these use-cases.
  2. As multiple instances have shown, excessive imposition of Aadhar may also lead to arbitrary exclusion and distrust. 

Case 2: Unified Payments Interface (UPI)

With over 800 crore daily transactions (by volume, as of January 2023), the UPI is one of the largest transaction systems in the world. It has considerably enhanced the ease of doing business, especially for low income consumers and small businesses. In addition, it also has great penetration and adoption even in non-urban settings

But the UPI too has a number of roadblocks to overcome: 

  1. Importantly, the transactions conducted on UPI are not anonymous and do not seem to optimise for user privacy. 
  2. There is an ecosystem of imperfectly regulated 3rd Party Applications that pose serious risks to both security and privacy. 

The UPI’s receipt system is not independently verifiable and relies on networks of trust.

Case 3: Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission

The Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission aims to create a foundation for India’s digital health infrastructure by creating digital health IDs for all citizens that will be provider-interoperable across the country. In its pilot stage, it has already created 25 crore linked digital health records and was crucial to supply-chain management for the Covid vaccine. 

But digital health initiatives also need to confront some of the most complex roadblocks in the domain of large-scale public digitalisation. For example: 

  1. Healthcare is a state subject. The push for digitisation in the healthcare sector is centre-led. This is problematic for at least two reasons. 
    1. Firstly, health IDs based access using a centralised protocol are likely to be vulnerable to breaches/abuse in the absence of (binding) checks and balances that regulate data analysis and processing. Some of these fears have already been vindicated: AIIMS Delhi recently faced a ransomware attack in which 30 to 40 million individuals’ health records were likely compromised
    2. Secondly, any health intervention needs buy-in from the grassroots level (regulated by the states) and trust from different communities in order to succeed. 
  2. It is particularly revealing to examine cases where consent is supposedly collected: is the consent meaningful or false? The National Health Authority has announced that participation in the creation of digital health IDs is completely optional. But:
    1. AIIMS-Delhi, which sees a footfall of 15-18k a day and long delays, has made access to care easier if patients register for digital health IDs. Is a citizen with an urgent health need really in a position to opt-out?
    2. The use of the Co-WIN app is formally optional. But everyday life often requires it. 40% of all ABHA IDs originate from Co-WIN. Can a citizen who needs to install the application to receive the vaccine really consent?

Consider this illustration of a research program that would help us truly overcome these obstacles: “How do we make these public goods (for example, Aadhar) more effective and fair?”

📈   Economics

  1. What kind of impact does access to Aadhar/UPI have on productivity?
  2. How does adoption of these public goods affect social indicators across different groups? 

⚖️  Legal Theory

  1. How does Aadhar intersect with existing legal frameworks, such as data protection laws, constitutional protections, and human rights law, and what are the implications of these intersections?
  2. How do different legal theories conceptualise the relationship between biometric data and identity?

👣 Sociology/Anthropology

  1. How do different communities perceive, adopt and resist Aadhaar in their everyday lives?
  2. How has the Aadhar program been integrated into India’s broader system of governance, and what challenges have arisen as a result?

🤔  Philosophy

  1. Is the current formulation of Aadhar compatible with the principles of individual autonomy and consent?
  2. What are the ethical implications of using Aadhar for purposes beyond identity verification, such as surveillance or marketing?

🖥️ Computer Science and Technology

  1. Are all possible use-cases of Aadhar robust to false authentications and inappropriate exclusion? Have all possible threats been mapped out?
  2. Are the software engineering practices used by the UIDAI up-to-date?
  3. How can we assess the efficacy of Aadhar-based de-duplication?

🏛️ Political Science

How has the Aadhar program impacted the relationship between the state and its citizens in terms of accountability and transparency?

Each discipline has a critical perspective to offer. But note that:

🧩 These are a non exhaustive set of illustrations for one of many digital public goods deployed at scale today.

➕  A comprehensive program would contain more questions from
each discipline + points of intersection + other public goods.

🤝 These investigations will benefit from each other and together help us address challenges to at-scale digitisation. 

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka