A QR code for digital payments is seen at the roadside stall selling popcorn and roasted groundnuts, New Delhi, India, 03 November 2023. EFE/DAVID ASTA ALARES

India’s Digital Revolution, a matter of pride amid concerns of data theft

By David Asta Alares

A man walks past a shop advertising several digital services along with a QR code next to it in New Delhi, India, 03 November 2023. EFE/DAVID ASTA ALARES

New Delhi, Nov 6 (EFE).- With 1.38 billion digital identity numbers and more than 10.5 billion monthly online transactions, the data from India’s public digital infrastructure is dizzying, but the massive concentration of data and large scale leaks have become a source of concern.

Since 2009, the Indian government has worked on creating a unified software platform or Application Programming Interface (API), informally known as “India Stack,” to usher the country into the digital age.

The most visible aspect of India’s digital revolution is the Unified Payment Interface (UPI), which allows for instant money transfers, and whose QR codes are visible in the counters of large stores as well as the smallest roadside stalls.

“I’ve been using UPI for more than a year, customers asked me for it even though about half of the people still pay in cash,” Raj Kumari, who sells fruits from a roadside cart in central Delhi, told EFE.

Digital payments have penetrated almost the entire country, even to the extent that some beggars carry a QR code for UPI transactions for those passers-by who claim not to carry cash.

However, UPI acceptance is not absolute. Fruit wholesalers, for example, don’t accept digital payments, according to Kumari.

Moreover, only 41 percent of men and 25 percent of women in India own a smartphone, according to a 2021 report by the GSMA, a non-profit industry organization representing the interests of mobile network operators worldwide

“India Stack” also encompasses the Aadhaar biometric identity number, the official document digitization service DigiLocker and eKYC, which allows companies to verify their customers electronically.

However, India’s digital infrastructure was not built in a day, nor was it born from a well-chalked out master plan.

“In 2009, when we started Aadhaar, there was no particular set of forward-looking ideas beyond the identity per se,” Pramod Varma, the chief architect of this system, told EFE.

Digital identity, which includes data such as retinal scans and fingerprints, emerged as a way to improve the distribution of direct subsidies to the most marginalized sections of the country.

“But people need access to some way of depositing and spending money, there’s no point in pushing for account openings and sending money if someone has to travel a whole day (to do it),” Varma explained.

Varma credited the coming to power in 2014 of current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with boosting the Asian country’s digital infrastructure, which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said in 2021 has been revolutionizing access to finance for millions of Indians.

During a G20 event earlier this year, held in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, Modi said its open-source API system was a gift to the world that would ensure no one is left behind.

Armenia, Sierra Leone and Mauritius are among the eight countries that have signed agreements with New Delhi to adopt these technologies, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar revealed in September.

However, the success story presented by the Indian government contrasts with the skepticism caused by the multiple cases of mass data breach.

Just last week, there was a data breach at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), resulting in the personal data of 815 million Indians ending up for sale on the dark web, according to media reports.

“Seriously, what Digital Public Infrastructure is being built in India? How can we possibly offer a model for the democratic world?,” activist Apar Gupta posted on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

Prateek Waghre, policy director at the nonprofit Internet Freedom Foundation, told EFE that the Indian government has maintained a “historic disregard” for people’s privacy.

Although the South Asian country recently passed a data protection law, the legislation is not functional in the absence of regulations that expand it, Waghre explained.

According to him, the problem with India’s digital public infrastructure is deep-rooted.

“While I can see the logic in thinking that digitalization can help some of the service delivery shortcomings, it cannot substitute all of them,” he said. “Large swaths of data of people are being gathered and shared with multiple people.” EFE