CoWin Fiasco Should Alert Us to Hidden Agendas Behind Digital Identity-Based Governance

India is rapidly digitising. There are good things and bad, speed-bumps on the way and caveats to be mindful of. The weekly column Terminal focuses on all that is connected and is not – on digital issues, policy, ideas and themes dominating the conversation in India and the world.

The United Nations Development Programme is promoting India’s digital infrastructures across the globe. It has been promoting several of India’s digital experiments for decades. In the case of Aadhaar too, you will find UNDP providing grants and support for pilot programmes to evaluate and implement it. This cooperation is not a new arrangement but extends as far back as the 1980s and early 1990s with the liberalisation of the Indian economy and India’s need for capacity building in development programmes. 

In 2021, during the Covid-19 crisis, UNDP funded and promoted India’s CoWIN vaccination software, which they now call a digital infrastructure. India’s CoWIN was built with grants from UNDP and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with Nandan Nilekani’s think tank e-Government Foundation as the implementation partner for the Government of India. UNDP promoted CoWIN as the solution for vaccine management delivery and for tracking Adverse Events Following Immunization (AEFI) cases.

But beyond this, the idea was also to promote data sharing with the private sector for the digital health economy through National Health IDs. At the peak of Covid-19 vaccination, 374 healthcare companies registered with National Digital Health Mission’s sandbox to access the health data of Indians through NDHM health stack APIs. CoWIN was not only about vaccination but also about creating healthcare data markets. Except, it replaced India’s public health practices with unknown digital practices in the middle of a pandemic. 

The experimentation on Indians offering us random solutions for non-existent problems is to forcefully commodify us in a developmental agenda. This has been the scenario for decades and is not a new phenomenon. The reason the government needs a new Health ID is because citizens of India fought back against Aadhaar and people who wanted our health data had to create a new identity to bypass the Supreme Court judgement on Aadhaar. Covid-19 just provided an opportunity to create Health IDs for a billion people with vaccination. 

I would call it an experiment because the outcomes were not necessarily favourable to either people of India or the institutions which forced these instruments on us. There is no digital health economy, the vaccination process itself had so many problems with private sector involvement that was forced on us. In all, the UNDP was a mute spectator in the challenges Indians face, while calling this model a success to be promoted across the world. 

The UNDP when it recommends CoWIN to other countries is not just recommending one software solution for vaccination alone. It is recommending a developmental model based on digital identity, in this case, a Health Digital ID. During the Covid-19 crisis, India successfully exported CoWIN along with our vaccines to at least four other countries: Indonesia, Jamaica, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. 

The UNDP believes in the development agenda set by the World Bank and other multilateral bodies. The increased cooperation that we witness today is not new but has always been the case in our development history. Multilateral bodies were always the front to promote developmental politics that favour the creation of new economies to sustain the global economic order. What we are witnessing now is that this is no more limited to the UNDP alone. 

The UN itself is promoting digital infrastructures with the “UN Secretary-General Roadmap on Digital Co-operation”. The report, which takes advice from a committee co-chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, promotes IndiaStack and the role of digital infrastructure. The United Nations sees its role is primarily in promoting peace and security, human rights and development. In this aspect, the UN sees that it can bring multiple stakeholders together in promoting digital cooperation. 

“The UN retains a unique role and convening power to bring stakeholders together to create the norms and frameworks and assist in developing the capacity we need to ensure a safe and equitable digital future for all people.”

The UIDAI itself is now working with World Bank and UNDP to export Aadhaar across the world. The World Bank part of its ID4D initiative has been promoting Indian experiments across the world and has been even giving loans to countries to digitise through this model. This global order of digital identity-based governance and economic development is bound to create the same kind of issues it had in India. 

The report Paving a Digital Road to Hell by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice notes that this digital identity model is being forced on the world through a manufactured consensus. It also notes how even the model and its principles are promoted by the World Bank, various UN agencies, and other global networks. The report is critical of how this global model is harmful to various populations by resulting in exclusion and discrimination and also promotes surveillance capitalism. 

Being critical of the UN, World Bank agencies are the need of the hour with their continued propaganda of how great digital identity-based systems are without engaging on the harms these models are causing. The UN – while with its ecosystem of independent rapporteurs which constantly check for violations of human rights – is actually promoting these violations in the digital ecosystem. There are very few people critical of this setup and anyone questioning this order should also brace themselves for being called a Luddite or even worse, someone who is opposed to human development. 

Srinivas Kodali is a researcher on digitisation and hacktivist.