Biometric Data Collection in India

by Tenzin Chomphel
Director of Marketing

The South Asia Initiative at UC San Diego hosts a series of interdisciplinary events to promote discussion and exchange on South Asia. On Thursday February 14th, they invited Reetika Khera, associate professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Management, along with UC San Diego’s own Karthik Muralidharan, Tata Chancellor’s professor of economics, to discuss and debate India’s new “Aadhaar” system.

“Aadhaar”–meaning “foundation” in Hindi–represents the Indian government’s attempt to usher in as many of its citizens into the digital age as possible through the use of biometric IDs (fingerprints, retina scans, etc.) to connect various social services to a citizen’s own genetic imprint.  First proposed in 2009, citizens were initially not required to obtain an Aadhaar identification. However, after a continuous push from the government and by linking it to numerous services such as bank accounts, pensions, and even free school-meals, over 1.1 billion people have now been registered, making this one of the most ambitious government data collection programs in the world. To advocates of Aadhaar, the new system is hailed as a step towards modernizing India, formalizing the economy, and leaping over illiteracy constraints of many indian citizens in need of welfare. To skeptics, it may be viewed as a huge breach of privacy. On top of these concerns for privacy, arguments against it point towards numerous implementation challenges. Professor Khera voiced some of these concerns, while professor Muralidharan–who played a key role in the early trial runs of Aadhaar–took a more cautiously optimistic stance during their discussion.

In her initial statement, Professor Khera acknowledges the common criticism of privacy issues, but focuses instead mainly on its implementation. She reasons that if Aadhaar is not able to serve its advertised purpose or audience, this massive change is being pushed for naught. First, it fails to prevent economic leakage properly, and thus does not serve its most in-need constituency. Examples she mentions include quantity fraud, wherein a citizen on welfare–who signs off on purchasing subsidized goods such as groceries–likely do not receive the full amount of goods they purchased. This issue is particularly prominent for rural and disempowered populations such as village women, and Aadhaar does nothing to combat it. Additionally, she mentions Aadhaar’s technical failures and the consequences of these failings. Many manual laborers and senior citizens have had their fingerprints faded away over time, and even a simple issue such as this has prevented many in poverty from receiving their welfare rations. Thus, based on where Aadhaar and its capabilities currently stand and the lack of socially appropriate technologies to fix these issues, Khera reasons that the system is doing more harm than good.  

Professor Muralidharan did agree with many of Khera’s proposed flaws but aimed to provide more context and empirical evidence in various sectors for a more holistic view of Aadhaar’s impact. He does so by going deeper into specific regions of India where Aadhaar was implemented and then measuring how effective specific programs were in each region. The adoption of a more basic biometric smartcard system in the state of Andhra Pradesh resulted in a much more efficient and less corrupted payment experience, which was publicly very popular without needing additional government expenditure. Conversely, once economic leakage was reduced in a lower-capacity state like Jharkhand, so too was government spending reduced, demonstrating policies that prioritize fiscal savings over welfare. The sheer scale coupled with the variety of situations in each state present a massive challenge in implementation. This contrast demonstrates the failures in implementation, rather than the system itself. Muralidharan concludes that rejecting the technology itself would be counterproductive. Instead, he highlights the importance of democratic vigilance grassroots measurements to address cases like these, where vulnerable groups are not receiving the protections they need.

Professor Khera (left) and Professor Muralidharan (right) answering questions

Both Khera and Muralidharan spoke from positions of deep investment in India, and understood the reality of such a large nation with scarce resources, and trying to distribute them as judiciously as possible. When asked what he thought the audience’s major takeaways from the discussion should be, Muralidharan again reflected on the role of advocacy in policy making. “The activists are able to see the groundlevel realities that politicians and academia are divorced from,” though he admits, “I do trust activists with diagnosis, but not with solutions.” He believes real long term solutions require valuable data points reflected in sensitive policy processes, echoing a sentiment that the only way to achieve these long term reforms for the public is an organized effort from the grassroots advocates, dedicated researchers, and centralized policy makers.

Images by
Biswarup Ganguly
Tenzin Chomphel


by Jasmine Moheb
Staff Writer

As two of the largest powerhouses in the world, the United States and China have a vital relationship that proves necessary for economic, military, and scientific advances. However, with recent geopolitical strife, it is more important now than ever to understand the magnitude of this relationship and how to facilitate an environment that promotes its sustainability.

As part of the Sokwanlok lecture series, where distinguished speakers are provided a forum to discuss U.S.-Chinese relations, Joe Tsai, a co-founder and the Executive Vice Chairman of the Alibaba Group, discussed “U.S.-China Symbiosis” in its eighth annual distinguished lecture. The conversation was directed by Professor Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center through UCSD’s School of Global Policy and Strategy.

Having a major role in one of the largest and most successful commerce and technology corporations in the world based in China, Tsai was able to voice his unique first-hand experiences in the dialogue regarding the rise of China and its implications for U.S.-Chinese relations.

Professor Shirk prefaced the discussion with the definition of “symbiosis” as two dissimilar organizations in a mutually beneficial relationship, and asked Tsai how he believed the relationship between China and the United States was a symbiotic one. Tsai explained that the mutual benefits in this interdependent relationship included the significant gains through trade that benefit both the United States and China. These include billions of dollars of exchange, widespread corporate activity since 65,000 U.S. companies have bases in China, and development at an intellectual level as people from China frequently contribute to U.S. life and business. The conclusion that can be drawn from these major dependencies for the success of both countries and economies is that a faltering relationship would take away from the benefits of cooperation.

