In a recent report, EY projected that, with a “stable yet modest” annual growth rate of 6%, India could attain a per capita income of US$ 15 000, achieving the goal of becoming a “developed” economy by 2047. Among the key factors that have made it the fastest growing major economy for three years in succession, EY mentions the government’s flagship project “Digital India” launched in 2015. At that time only 19% of the population had Internet access, but by 2022 this had risen to 60%, the process of digital transformation having been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While India’s rapid digital transformation process has brought improvements for millions of people, it has not benefitted all citizens equally and there are also concerns about the repercussions for data protection and democracy. There is a clear divide between those who have access to fast and stable Internet and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and those who cannot afford them. Also, there is a rural-urban divide with 31 % in rural areas using the Internet as opposed to 67 % in urban areas, although the gap is closing. Socioeconomic and gender factors influence digital literacy and the way in which ICTs are used, those with a lower education level tend to use phones for entertainment purposes rather than for business or for public services.
Oxfam India’s Inequality Report 2022 focused on this digital divide, stating that it “mirrors the existing socioeconomic inequalities of the country” and could exacerbate these inequalities, hindering the access of the marginalized groups to the most basic of some essential services such as education and health”.
The increasing use of digital learning during the pandemic meant that education was disrupted for almost 300,000 school students lacking regular access to ICTs and Internet and with the expanding role of EdTech firms in education it is feared that this inequality could increase. In the health sector, the rapid process of digitalisation has made good Internet access and a sufficient level of digital literacy prerequisites for access to health services and information, with the result that those with no access to ICTs risk exclusion.
The Oxfam India report sets out a number of recommendations that must be addressed to make the digital revolution inclusive. These include ensuring decent minimum wages and digital literacy for all, reliable and affordable Internet connectivity and mechanisms to handle complaints relating to digitalised education and health services. Furthermore, non-digital access to public services and programmes must continue to be provided.
Can new legislation ensure personal data protection?
The digital revolution has led to concern about the growing amount of personal data being accumulated by the government and the use of digital surveillance, especially in light of the BJP government’s increasing suppression of civil society organisations, human rights defenders, journalists and members of religious minorities. This concern heightened in 2021 when it was revealed that the phone numbers of over 300 rights defenders, activists, lawyers and politicians were on a leaked Pegasus spyware target list. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the phone numbers of several activists now in jail on terrorism charges were on the list.
While the right to privacy was declared a fundamental right by the Supreme Court of India in 2017, as yet no specific law is in place governing that right. Draft legislation (The Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022) now under discussion in parliament has been widely criticised by civil society. HRW pointed out that the Bill would give the government “sweeping powers to exempt itself from compliance with the bill’s data protection provisions for vague and overbroad reasons.”, including “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, or the maintenance of public order.” The terms “security and public order” are regularly used to violate freedom of expression.
Furthermore, rather than installing an independent body to oversee these government powers it is proposed to install a Data Protection Board, whose members would be appointed and removed by the government. Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at HRW insisted that “India’s first data protection law should respect people’s rights and not become a tool for further invasion of their privacy”.
Linking Aadhaar to Voter ID cards
In 2009 the Indian government introduced a biometric identity system, Aadhaar, one of the main aims being to simplifying access to the many government welfare programs available to the poor, which had previously been extremely burdensome and open to fraud. However, from the outset, the Aadhaar card, which now serves as the sole proof of identity for many Indian citizens, has been fraught with a number of security problems and there are fears that that the vast amounts of data available to the government through Aadhaar could be used for surveillance purposes, a fear exacerbated by the lack of personal data protection legislation.
In 2021 new election legislation was passed, obliging voters to use their Aardhaar cards to authenticate their names on the electoral rolls, thus linking the Aadhaar database to that of the Election Commission, the body responsible for overseeing elections. While this was purportedly to prevent fraudulent voting by removing duplicate or fake entries from the electoral rolls, the linkage has been criticised by civil society for a number of reasons.
