That machines embody specific forms of power and authority won’t come as a surprise to this blog’s readers. Few examples are more renowned than Langdon Winner’s Do Artifacts Have Politics?: referring to “technical arrangements as forms of order”, Winner points to the low height of overpasses on the parkways to New York’s Long Island, noting how we are prompted to interpret details of form as devoid of political meaning. Published in 1980, Winner’s essay shows how master builder Robert Moses, responsible for the design of bridges, devised them with the purpose of discouraging the presence of buses, most frequently used by poor people and Blacks. The classist and racist valence of Moses’ bridges grew to become a core symbol of political artefacts, and indivisibly from that, of the harm suffered from targeted people as a result of such politics.
Anti-poverty artefacts, I argued in earlier work, are just as political as Moses’ bridges. By anti-poverty artefacts I mean all artefacts that, in more or less material forms, participate in the design and implementation of anti-poverty policies. While anti-poverty policy is often formulated at the national level, specific provisions can exist, such as the Green Card Scheme formerly adopted in India’s state of Karnataka to enhance food subsidies for the poorest. National policies are, at the same time, influenced by supranational directives and by the global development agenda. All artefacts participating in anti-poverty policies – whatever their nature, and the level at which they operate – qualify as the anti-poverty artefacts that influence, in more or less direct ways, the lives of recipients.
We have already encountered a few anti-poverty artefacts through this blog’s pages. The ration card that affords people’s access to India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) – and whose absence denies it – is an instance of that. Let us keep in mind that artefacts do not need a digital, or at large technological, component to qualify as such: a card, which embodies people’s poverty status and therefore their entitlements, plays a major role in anti-poverty policy. Aisha’s story palpably told her frustration in being unable to access food rations as she lacks her card: not only does the card participate in the programme’s implementation, but it is a material, essential requisite for users to access their provisions.
My work on India’s Aadhaar has thrown me deeper in anti-poverty artefacts. The process of accessing rations through Aadhaar-based authentication, in turn linked with the state-level ration card database, is populated with them. Rather than operating in isolation, anti-poverty artefacts sort their effects in combination with each other. As noted by Jean Drèze, Aadhaar requires “multiple fragile technologies to work at the same time”: the PoS machine, the biometrics, the internet connection, remote servers and often other elements such as the local mobile network. Beyond the fragility of the system, the point made here pertains to the concerted action behind anti-poverty artefacts, which work in combination with each other in producing, or seeking to produce, their intended policy outcomes.
This brings us back to exclusions from the Aadhaar-Based Biometric Authentication System (ABBA). The question is in terms of the politics that systems of the type of ABBA, which subordinate access to biometric authentication, embody within themselves. In other words, what is the politics of the anti-poverty artefacts that ABBA consists of?
Taluk Supply Office, Taliparamba (Kerala), November 2011
Answering this question requires a reminder of the two main types of errors – defined as exclusion and inclusion errors – in which targeted social protection systems can incur. An exclusion error occurs when genuinely entitled users are excluded from the system. Conversely, an inclusion error occurs when users who are not entitled to a system are erroneously included in it. Owners of bogus ration cards, presented by the Justice Wadhwa Committee Report (2010) as a major problem of the PDS across states, enable an inclusion error by affording non-entitled users to illicitly access the system.
The biometrically enabled PDS enforces a very specific policy measure. On the one hand, its action is tailored to combat the inclusion errors that have plagued the system for years. Denial of access to the non-entitled is written into the functioning of the technology: a person without a ration card, or a person which the system does not recognise as a registered user, cannot be made to access the PDS. In its virtue, the technology carries the message that access is to be restricted to validly identified and authenticated PDS users. While extensions can be added into the system, the heart of the technology subordinates access to successful authentication, equating its failure with non-entitlement.
The system’s architecture answers the question on the artefacts’ politics. Designing a technology that bars access to the non-recognised, but takes no provisions for the erroneously excluded, the artefact prioritises the fight to an inclusion error, widely recognised in national policy as responsible for leakage. The history of the PDS gives a strong rationale for such a policy: with the transition to a targeted system in 1997, and the spike in diversion that ensued from it, securely identifying genuine beneficiaries became prioritarian. While such an argument has been questioned on the grounds that exclusion errors were at least equally pressing, the purpose of tailoring the system to fighting wrongful inclusion has shaped the technology into what it is today: a technology subordinating a universal right to successful identification and authentication of users.
Two notes of caution must be made on this argument. First, biometric recognition (and the database of biometric details at the basis of it) is not a fundamental premise of the fight to inclusion errors. Ration cards, which remained starkly non-digital through their lives as artefacts, play the same role, subordinating people’s access to the system to recognition of the person as a valid beneficiary. The fact that in the non-digital PDS recognition was based on the person’s name and photo, rather than their biometric details, does not alter the nature of the technology, which is still aimed at delivering rations only to the person that qualifies as an entitled beneficiary. The Aadhaar-based PDS only inscribes the same politics of physical ration cards into a biometric artefact, planned to be more precise and accurate.
Second, and crucial, the politics of anti-poverty artefacts in the PDS does not need Aadhaar. There are diverse technologies through which biometric authentication can be performed, an early theorisation of the same is found here. In a study conducted in Karnataka in 2014-2015, Amit Prakash and I researched a pre-Aadhaar system that collected biometric details for PDS recipients in Karnataka, matching them with the details collected in the state’s ration card database. Selected ration shops had been provided a PoS machine augmented with a weighing scale, where ration dealers weighed goods associated to each ration cardholder. While antecedent to ABBA, the system played its exact same function and was described to us by its creator, Karnataka’s Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Secretary Harsh Gowda, as a major change drive in the state’s fight to corruption.
While exclusions are most surely unintended in the eyes of policymakers, they are directly produced by how the technology is designed. A technology that writes an anti-inclusion error policy into the artefact – rather than a policy that averts exclusion errors – produces the outcomes that people featured in this blog suffer, and that only augmentation of the original artefacts with extra tools can address. Legal injustice, which makes universal right conditional, is the epistemological underpinning of such artefacts.