Tsai went on to address the claim that the United States and China are in a competitive relationship by acknowledging that China is becoming more affluent in the sectors of technology, military, and overall global influence. However, he brought to light the idea that it is still a choice whether the two countries choose to approach this with conflict rather than cooperation. Additionally, he presented the alternate view that China does not see the relationship as a competitive one, stating that the Chinese Communist Party merely seeks to improve their economy, life of citizens, and therefore legitimize their one-party system.

Specifically, Tsai claimed China’s revitalization efforts–perceived as aggressive competition by the American public–are actually misinterpreted intentions of the Chinese Communist Party. The national rejuvenation was meant to be a renaissance of Chinese culture and tradition to counteract what the Chinese government believes has been an era of shame inflicted by foreign powers. He exemplified this negative global image by explaining how Japan refers to China as the “sick man of the east,” a sentiment with which the Chinese no longer want to be associated.

Within the technological niche the Alibaba group specializes in, Tsai disputed other misrepresentations of China in the Western perspective. Although many believe China has severe problems with intellectual property protection, he mentioned that China has improved their safeguards against copyright dilemmas and pays the second largest royalty payment for intellectual property in the world. Beyond this, Tsai explained that while the United States sees China’s promotion of socialism as paralleling the extent of Marxist values, it is not comparable due to their government’s characteristics of being entrepreneurial-focused, similar to the free market values of the United States.

Finally, the symbiotic relationship was further emphasized as Tsai explained that with greater divergence among U.S.-Chinese cooperation, two parallel and antagonistic universes could not work together, and business would be harmed for both major powers if they try to expand beyond their intended sphere and into the other’s. However, he described solutions as not only being possible, but fairly easy to access.

First, in the technological domain–while we may not immediately return to integration between the two countries–there is still great room for cooperation. In applications of Artificial Intelligence, for example, the sharing of data between the two countries can be promoted through encryption of valuable information that one country does not wish to release to the other. With certain privacy trade-offs, it would still be possible to reap the gains of an advancing technological sector that can only be fully attained through global cooperation.

Second, in a nongovernmental domain, we can reduce the increasing hostility between the two countries. Nongovernmental groups provide forums for exchanging views, enabling Chinese nationals and representatives to discuss their perspective of controversial matters, in an effort to promote a more holistic understanding of the motivations behind the actions of the Chinese government.  He encouraged people from China to talk about their country and culture with others as another source of information for Americans to gain true insight into a world that can only be fully encapsulated through knowledge of first-hand experiences.

Although China and the United States have seen a more conflict-ridden relationship in the past few months, keeping an open mind and finding ways to cooperate are a step in the right direction. Conversations such as the one facilitated by GPS prove that there is still much to be learned and benefits to be gained from the rising power–and not necessarily the rising threat–that is China.

Image by UCSD School of Global Policy & Strategy


by Madi Ro
Staff Writer

One of the international community’s persistent concerns regards the protection of citizens’ social and economic rights. Since the adoption of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, there has been global commitment to fulfill the rights that each individual is recognized to be born with. While these rights originally pertained to basic freedoms such as life, liberty, and equality, they have now also expanded to include social and economic rights.

But what are social and economic rights, exactly? And how do we measure society’s performance in its protection of those rights? How do we compare different countries’ performances?

Dr. Terra Lawson-Remer provides answers to these questions in her new book, Fulfilling Social and Economic Rights. She is a founding member and managing partner for the Catalyst Project and a faculty fellow at UCSD’s School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS). In her special talk at UCSD, she outlined her and her team’s major solutions and findings regarding these questions.

The Social and Economic Rights Fulfillment Index (SERF) is an index that her team created to measure a country’s provision and protection of social and economic rights, which include the right to food, health care, education, work, and social security. The index measures how well a country is doing given the resources that they have, making it easier to compare a country like the United States with a country like Ghana, for instance.

The distinguishing aspect of Dr. Lawson-Remer and her team’s work is the inclusion of national resources in the calculations, and they do not solely use a country’s nominal wealth to measure its ability and performance. This adds a whole new dimension to keeping countries accountable. Other rankings that do not include a country’s given resources rank Jordan and Turkey similarly as “medium performers”. However, in the SERF Index, Jordan ranks 6th overall, while Turkey comes in 87th.

Her book further details how each resource is measured and why it was selected as a part of the index. She explains that some basic rights can actually be achieved during a country’s development process, requiring fewer resources than other countries. However, many countries–both rich and poor–are not meeting their expected levels of rights fulfillment. The worst-performing country is Equatorial Guinea, meeting only 16% of its overall obligations.

Through further analysis of the SERF index results and ratings for each country, her book also explores performance comparisons between democracies and autocracies. While it is possible for an autocratic state to achieve a high score on the index, there is far more fluctuation in scores among autocracies than among democracies.

Dr. Lawson-Remer described her work as “policy agnostic,” stating that her work is not meant to provide a list of one-size-fits-all policy packages for all countries. Although she also explores the limitations of the impact of international human rights treaties on social and economic rights fulfillment, she hopes that her work serves as an impetus for improvement in the areas of food accessibility, health care, education, work conditions, and social security. She urges states to fully employ all their means and resources ─ legal, administrative, judicial, economic, social, and educational ─ in order to further protect and provide these rights for their citizens.

Her work is not so much about evaluating how well countries are doing as it is about providing a more equitable system of evaluation. It has the potential to better guide countries in fulfilling these rights, encouraging those with fewer resources to not compare themselves to the same standards as rich countries, and alerting those with more resources to use them wisely.

Dr. Lawson-Remer ultimately hopes that the SERF index will push countries to keep one another accountable by paving a way for them to do so. Despite obvious drawbacks to encouraging international action and treaties, the index serves as a vital research tool to better understand the relationship between governments and their citizens, and how our leaders can better serve their people.

Image by UCSD School of Global Policy & Strategy