The Coordinator of the Citizens’ Commission on Elections, M.G. Devasahayam, pointed out that Aadhaar cannot in fact be considered proof of the right to vote, as it is available to all residents of India and not only Indian citizens. He warned that the move could lead to millions being disenfranchised, recalling how the use of the Aadhaar database to “clean up” government databases for welfare schemes has led in the past to thousands of entitled citizens being wrongly deleted from the system and losing their rights to such services. He also sees a risk of voter manipulation as Aadhaar can be linked to so many other (e.g. telephone) applications.
Digital voting – a solution for migrant workers?
A controversy has recently flared up about plans to introduce a remote electronic voting system that would allow migrant workers within India to vote in their place of residence rather than having to travel back to their hometowns, where they are registered, as the expense and complication involved in travelling prohibitive for many.
The Remote Electronic Voting Machine (RVM) proposed by the Election Commission (EC) would enable voting in multiple constituencies from a single voting booth. The prototype was to be demonstrated to the political parties in January 2023, but this was dropped after opposition parties called on the EC to first address the concerns raised by civil society experts with regard to the existing Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in 2022. These have been used in all national and State elections in India since 2000 but flaws have repeatedly been reported. In a number of articles on the issue, M.G. Devasahayam has criticised the EVM system as it does not allow the voter to verify that the vote cast “has been cast as intended, recorded as cast and counted as recorded and there are no provable guarantees against hacking, tampering and spurious vote injections.”
He pointed out that it was for this reason that the German Federal Constitutional Court ruled in 2009 that voting by means of an electronic voting machine is unconstitutional.
While the latest generation of EVMs do in fact enable the printing of voting slips, which according to election regulations should take precedence over the electronic count, according to Devasahayam the EC has consistently refused to count the paper slips, only using the EVM memory. Opposition parties are also concerned that smaller, regional parties would not be able to have polling agents throughout India to represent them at the polling stations to ensure the voting process is free and fair. This could lead to a risk of voter manipulation.
Devasahayam fears that “Unless effectively addressed and resolved immediately, there is every danger of India’s electoral exercise morphing into a ‘Mandate of the Machines, instead of being a mandate of the voters!”
Digitalisation in the agriculture sector – friend or foe for small farmers?
The government is currently developing a system of digital information and technology known as Agristack, for which farmers will be provided with a unique ID linked to their Aadhaar ID. Agristack will contain farmers’ personal and financial data, including loans and credit rating, land records, information on soil fertility and hydrology. Applications linked to Agristack will provide farmers with advice on best practices, weather updates, recommended seeds, credit schemes, all intended to enable farmers to improve their incomes.
But here too, serious questions have been raised. The Indian publication Down To Earth describes how Agristack is being developed in collaboration with Big Tech firms such as Microsoft and Amazon, with the risk of farmers’ data being shared with private companies. It is feared that this could lead to the commercialisation of state extension services, and companies seeing farmers as a marketing target for their products.
In October 2022, the Indian NGO IT for Change (ITFC) produced a case study on land and agricultural digitalisation trends in India that echoed these concerns, and noting that linking land records to information on yield, climate and soil fertility has led to community lands being classified as wasteland and then made available for non-agricultural purposes. Companies also make use of the data available to lure farmers into exploitative leasing agreements to make their land available for carbon offsetting.
There are also concerns as to whether the digitisation process will take account of the complexity of land ownership in India and whether all stakeholders will be consulted. The fact that in the digitalisation process the definition of farmers is limited to landowners would lead to the exclusion of vast numbers of landless farmers, farm labourers and account not being taken of the customary tenure rights of marginal farmers, tribal groups and indigenous peoples.
However, alternatives are being developed. The Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad, for example, concerned about private sector accumulation of data from farmers, has devised a farmer-centred database managed together with farmers that includes weather updates, an online marketplace, pest-and-disease surveillance apps. 
Summing up, there is general agreement that digitalisation in India is a reality that, with the right policies, can be of benefit to all sectors of the population in India, but as ITFC puts it: “The critical questions to be asked are “Digitalization for whom? Towards what? And in whose interests?”