India: a Playground for Social Surveillance via Health ID

Gopi Krishna Vijaya, PhD
13 Apr 2022

Key Topics

To truly understand the massive change India is currently in the middle of, caused due to the social upheavals triggered by COVID-19, it is essential to examine some key underlying ideas. These are the relationships India has to technology, privacy, governance, and health. It is only when we get a handle on these key ideas that we can understand the issue that stands at the resulting nexus: The Digital Health-ID project of India.

India has a unique relationship to technology, which is both paradoxical and surprising. If one examines the relationship to technology Indians have in general, it is that of being much more comfortable modifying and using existing technology, and being less inclined to create new technologies from scratch. For example, India has produced no mobile device or operating system by itself, and yet produces an enormous number of IT engineering graduates every yeari, most of whom are unemployableii. On the other hand, the facility and ease with which Indians take up technology is probably unsurpassed – as a former commodity index chief declared several years ago: “The villages are taking to technology like a fish to water”iii. The centuries-long struggle that the West had to undergo, via the development of modern science, technology and more recently the development of the internet, was fast tracked for India and cramped into a few decades. As a result, technology is “taken up” with little to no resistance on the part of the average Indian.

India’s relationship to personal privacy is much more understandable. Having a long and rich cultural history of tightly-knit families, Indians are used to social inquiries that would be seen as intrusive in many western cultures. Knowing all one can about a friend’s or family member’s life journey is an essential aspect of the social fabric, and the vibrant community life that India enjoys due to this engagement is only appreciated in its right light when Indians move abroad and face the isolation there. Hypersensitivity to privacy takes a great toll in Western Europe and America, where friends and families may know little about each other’s lives in spite of “knowing” each other for years or even decades.

Let us now look at India’s relationship to the government. As a nation, India went from kings to prime-ministers in less than a decade, and the results of this shock-wave are apparent even six decades later: we still relate to the government in the way we looked at the kings of old. One does not simply switch off the cultural tendencies of a nation and leapfrog from royalty to democracy in a jiffy – just as Deepavali and Holi are celebrated for centuries, the intrinsic tendency of Indians is to treat the government as a kingly rule. Even the tone of the word “sarkar” is much closer to “boss/chief” than the English word “government” that points to an activity of governing. This difference is embedded in the cultural history of governance in the West vs. the East: it took five centuries for England and America to make their way from monarchy to democracy. Over the course of several wars, struggles, and social upheavals, the west made its way out of kingly rule. India, in comparison, has not had its cultural foundations shaken over the issue of how one is governed; it was restricted to the struggle of who governs (British or Indians). A lot like the adaptation of technology, India took to democracy without going through a world-historic struggle regarding forms of governance. This also marks the key difference between the attitudes of Indians and Americans, for example, towards their government: Indians tend to look at government policies like an uncontrollable force of nature like stormy weather that arises and passes away and dwells far above the heads of the common folk, while Americans tend to be extremely participative in their governments and are keenly aware that rules can be changed by them. Just like in the case of technology, democracy is a process that India has taken up, extremely quickly.

For the last link in the chain for this topic, let us now look at India’s relationship to health in the past couple of years. In one of the most tragic events in our history, India completely gave up its common sense regarding health, and in a wholehearted submission to the global program of medical oppression, accepted WHO guidelines as “medical law”. Masking, vaccines, and “covid appropriate behavior”, rather than the local reliance on family doctors and traditional medicine, was the name of the game. Even the ministry of natural medicine in India – AYUSH – stated the following:
All the standing instructions issued by various health authorities (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, World Health Organisation, and various state and local health authorities) are to be adhered to completely and Ayush guidelines may stand as an “add on” to the current line of management of Covid and post or long Covid.iv

In other words, even the current BJP government which has a major nationalistic interest in promoting Ayurveda and traditional medicine views these treatments as an optional “add on”. It does not matter if healthy medical common sense contradicts the edicts of the WHO, the edicts will be prioritized.

Weaving it all together

India’s relationship to these topics – technology, privacy, governance, and health – gives us the guiding thread to bring out the current situation clearly. Since the inner attitude towards governance is still the same as it was in the era of kingdoms, Indians treat the Prime Minister like a king. Political parties like the BJP take advantage of this situation in India, and pump it up through frequent references to “Rama rajya”v. Hence, governmental policies, no matter how oppressive, are taken up with an attitude of “what to do, these are the rules from above, we have to follow”. When this factor of apathy is combined with our cultural tendencies regarding privacy, the combination becomes extremely insidious and unhealthy: an apathy towards government’s or tech company’s intrusion of privacy. Indians do not realize in their deeper feelings that a family member knowing everything about your life is very different from the government knowing everything about your life. They also do not realize the power of the technologies that they mostly adopt, and do not actually build.

As a result, they tend to accept the one as easily as they accept the other, with the result that India becomes a prime target for widespread breaches of privacy, via surveillance. If an Aarogya Setu app has to be downloaded, or an Aadhar card has to be obtainedvi, they normally follow. India is among the top three surveillance states in the worldvii. Hyderabad, for example, is all set to become a total surveillance-cityviii. Be it face-recognition technology, CCTV, Bluetooth proximity data, GPS-tracking, fingerprints and biometrics, or even dronesix, Indians have yielded to all these intrusive measures with barely a whimper of protest. When these apps demand control of all the contacts on the phone, the microphone, camera, and email data, the tendency is to simply press “Accept”. People have even been begun to wear or carry their own health surveillance devices, such as smart watchesx, without realizing that it is no different than an ankle bracelet in a medical prison. As mentioned before with technology – like fish to water.

A German institute has put together a thorough articlexi about the dangers of techno-surveillance that India is dealing with, which has hit it in several waves:
Trading privacy for better governance or convenience has consequences... It affects the rights to speech and expression, to protest, and to not be discriminated against. Digital surveillance is more invasive than traditional surveillance. It can monitor people’s activities, associations, locations, emotions, and vital signs. Privacy experts warn against reducing individuals to disembodied data; instead, citizens’ data should be treated with the same consideration as their physical well-being.

All of this is being amped up to the next level with the most recent announcement of India’s launchxii of the Health ID (ABHA). Just as Aadhar created a centralized Digital ID for Indians, ABHA would create a centralized health ID that will permanently yoke our health decisions to governmental or technological “health recommendations”, which would once again completely ignore every other kind of medicine except the mainstream pharmaceutical model enforced by COVID-19 policies.

It is extremely important for the people to realize the insidious nature of this process, and to understand the need to wake up their friends, family and neighbors to it. In addition, it is extremely important for doctors, nurses and medical practitioners of all kinds to team up with civil liberties organizations in India to withstand the tsunami of medical imprisonment that is being planned, as it is only through coordinated efforts that successes can be obtained. It is high time that India stands up to this “cultural hijacking” that weaponizes its social cohesion against it, and creates a bulwark against the age of digital oppression.


  3. Nandan Nilekani, Imagining India, Penguin Press: New York (2009), pg. 111
  4. (pg. 4)

Gopi Krishna Vijaya, PhD