From smart-watch trackers to pre-wedding toilet selfies — Big Brother loves watching you
The Swachh Bharat Mission, Indian government’s flagship campaign on sanitation, has been successful in equating the idea of cleanliness, particularly toilet hygiene, with social welfare. Even those who are critical of the campaign for not delivering on its promises agree that sanitation and hygiene are vital indicators of public good. The accomplishments of the sanitation campaign have been acknowledged across the world with Prime Minister Narendra Modi receiving the 2019 Global Goalkeeper Award for the campaign from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for building toilets. However, in the process of creating a homogenous consensus on sanitation, the government has also pushed for a few controversial ideas legitimizing its power through surveillance at the private level.
Even those who are critical of the campaign for not delivering on its promises agree that sanitation and hygiene are vital indicators of public good.
The sanitation workers across India are being made to wear “Human Efficiency Tracker” around their wrists by municipal corporations. The smart watch — as authorities like to call it — consists of a camera, microphone and GPS-tracker. The workers — most of whom are from marginalised castes — appear as green dots on the surveillance screens. The supervisors claim that close monitoring of the employees’ movement during duty hours ensures ‘efficiency’ at work. As if stalking — women workers reportedly stopped using washrooms fearing the camera on the tracking device — were not invasive enough, the workers are also given unique IDs linking it to their personal information such as name, Aadhaar card (unique identity issued by the government of India) and bank account detail.
The workers — most of whom are from marginalised castes — appear as green dots on the surveillance screens.
The use of surveillance by governments in the name of extending social benefits and protection to the citizens has become an important marker of recording efficiency in state welfare programmes, and is being increasingly used by many countries: China has 200 million surveillance cameras installed followed by the United States of America. In the US and Europe, predictive algorithms are used to set police patrols. In Netherlands, the government, until recently — in February 2020, a Dutch court, in a landmark judgment, declared that automated surveillance systems were a violation of human rights and ordered its immediate halt — was thoroughly convinced that digitized surveillance is the solution to detecting welfare frauds against citizens.
In India surveillance systems have reproduced existing stereotypes. On several occasions, the sanitation campaign has been criticized for its violent apathy towards the marginalized communities who have been historically forced to perform the oppressive task of cleaning dirt and filth for the privileged communities. This is relevant in the current situation as well for street sweepers are predominantly from poor communities, which face caste-based discriminations. It does not take genius to realize that exercising unquestioned control over their body labour by imposing a tracking device translates to modern forms of slavery.
In India surveillance systems have reproduced existing stereotypes.
Furthermore, the sanitation campaign has also been questioned for ignoring the plight of the safai karmacharis (sanitation workers) who have jeopardized their life in their day-to-day livelihood practice of cleaning toxic filth from sewers. With 110 deaths previous year, 2019 witnessed the highest number of manual scavenging fatalities — or institutional murder? — in the last five years. This raises a moral concern about priorities because instead of investing the limited resources in equipment such as gloves, masks, safety helmets and machines for cleaning sewers, the government — mostly in Bharatiya Janata Party-led states — has focused on building tracking devices. According to a report, the Panchkula Municipal Corporation has already spent Rs 35,00,000 over a period of 9 months on the tracking system.
But it is not just the state and its machineries; the public is also actively participating in constant vigilance. On 25 September 2019, six days before rural India was declared open defecation free on Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, two children from the marginalized Dalit community, aged 12 and 10, were beaten to death by powerful men for defecating in the open. According to the reports, the children did not have toilets at home in a village which had already been declared open defecation free by the government.
But it is not just the state and its machineries; the public is also actively participating in constant vigilance.
Since the day of its inception, the sanitation campaign has encouraged punishing those who open defecate. The so-called open-defecation ‘offenders’ have been publicly shamed: their photographs have been taken by local people while defecating. In a strikingly bizarre move, the Madhya Pradesh government announced that bridegrooms will have to click toilet selfies to be eligible for Rs 51,000 under the programme, Mukhya Mantri Kanya Vivah/Nikah Yojna (a scheme that provides monetary compensation for the marriage of daughters).
Since the day of its inception, the sanitation campaign has encouraged punishing those who open defecate.
This matter-of-factly surveillance of the people can prove to be dangerous because of the complicity of citizens with the government officials in their effort to contribute towards doing public good: it not only makes snooping on human subjects a banal practice but also makes it inevitable for purposes of ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’. The ‘panopticon’ with a watchman observing the prisoners from above does not exist anymore because a ‘centralized-surveillance system’ has ceased to exist. Anyone can be a spy without having to officially work for the state; and anyone can be a criminal without having committed a real crime.
Anyone can be a spy without having to officially work for the state; and anyone can be a criminal without having committed a real crime.
Yet, employing tracking devices for state welfare measures is affecting people differently and is more likely to oppress those lowest in the administrative hierarchy — in Netherlands, the automated surveillance was by default criminalizing the poor, and in India, the fear of losing meagre source of income is sometimes refraining sanitation workers from openly raising their voice against their movement being controlled — thereby, ultimately, pointing out the uneven operation of the state surveillance systems across social classes.
By Saumya Pandey, PhD-candidate at CMI.