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India’s centralized biometrics systems allegedly increase exclusion they are intended to solve

NRC applicants’ biometrics locked in Assam
India’s centralized biometrics systems allegedly increase exclusion they are intended to solve

The use of biometrics for an Indian government healthcare initiative has drawn intensive criticism from a researcher, who claims it amounts to “appropriation of bodies,” based on an idiosyncratic definition of appropriation.

Author Rajiv K. Mishra is a Ph.D. researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and defines body appropriation as “the objectification of bodily features (biometrics/fingerprints) in the ecosystem of digital healthcare accessibility.”

The Appropriated Body: Biometrics Regime, The Digital State and Healthcare in Contemporary India’ argues that the use of biometrics and the associated infrastructure adds “a hegemonic layer” to existing, inequitable social structures, and that the “top-down” policy approach lacks understanding of the social realities the intended beneficiaries face. Between these two problems, the biometric system increases, rather than breaks down, unequal healthcare access, according to Mishra.

The Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) health program provided a biometric card to families living below the poverty line to give them universal health coverage. Mishra writes that recipients make up around 22 percent of India’s population, with 300 million people living on less than $1.25 per day. Most of them, according to Mishra, are among India’s Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and as such have faced historical discrimination.

The criticism, however, is largely directed at how eligibility is proven, and how beneficiaries are counted. One area of concern specific to biometrics is the poor match rate of fingerprints for manual laborers.

No statistics for healthcare coverage or denial are provided in the paper.

Historical inequities cause by colonization, the centralized storage of biometric data by the government and the involvement of biometrics providers based overseas are both areas of concern for Mishra, and he notes that the latter two are both are features of Aadhaar, which has frequently been hailed as a model for developing-nation digital identity systems.

Mishra also implies in a note that ID4Africa is not an NGO, due to the presence of representatives from the World Bank Group, UN agencies, and the Center for Global Development.

State complains as locked biometrics prevent Aadhaar registration

The government of the India’s norther Assam state have lodged a complaint over the locking of biometric data collected during National Register of Citizens (NRC) enrollment, which has prevented Aadhaar enrollment for numerous people, the Times of India reports.

Biometrics were collected from 2.7 million residents of Assam in an NRC update in 2019, but as the process was not officially completed, the data has been frozen, preventing the generation of new Aadhaar numbers based on it. A state official said social assistance beneficiaries are not being denied service based on the lack of Aadhaar, though there have been reports of people having problems accessing different government services.

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