There is something common with digital technologies that are being made mandatory in India, the people and the strategies that are employed are the same. Just like Aadhaar, Aarogya Setu was built by a group of un-named volunteers whose relationship with the government is unknown.
Similarly, National Health ID and National Health Stack are being built and promoted by the lobby group iSPIRT (India Software Products Industry Round Table). Their main aim is to push digital products onto citizens, by hook or crook.
iSPIRT has made plans to build a digital health industry since 2017 and the current pandemic gave them an opportunity to experiment. Some of the iSPIRT volunteers and other health tech firms were involved in the creation of Aarogya Setu. Now the organisation and health tech firms are actively involved with the National Health Authority in building the National Health Stack and National Health ID.
Aarogya Setu was an experiment to understand the market for the digital health industry and the plan was to bridge it with the National Health Stack. From day one of Aarogya Setu, NITI Aayog officials were praising how it will help create a digital health industry. It really didn’t matter whether the app works or not, all they were interested in was to make as many people install it. This was to make people comfortable with digital health products that will be soon unleashed.
There is an increased possibility for AarogyaSetu and National Health ID to be made mandatory for vaccination of COVID-19. Nandan Nilekani, non-executive chairman, Infosys, has already advocated for building a digital platform to track and deliver mandatory vaccination. This digital platform is very likely to involve Aarogya Setu and National Health ID, if not Aadhaar. While there is no vaccine yet, tech firms are pushing for these systems to be built for their private interests.
There is a data industry complex in India currently, where private volunteers and startups are increasingly using regulatory mechanisms for forceful collection of citizens data. This helps private firms make digital products and convert citizens into consumers, more the population more the data and more the consumers. A strategy that worked well with Aadhaar, tried out again with Aarogya Setu and its turn with National Health ID will arrive soon.
Being termed as digital public goods, digital products like Aadhaar, India Stack, Aarogya Setu and National Health Stack are the new economic goods on offer for the private sector. Venture Capital Group Omidyar Network is working with the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to build more of these digital public goods terming them National Open Digital Ecosystems. These systems are likely to be built by iSPIRT just like IndiaStack, HealthStack.
The role of private players working inside the government to carve out a digital market for themselves is a publicly known open secret. Started by Nilekani himself, this model of public private partnership (PPP) often involves private volunteers building tech products, which will be later forced upon citizens through regulations.
This approach has high yields for the volunteers and technology firms who can make profits with citizen data. But often there is no accountability in this process including in the case of Aarogya Setu. The private sector takes all the profits leaving the citizens to themselves when these systems cause them harm.
This process of PPP by design leaves no trace and does not want any accountability measures like RTI, CAG audits, cyber forensic audits to take place. It is not surprising that bureaucrats don’t want to reply to RTIs, they are incentivised to not provide any information, while working closely with these volunteers and do everything that helps them build a data economy. PPP is just another name for privatisation of governance in India.
Indians are being forced to digitise with no other option due to the economic value of data and this is resulting in citizens being transformed into consumers with no rights to negotiate either with the government or private sector.
Holding these institutions and individuals driving them accountable won’t be an easy task and it requires citizens to be aware of their rights and to negotiate with these power structures. This digital onslaught will continue to happen and don’t expect a data protection bill to simply stop this.
Srinivas Kodali is a researcher and volunteer with Free Software movement of India